Buffering video: Disney delays launch of Stage 9

Guild concerns may be a factor

Disney's ABC has indefinitely postponed the debut of a unit charged with launching original online series.

The unit, known as Stage 9, planned to distribute its first offering in February with one of four shortform episodic programs scheduled to roll out this year. A Disney spokeswoman declined comment.

Disney isn't saying why Stage 9 is being put on the back burner, but sources indicate the parent company does not want to risk inflaming the guilds with a venture intended to grab digital revenue — a sore point in strike negotiations. However, Stage 9 has been in operation since February, months before the strike began.

Disney has never officially announced the formation of the five-man unit, but Stage 9 is something of an open secret in online-production circles. In what could be an indication of its uncertain future, the operation was moved from its bungalow on Disney's lot to a company office elsewhere in Burbank.

Stage 9 might end up another example of the fits and starts major media companies are experiencing in their attempts at original programming online. Many of Disney's competing conglomerates have encountered difficulties maneuvering in the space, from the slow start of Warner Bros. Television Group's Studio 2.0 to the fadeout of NBC's DotComedy and CBS' Innertube.

Stage 9 is run by Natalie Vansant, director of business development and strategy at Disney. The division reports to Mark Pedowitz, president of ABC Studios.

Separately, another online series being developed at Disney is "The Owners," a comedy pilot ABC passed on from the team of Fred Goss and Nick Holly ("Sons & Daughters"). The pilot was recut into smaller segments for online distribution, similar to the fate of another rejected pilot, "Quarterlife," which resurfaced last year in altered form on MySpace; NBC has since picked it up for a primetime berth next month.

However, "Owners" is not believed to be a product of Stage 9.

The project that ABC was scheduled to distribute first in February was "Squeegies," a shortform comedy about window washers from online production company Handsome Donkey. Another comedy is a sequel to "Voicemail," Disney's only original effort to date. Launched in March, "Voicemail" is a series of fictional vignettes inspired by zany answering-machine messages.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the four is "Trenches," a 15-episode sci-fi action series. The creator is Shane Felux, who already scored an Internet phenomenon on his own in the form of "Star Wars: Revelations," a fully realized fan-fiction film inspired by — but not authorized by — the George Lucas franchise that elicited millions of streams in 2005.

"Trenches" was completed in early 2007 and has a full-blown online presence at TrenchesOnline.com. However, the site doesn't delineate its connection to Disney. Neither does the Handsome Donkey Web site, which does reference an unnamed release scheduled to premiere on ABC.com on Feb. 18, a date that has since been scrapped.

Other than "Voicemail," ABC Studios has restricted its original online efforts to extensions of its TV series, including shorts derived from such hits as "Lost" and "Ugly Betty." But the studio had been sensitive to guild concerns even before the strike on that front; production on "Lost" mobisodes was delayed for months in 2006 when pressure from the guilds forced ABC to make unprecedented deals with SAG, the DGA and WGA.
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