Almost showtime for original TV content on Microsoft’s Xbox
As time draws near, Microsoft executives are still trying to figure out a slew of issues: the mix of shows for its core audience, who the larger audience might be, what interactive features make sense for each program, and what the business model will be.
Seattle Times technology reporter
SAN FRANCISCO — Even as Microsoft prepares to present a slate of original TV shows for its Xbox platform — the first of which debuts this June — company executives are still trying to figure out a slew of issues: the mix of shows for its core audience, who the larger audience might be, what interactive features make sense for each program, and what the business model will be.
Monday in New York, Xbox Entertainment Studios executives Nancy Tellem and Jordan Levin are scheduled to present their shows at the Digital Content NewFronts.
The event is designed for media and tech companies and other digital-content providers to present what they’re working on to advertisers and marketers.
Ahead of that event, Tellem and Levin met with reporters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York last week to present snippets from the shows they’re working on and to talk about their broader goals.
These shows — which the company calls “Xbox Originals” — represent Microsoft’s latest effort at producing TV show-type content and marks its first foray into producing a whole slate of what it calls “premium” shows for its Xbox platform.
The shows, in various stages of development, exemplify a rather scattershot approach, with a mix including unscripted reality shows, documentaries, dramas, comedies, sports and live events.
“Our focus,” said Tellem, who is president of Xbox Entertainment Studios, is “trying to figure out who’s on our platform right now.”
The core audience, she said, is gamers, generally men ages 18 to 34, though there are women, as well as younger and older people.
“The most important thing is we need to learn more about what they like and don’t like,” Tellem said.
“That’s why we’re hitting different genres of programming. With that we’ll learn. And we’ll learn about how interactive features play into that and how our audience responds to it,” she said.
Microsoft is making its push just as other tech companies, including Yahoo, Hulu and Sony’s PlayStation platform, are doing the same, following the likes of Netflix and Amazon.com.
Xbox selling point
For Microsoft, the potential benefits include giving existing Xbox users another reason to stick with the platform and providing itself an opportunity to expand beyond its core gaming audience.
The audience is potentially huge: Some 85 million Xbox 360 and Xbox One consoles have already been sold worldwide, and 48 million people have signed up for the Xbox Live online entertainment and gaming service.
“We’re looking at how this [Xbox Originals] fills in from one game launch to another,” Tellem said.
Plus, “there’s a real opportunity to engage not only gamers but, with original content, to expand that audience,” she said.
The first of the Xbox Originals shows debuts in June with live coverage from the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee.
That coverage is expected to include interactive features such as allowing viewers to toggle between two stages, choose camera vantage points and get in a queue to possibly Skype with bands.
Also coming in June is “Every Street United,” a reality series that looks for the world’s best street soccer players, culminating in a street game matchup that coincides with the World Cup in Brazil.
Debuting sometime this year will be “Atari: Game Over,” which tackles the urban legend that in 1983 video-game company Atari buried millions of its unsold “E.T.” game cartridges. (On Saturday, Microsoft said people working on the dig that day had unearthed some of the old cartridges.)
It’s the first in a series of six technology-focused documentaries.
Other shows Microsoft has committed to include a “Halo” digital feature with executive producer Ridley Scott and David Zucker. It may be ready by fall.
There’s also a “Halo” TV series with Steven Spielberg as executive producer, and “Humans,” a drama set in a parallel world where people own robot servants. They’re scheduled for release in 2015.
Projects in various stages of development include a sketch comedy show featuring Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera and others in the JASH comedy collective; shows based on the role-playing game “Deadlands” and the detective novel “Gun Machine”; a stop-motion show from “Robot Chicken” creator Stoopid Buddy Stoodios; and a reality show starring an Australian Navy bomb-clearance diver who’s also a shark attack survivor.
The Xbox Entertainment Studios team is developing interactive features that make sense for each show.
“The technology is not a back-end piece,” said Levin, executive vice president of Xbox Entertainment Studios. Rather, he said, the emphasis is trying to figure out “how does technology work hand in hand in creating an experience” that extends beyond traditional passive TV watching.
Fluid business model
Another important piece Microsoft hasn’t worked out is the business model.
Currently, owners of Xbox consoles can sign up either for a free Xbox Live Silver membership or a $60-per-year Xbox Live Gold membership, which allows members to access special content and play games online against others.
Whether some of the shows — and which ones — will be accessible only to those with Xbox Live Gold subscriptions is still being decided.
“Certain things we feel of a premium nature should live behind the paywall and be something very special to a subscriber of the Xbox service,” Tellem said.
“While others, we feel, really should belong in front of the paywall and be a wonderful opportunity and introduction to the kind of content we are offering. We’re right in the middle of trying to figure this out.”
Also something Tellem’s team is trying to figure out: whether the shows will feature advertising.
“Obviously, [whether there will be advertising] plays into where it [the show] lives and what kind of experience we’d like our audience to have,” Tellem said.
Microsoft started its latest effort to produce original TV content two years ago when it hired Tellem, a former president of CBS Network Television Entertainment Group, to launch Xbox Entertainment Studios.
Levin, a former CEO of The WB network and co-founder of production studio Generate, joined two months ago.
“This is the right time for Microsoft to make their move if they see this as an opportunity,” said independent technology-industry analyst Jeff Kagan.
“There’s a huge opportunity. Television is reinventing itself. New companies are getting involved.”
What remains to be seen is whether Microsoft is in it for the long haul.
Many of the companies now vying in the field “see an opportunity with original content that just isn’t there when all you’re doing is repurposing other people’s content,” said Greg Ireland, an analyst with research firm IDC.
“They see other companies being successful either redefining their business or establishing a bigger name for themselves or establishing stickiness with their service.”
But success, Ireland said, “requires commitment that there’s going to be a slate of shows. And if some of those shows don’t succeed, you need to stay committed and come up with new shows.”
Not first time
Microsoft has tried several times before to launch original TV show-type series.
Those included several short-lived online shows for the company’s MSN service in the 1990s; several Web series under the MSN Originals name; and, in 2012, the “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn” live-action digital series.
Levin characterized some of those previous efforts as “dipping a toe in the water.”
Microsoft’s latest effort, he said, is “fully scaled,” in terms of staffing, budget and emphasis on caliber of content.
Xbox Entertainment Studios has 35 employees in its Santa Monica, Calif., 120 in Vancouver B.C., and five in Redmond. Microsoft declined to say how much money it’s spending on the studios or the Xbox Originals effort.
Tellem, for one, believes the company will stick it out long term.
“What we’re excited about is how committed Microsoft is in understanding the value of content, and they understand that the road is a long one and we’re just starting that journey,” she said.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu