This week, Microsoft unveiled its plan to go head-to-head with companies like Amazon and Netflix and produce its own original television content that it will broadcast over Xbox Live. Six series have been greenlit so far: Halo, sci-fi thriller Humans, and reality shows Every Street United and Fearless, as well as a comedy sketch show from Michael Cera’s JASH collective, and a documentary series from the producers of Searching for Sugar Man.
Xbox also intends to do a live broadcast of the Bonaroo Music Festival that will including backstage interviews with participating artists via Skype, and a documentary about excavating the infamous Atari burial grounds in New Mexico is underway now. Despite Microsoft's involvement, each show may or may not be exclusive to the Xbox: Humans, for example, will air on Channel 4 in the UK.
The whole project is being spearheaded by president of Xbox Entertainment Studios Nancy Tellem, a former CBS head hired a year-and-a-half ago to build things from the ground up. This week, we dropped her a line to see how things were progressing.
Q: Why did you leave CBS for Xbox?
Nancy Tellem: I have always been incredibly interested in what the next iteration of television is. I feel we are at an inflexion point of how technology was impacting the media business. I really wanted to immerse myself in that and I was fortunate to have this opportunity with Microsoft.
Q: There are six shows that have been greenlit so far. Will all of this content be coming to New Zealand?
Tellem: I certainly hope so – I cannot say specifically. I’m not sure what the timing is outside the United States. There, Every Street United is in June to align with the World Cup games, Bonnaroo is in June, Fearless we are currently producing the pilot so I don’t exactly know when it will get through post production – probably in the fall.
We’ll have the first of the documentary series in July hopefully – we haven’t set definitive broadcast date yet. Humans is in development right now, that will hopefully be 2015. I suspect we’ll have the JASH pilot completed in the next couple of months.
Q: What sort of business model are you looking at? Will the this content require Xbox Live Gold to access? Or will it vary from show to show?
Tellem: It will certainly vary from show to show. Right now I don’t have anything to report but we are considering whether projects should be in front of the paywall or behind.
Q: How many projects are currently in development?
Jordan Levin, Xbox TV executive vice president: I don’t have a number for you, as we’re not really operating along the lines of traditional TV ratios. We’re not in the business of trying to finance 50 scripts to make to pilots to get five series, we’re much more focussed on commissioning work on what we’re interested in that we believe will get greenlit to series.
That said, it’s a healthy development slate, and it spans a broad portfolio and genres, as evidenced by the six we’re already discussing. Comedy, drama, live events, sports, unscripted. There is a health programming staff here of about 10 people. We’re operating on a large scale but I’m hesitant to put a number on it. We expect it to be a year-round slate, so we’ll be starting this summer and building from there.
Q: Who is the audience for these shows?
Tellem: You wanna start with your strengths and in our case there’s a lot of strengths to build from. There’s an engaged, active subscription base around Xbox Gold, there’s a high volume of video sales through the storefront, and all the app-based video viewing that occurs. We view our consumer as younger with a male skew – that’s definitely our initial target. We’re looking to also attract their significant others, and certainly the female audience participating right now on the platform, which is higher than most people might expect. Once we get some traction with that audience, we’ll grow out to reach a broader family household.
Q: Microsoft has made no secret of the fact that it is gunning for the living room, and much of its marketing offers the Xbox One as an entertainment device as opposed to a game console. Do you think it is possible that in the future people will buy an Xbox One solely to use for things other than games?
Tellem: The reality is that things are changing so rapidly: every other day there is another company announcing a new box. I think we’re in a unique position because when you buy an Xbox One, you get an all-in-one entertainment solution. Part of it is having people aware of all the content we have available on our platform, including the original shows which I feel will be very much the differentiating factor. Especially when we incorporate the interactive features that we hope will be more engaging and more immersive for our audience.
Q: Can you give us some examples of some of the interactive features you have planned?
Tellem: There are three major buckets we’re looking at: the social community, story enhancement, and transactional as well. One of the opportunities is to get people to respond in real-time to the content they are watching. So you’re creating virtual living rooms for everyone that has an Xbox, and they can use Skype while watching to talk to their friends and share the experience. There’s also the opportunity to tweet live events, that too can be done on our platform, so you really have the opportunity to create that social community.
As far as enhancing the story, there’s a lot of ways to do it. You can gamify the story. You obviously have the opportunity to buy items that you see from jerseys of sports teams to certain things you may see on our programming. You can get access to more of the production element through behind-the-scenes features to really understand the context of what you’re watching. What we’ll start with is the premium content, then make sure the interactive features are relevant and resonate with the audience.
Q: Who will be in charge of developing these extra features? An in-house team or third-parties?
Tellem: That our secret sauce, if you will. Unlike other media companies this company is based in Los Angeles where we have our development team, but we also have in Vancouver an interactive team in excess of 150 people that are focused on building the interactive features to support the content we’re producing.
We also have a team in Redmond, and in London as well. The thing I find particularly exciting is that not only do we have people whose background is traditional television, we are really bringing together the two worlds of media and technology with the engineers that are working on our team as well.
Q: There is a lot of risqué content in your immediate competitor’s shows, and many games feature graphic content as well. Is there anything Xbox won’t consider airing?
Tellem: We’re very sensitive to the type of content we’re delivering, but I would align ourselves to more of a cable standard. And frankly when you look at network television versus cable, those lines are blurring very fast. A lot of it has to do with the story we’re telling.