Michael Eisner has played his next hand, and the former Disney CEO is betting on online video.
But not on network video. And not on user-generated clips.
Last month he launched an independent studio at vuguru.com that will produce and distribute short-form original content for the Internet and other digital venues. The first series will be the ad-supported, 80-episode “Prom Queen,” which takes place over the last two months of high school leading up to the prom. Each 90-second episode will run on MySpace, PromQueen.tv, Vuguru.com, Ellegirl, starstyle.com, Veoh and YouTube. Mr. Eisner contracted with the production team Big Fantastic, which produced the Web series “Sam Has 7 Friends” last year, to create the youth-oriented show.
If successful, “Prom Queen” will likely be a watershed moment in online video, marking the tipping point away from consumer-crafted content and toward professionally produced material.
Mr. Eisner has also taken a stake in Veoh Networks, an online video site and services provider. He spoke to TelevisionWeek contributing writer Daisy Whitney about the new show, his online ventures and how broadband production compares with that of traditional TV.
TelevisionWeek: Give us a rundown of all your business ventures right now. What irons do you have in the fire and how are you dividing up your time?
Michael Eisner: I am eclectic. All of it is kind of content. I am interested in the way content is going to be distributed going forward, whether it’s technology like Veoh or the story form like Vuguru and “Prom Queen.” I am spending an enormous amount of time in that area.
TVWeek: Why does online video interest you?
Mr. Eisner: Why does a play interest a theatergoer? Why are people interested in stories? I am always interested in stories. It’s a creative way to express yourself. It’s fun, exciting in today’s world. I have always enjoyed dealing with new creators, new actors, directors, writers. This is kind of a new form. It’s direct to the world.
TVWeek: What is the story behind Prom Queen? Who came to you? How was it presented?
Mr. Eisner: Like everything else, it started when I was in college and interested in theater and evolving through a 40-year career, not the least of which was my son when he graduated from the Anderson School of Business at UCLA and started an Internet company. He was too early trying to deliver video entertainment in a narrowband, dial-up world. So I was interested in the delivery of content early on. Then all of a sudden professional content becomes the relevant and dominant form. So I started to look for an idea that would be appropriate and interesting. I have been looking for the last year and what became clear from YouTube and other places was short form. It was short bites, and mobile video is short form, obviously. [“Prom Queen”] was the evolution of all those things together. This group, called Big Fantastic, did an early video called “Sam Has 7 Friends” and somebody who worked for me mailed it to me. I saw it and I thought it looked great and looked professional and had mystery, so I reached out to them after seeing it.
TVWeek: Can you give us a little teaser of Prom Queen?
Mr. Eisner: What people will recognize quickly is that it’s well-done, interesting and well-acted and the hope is each 90 seconds will be a story unto itself like a good commercial and be a tease for the next episode. At the end of the week, it will be re-edited so anyone who comes in can go back and see the whole week at once.
TVWeek: What becomes of user-generated content?
Mr. Eisner: I don’t think that goes away. I think it is a new kind of form and democratization of creativity that is not going to disappear. But I don’t think it will be the only video. I think it will be replaced, but not eliminated, by professionally produced video.
TVWeek: How fast is this online world moving compared to the traditional world?
Mr. Eisner: I am not sure the advertisers are as far advanced as we are in making content, but they will be very quickly there as well. The good part of all of this is there are a lot of people doing this and that will encourage business models to be created that will work.
TVWeek: What is the revenue model for Vuguru and how do these deals stack up against regular TV deals? What kind of scale are we talking about?
Mr. Eisner: It will scale up quickly, but it’s certainly not at the scale yet of anything more traditional. It’s a miniscule amount compared to the established platforms. There will be advertising that takes you to another site, someplace to buy something, like the clothes on the show. There are arrangements with mobile carriers that give them limited or full exclusivity to the platform, arrangements with other distributors. We have chosen not to clutter probably as much as some of our competitors. We will do a three-second “brought to you by,” not a pre-roll against a 90-second piece. We will not interrupt as well. We could interrupt the 10-minute weekly wrap-up for a 15-second. We have models each way and we may play with it because we are on for 80 days.
TVWeek: Who do you conceive of as your competitors for Vuguru?
Mr. Eisner: Everything is competition. This is getting a piece of people’s time and entertainment time. There is no specific competition like we would say HBO is competitive to Showtime. It’s more like the TiVo analysis, where you can consume it anytime, anyplace you want. This will be available anytime.
TVWeek: Compare the production costs for these shows versus a TV show.
Mr. Eisner: It is miniscule. But I don’t think the result is the same leap [compared to] the more expensive production. Yes, people are working for less money, yes, they are shooting quicker. That doesn’t mean it’s not as good. So if you compare “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “24,” it’s a gigantic leap in cost, and so would “Prom Queen” be to “24.”
TVWeek: Before this profusion of Web video, there was always a class of people who were talented and never made it. Is what’s happening on the Web eliminating that dynamic?
Mr. Eisner: I would have to agree with your premise, which I don’t. I think talent has always been a combination of inspiration and perspiration. It is not something you phone in. You need talent and personality and perseverance, and people who usually have talent and passion get to wherever they need to be seen. People make their opportunity who are really talented. I have always felt there is a dearth of talent and spent most of my career looking over and under any rock for that talent. That said, this technology has made it a lot easier for people to express themselves. Most of it is not very good, but some of it is very good. I think those people in the past who would have had their work exposed in other ways, this technology makes it quite convenient. You don’t have to travel as far. Even those people who get exposed through the Internet, they have to work very hard to get to the next step. It’s not just ‘let’s shoot a video in our backyard and we will be Cecil B. Demille.’
TVWeek: Is the endgame still TV or film?
Mr. Eisner: In one era out-of-town was a stepping stone to Broadway and TV was a stepping stone to the movies and the minor leagues to the majors. I think the internet will be a stepping stone. The people doing “Prom Queen,” I hope to keep them doing stuff for me. But the actors will move on for TV and cable and to the movies. This will be a resume for them.
TVWeek: How does online video and this democratization then change the entertainment culture?
Mr. Eisner: In one way it doesn’t. I still needed a script that went through many revisions, meetings and discussing character motivation and advancement of plot. In that sense, whether you are writing with a quill or a mouse and a typewriter, the same rules apply
. Now the good thing is cameras are faster, lighter, you have the ability to photograph cheaper. But you still need an actor who knows how to get to their mark and deliver a line. There are a lot of similar things. But the computer does not replace the brain. The brain is still a better computer than all the computers put together.
TVWeek: Among the established media titans, who do you think gets the Internet the most?
Mr. Eisner: I would say Barry Diller gets it the most, the most successfully. But I wouldn’t discount Rupert Murdoch or Bob Iger.
TVWeek: Are you more energized now than you were in the last few years at Disney? Does this remind you of your early days at Paramount and Disney?
Mr. Eisner: I have always been a person of high energy, whether I am working on a theme park in Hong Kong or a Broadway show or a movie and now an Internet online site. I just throw myself into it. I always seem to be interested in the new.
TVWeek: Who is going to get rich in online video?
Mr. Eisner: Probably somebody we haven’t even thought of yet. I would say the time has come for the content creators. It’s been the technologists, the private equity guys, the hardware makers.