Microsoft's Nancy Tellem Unveils Xbox Programming Plans

Issue 1 BIZ Exec Suite Nancy Tellem - H 2013
Christopher Patey

Issue 1 BIZ Exec Suite Nancy Tellem - H 2013

Upcoming programming for the gaming consoles includes soccer docuseries "Every Street United" and a live broadcast of the Bonnaroo music festival.

Sit tight, Halo fans.

Xbox Entertainment Studios has unveiled its programming slate, and production on the live-action series based on the popular first-person shooter has yet to begin. In fact, audiences will have to wait until the 2015 debut of science fiction drama Humans for their first taste of Xbox's scripted fare.

XES held a private media screening in its Santa Monica office one week ahead of its April 28 NewFronts presentation in New York. There, Microsoft's Nancy Tellem revealed that the studio she was hired to establish in September 2012 is still finding its footing.

"Figuring out what shows will work, what resonates with your audience, is really challenged," she said during the presentation. "As you can see from the breadth of the content that we're producing, we'll get a better idea once it's up about what's working and what isn't working."

Microsoft has been making strides toward delivering a complete living room entertainment experience through its Xbox consoles, and developing original content through XES is part of that effort. But the Xbox One -- which retails for $500 -- is a much higher-priced option than set-top boxes from Amazon, Apple and Roku. XES also faces stiff competition from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and even gaming rival PlayStation in the original-programming space.

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Microsoft does have the advantage of distributing its shows on its more than 80 million connected Xbox consoles through the Xbox Video feature, and some content also will be made available across additional Microsoft mobile and desktop platforms. But Tellem was evasive about whether the content would be ad supported or offered through Xbox Live (which, at $60 a year, has more than 50 million subscribers), adding that the company was "in the very early stages" of making those decisions.

Each project will incorporate an interactive component that takes advantage of the high-tech Xbox gaming consoles. Tellem said that interactive teams in Santa Monica and Vancouver work closely with her team to integrate technology into every series from the start.

XES is focused on developing content for its core audience of predominantly young, male gamers but is also hoping to strike a chord with female and international audiences, noted XES executive vp Jordan Levin, who joined the studio chief for the presentation.

"There's certainly a lot of programming that appeals to young people, and young men in particular, that plays down to that audience and can be sort of base and obvious," said Levin, who started at XES in February. "Hopefully we can find a balance where this audience feels like we're … thinking about issues they're interested in."

Xbox plans to debut two unscripted series this summer. The first is a live stream of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., the weekend of June 13. Viewers can watch performances on different stages during the three-day fest.

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Also premiering this summer is docuseries Every Street United, from Jonathan Hock (Streetball), which stars soccer players Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids on a search for the most gifted street players from around the world. The nine-episode series (eight 30-minute episodes and a one-hour finale) premieres at the start of the World Cup and ends with a four-on-four street game in host city Rio de Janeiro.

Airing later this year is the first installment of Signal to Noise, a six-film documentary series that XES has ordered from cousins Simon and Jonathan Chinn and their multiplatform production company Lightbox. Atari: Game Over, the first 90-minute feature from Fuel Entertainment and writer-director Zak Penn (X-Men 2), sheds light on the legend that Atari buried millions of E.T. video game cartridges in a small New Mexico town. Xbox announced Saturday that a dig in Alamogordo successfully uncovered these cartridges. Additional installments will highlight controversial file-sharing service Napster, online drug market Silk Road and other technology topics.

Tellem also spoke about Humans, a co-production with U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 that was announced April 7. Casting on the eight-episode drama, which will share a broadcast window with Channel 4 in 2015, begins in May, and production will start this summer.

"We're looking for things that are smart, disruptive, a little noisy and captivating," she said of the project.

Other committed series include a Halo digital feature from 343 Industries and Scott Free Productions that is expected to debut later this year and the live-action Halo adaptation from executive producer Steven Spielberg. Tellem had no updates on the high-profile Halo project but teased that XES could soon make some announcements about progress on the series.

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She teased several other projects currently in development, including a pilot for an unscripted series called Fearless -- starring Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy bomb-clearance diver and shark attack survivor -- that is currently in production in South Africa. XES also has pilot commitments for a series from comedy collective Jash and an adaptation of Warren Ellis' best-selling thriller Gun Machine.

Additional projects in development include Extraordinary Believers, a hybrid stop-motion show from Robot Chicken creator Stoopid Buddy Stoodios; Winterworld, a live-action co-production with IDW Entertainment based on the graphic novel series; and Deadlands, based on the role-playing game.

Tellem noted that access to Microsoft IP -- including video games Age of Empires, State of Decay, Fable, Forza Motorsport and Gears of War -- is one advantage of working for the Seattle computing giant.

"I think we're in a very unique position with the studio as we're putting it together to be able to take advantage of all these assets that Microsoft has."

Twitter: @NatJarv