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News Corp. aims to make its new Web-TV venture a stripped-down version of Fox, with three-minute episodes sponsored by the likes of Ford
As a Web video, Dirty Soap seemed to have it all: hot babes, a murder mystery, racy double entendres. But the show, a reworking of Soap, the '70s sitcom about a dysfunctional family, had a tad too much attitude for MySpace, which plans to run it later this year. During a run-through of the script at a Los Angeles restaurant in early April, an actress playing the clan's octogenarian grandmother flashed the middle finger. That was too much for Cristian Cussen, MySpace's 28-year-old programming chief. The flipped bird can stay, he told the producers, but it must be blurred. "I can't show that to Procter & Gamble (PG)," Cussen later explained.
Sounds like what a network-TV guy would say, doesn't it? There's a reason for that. Three years after acquiring MySpace for $580 million, News Corp.'s Web unit, of which MySpace is the biggest piece, has yet to hit its $1 billion revenue target. That's why MySpace is hunting for programming that will keep its fickle young users logging on—and that will play well with advertisers. News Corp.(NWS) is applying lessons learned at its Fox network—from shooting network-style pilots to encouraging advertisers to place products on Web-TV shows—in the hopes that a viable business model will emerge. "We'd be foolish not to take advantage of what has worked for us in traditional media," says Jeff Berman, MySpace's sales and marketing chief.
Short Attention Span TV
Last year, Berman founded MySpaceTV with the aim of using professionally produced programming to take on the likes of YouTube, which relies heavily on amateur video (and itself hasn't yet figured out how to make money). Operating out of a cubicle farm two floors above a Mercedes dealership in Beverly Hills, MySpaceTV is a stripped-down version of Fox. Like its sibling, the outfit is bringing in viewers for focus groups, soliciting scripts from agents, and even has a troop of lawyers policing potential obscenity infractions.
MySpaceTV's first experiment was Roommates, a Web drama about twentysomething Hollywood wannabes who share a house in Los Angeles. Now in its second season, Roommates—a new three-minute episode appears every few days—has been streamed a respectable 12.7 million times. The show was sponsored by Ford Motor (F), and News Corp. says it made money.
Now MySpaceTV is working on 12 new pilots, including Dirty Soap. Co-producer Doug Greiff, who has made programs for Showtime (CBS), TBS (TWS), and others, pitched the concept for a Soap send-up to Berman after running into him at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. The show, which is part soap, part telenovela, features a Mexican household headed by a tycoon with an illegitimate African American son, an emotionally unstable wife (who wears an eye patch after an accident involving an avocado), and a voluptuous (and secretly rich) housekeeper.
Network TV bosses typically request story elements they figure will resonate with viewers. Dirty Soap is no exception. Based on their research, Berman and Cussen knew online viewers love cute animals. So the producers borrowed a Chihuahua and wrote it into the script. MySpace also asked for more women, preferably wearing as little as possible. "They said 'chicks mean clicks,'" says Greiff's wife and fellow producer Beatriz Acevedo.
MySpaceTV has left behind the network model in one key respect: The budgets are Chihuahua-tiny. News Corp. is paying $5,000 per three-minute episode. At such rates, a one-hour drama would cost $100,000, vs. the $1 million-plus that a network show typically runs. The Dirty Soap cast comprises a sitcom-size 11 actors, but the producers are paying them $100 a day, the union minimum, and shooting at their mini-studio in Baja, Mexico.
Once MySpace has packaged three episodes into a pilot, Cussen will start trying to persuade advertisers to place their products in the show. The trick will be artfully cramming in the placements so viewers aren't turned off—hard enough in a one-hour TV show but very tricky in episodes that last three minutes. When MySpaceTV began running Roommates, the critics pounced. The show was like "a Ford commercial with girls in bikinis," says Andy Bowers, who edits the video Webzine Slate V. For the second season, MySpace has minimized Ford.