Commentary: 'Family Guy' Web release highly anticipated

Google-exclusive vignettes interesting, but curious

When September rolls around, the most anticipated new program of the fall season will be on the Internet instead of television. That's when "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane will release exclusively via Google a series of 50 two-minute animated vignettes.

Given how outrageous "Family" is in the humor department, there's reason enough to watch MacFarlane's next creation. But if you think his ribald jokes are audacious, that's nothing compared to the distribution strategy for this program, titled "Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy."

Not since "quarterlife" has this much hype visited a bridging of the PC-TV divide, only this time it's warranted. For once, talent and technology are coming together at equally high levels.

But "Cavalcade" is still something of a Hail Mary pass, and there already are a few flags on the field worth noting.

"Cavalcade" will be presented online through the Internet giant's AdSense network, which can syndicate video content to advertising slots on thousands of Web sites targeted to reach specific demographics. Each two-minute episode will have advertising embedded in several different formats ranging from preroll to "sponsored by" styles increasingly common online. Click on an episode, and the revenue is split among MacFarlane, Google, the host site and Media Rights Capital, which brokered the deal.

The very fact that Google has a deal with MacFarlane at all seems strange considering that News Corp., which happens to own Google rival MySpace, announced a gargantuan $100 million deal with MacFarlane in May to keep him at 20th Century Fox, making him the richest series creator in television.

You would think that kind of dough would be enough to give Fox the de rigueur "first look" option on any intellectual property MacFarlane generates. Given that this Google deal has been brewing for almost a year, how could it not have been a factor in negotiations with Fox?

Fox presumably could have satisfied MacFarlane's Internet ambitions with some kind of run on MySpace, which might not be Google but has a formidable distribution footprint in its own right. Either MacFarlane's reps wanted to add too many zeroes to the deal to attach an Internet component or Fox didn't feel there were enough zeroes in ad revenue from such a deal to care. The latter seems much less likely.

If MacFarlane and MRC walked away from Fox because Google gave better deal terms online, that could end up being a critical error. Because if there is an Achilles' heel to the "Cavalcade" venture, it is its reliance on new content.

Had MacFarlane kept his Internet exploits at Fox, he could have utilized the cherished "Family" characters that would have been a bigger draw than unfamiliar IP. Perhaps MacFarlane would have been better served releasing his new "Family" TV spinoff "The Cleveland Show" online rather than Fox.

Not to knock MacFarlane, but not even someone of his talent can ensure traction online for new programming. While his name brings the kind of cachet to lure some advertisers, audience is not guaranteed. Unlike in film, no creator in television possesses the kind of name brand that reliably brings back fans to check out their latest projects.

MacFarlane might have been smarter to strike the kind of deal "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker wrangled out of Google nemesis Viacom, which ensured a generous portion of revenue from a newly fashioned online stronghold for "Park." Viacom knows from AdSense; Google ran MTV Networks programming there for a trial run in 2006.

But watching "Laguna Beach" in an ad window felt odd to me then, and I wonder about now. Certainly, programming via single branded destinations or, conversely, hypersyndication, has its flaws, but at least they feel more natural than clicking on what essentially are video ads.

The "Cavalcade" deal is all the more surreal because it calls into question the very nature of Google. "We feel that we have re-created the mass media," was what Kim Malone Scott, director of sales and operations at Google AdSense, told the New York Times.

When a company famous for claiming not to be a media company pretty much states outright that it is a media company, is it a media company?
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