NBCU Digital Studio adding new shows

'Dial Star,' 'In Gayle We Trust' begin this summer

NBC may be a laggard in the current prime-time ratings competition, but credit the network with recognizing the potential of branded programming produced specifically for the digital market.

Two years ago, the network launched a stand-alone digital production unit, the NBC Universal Digital Studio. It was tasked with working with marketers and agencies to develop entertainment programs that could be used to deliver brand messages in online shows. Neither CBS, Fox nor ABC has such an operation, although ABC launched a similar effort, Stage 9 Digital Media, in 2008 and shuttered it in 2009.

So far, NBCU Digital Studio has produced just two series per year. But in a sign that the unit is gaining traction, it plans to announce a slate of programs to run over the next 12 months. This week, said Cameron Death, vp, NBCU Digital Studio, they will announce both a new Web program with AT&T called "Dial Star," which debuts June 8, and its first series renewal, season two of "In Gayle We Trust," for American Family Insurance. That program is set to start in July.

Another likely renewal is a workplace sitcom called "CTRL Z." Season one of that series was produced last year with Coca-Cola brand Nestea as sponsor. Nestea is not renewing (and declined to say why), but the network is looking for a replacement sponsor. NBCU Digital Studio said viewers were 9% more likely to purchase Nestea products after seeing the program -- a "brand lift" about six times the norm for a CPG marketing campaign.

Death said the studio is committed to its business model. It works with clients from the outset to develop ideas and then brings in other NBC units to help execute them. (In most cases, for instance, the Universal Media Studio does the production.) Clients pay production fees and are required to commit to a package of advertising -- which varies from project to project -- that runs across different NBCU digital properties. The studio promotes projects across various NBCU platforms both online and on-air. In Gayle We Trust, for example, will be promoted on the USA Network, among other places.

On the distribution side, to achieve scale, projects go to multiple digital platforms, including nbc.com, client Web sites, Hulu, mobile devices, electronic sell-through (iTunes' free platform, among others), MSN, hyper-syndication (such as Tremor Media) and cable VOD. Death says VOD so far accounts for, on average, between 30 and 40% of the viewing for shows from the studio.

The model has its critics. One branded-content executive, who asked that his name not be used, said it can be difficult working with Universal Media Studio, which oversees production on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TV shows each year. "You just get the impression that the digital series aren't their highest priority," said the executive.

The NBCU Digital Studio itself, added someone who has worked with the company, could use more producers and writers, and fewer marketers.

But David Lang, president of Mindshare Entertainment -- whose client is AFI -- countered that the Universal Media Studio did "a very good job" of producing "In Gayle We Trust." And he credited NBCU for making a substantial commitment to the sector. "This is an area that will continue to grow and all the networks should be involved," he said.

The economics for online production are smaller than they are for a broadcast network series. A typical eight-episode digital program costs between $400,000 and $3 million, according to one executive. By comparison, a single episode of CBS's CSI costs $3 million, according to CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.

"Dial Star" is about a small-town girl, Celia (Audra Griffis), who comes to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. She happens to find the cell phone --you guessed it, an AT&T model with lots of high-tech and new-media features -- belonging to "90210" star AnnaLynne McCord. The phone provides Celia with entry to life in Hollywood. Online magazine Hollywoodlife.com is also being integrated into the program and editor-in-chief Bonnie Fuller will make a cameo appearance in the series. To promote "Dial Star," "Celia" is now on Facebook and tweeting in character.

"In Gayle We Trust," a comedy developed and produced by NBCU Digital Sudio and Mindshare Entertainment, is about an insurance agent who acts as a counselor of sorts for the various colorful folks in her middle-American town. The program is AFI's first effort in branded content.

Telisa Yancy, AFI advertising director, believes that season one of the show achieved results the company would not have seen otherwise, including a 24% rise in "intent to purchase" among consumers in the market for insurance.

"If we had a phenomenal media budget we could have achieved that, but we don't," she said. (According to Nielsen, AFI spends around $43 million annually on ads.) For now, Yancy said, AFI believes branded content is an essential part of the mix, though she added a word of caution: "The landscape changes so quickly, the answer could be different" even in the near future.
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