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What NBC Has Learned About Making Web Content


"For a long time, people have been moving away from TV. We're trying to reaggregate that audience," said NBC.com (GE) general manager Steve Andrade. He was speaking on a panel last Wednesday in North Hollywood as a nominee for the interactive media Emmy awards. NBC dominated the roster—it seems to have this digital Emmy thing down—accounting for four of the six nominees, with one of the remaining going to sister channel Bravo's Top Chef. So, what is NBC Universal doing right on the Web?

For one thing, it sounds like NBC has made digital a much more integrated part of a series' life cycle, from story development to sales. It's been a learning process, Andrade explained, and only after years of experimenting online are things now normalizing. The network has had success online with The Office in particular, which was kept on the air in the early days in part because of its popularity on iTunes. Plus, the show runners are getting younger and more digital-savvy, said Andrade and his NBC compatriots. For example, Dan Harmon, executive producer of the new NBC show Community, was a co-creator of the Channel 101 Web series festival. For him, Webisodes just come naturally.

NBC's four interactive media Emmy nominees this year are its "digital experiences" surrounding Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, The Office, and 30 Rock. The winner will be announced with the rest of the Emmys later this year.

Gluing Together an AudienceAndrade said that NBC.com has been able to operate as a successful business by combining forces with NBC sales. Advertisers are able to buy across both TV and the Web, gluing back together the audience that has splintered off into different viewing habits and media. And NBC.com now has a track record of working with repeat advertisers such as Sprint. Andrade said the network has moved away from worrying about making content for a particular device—smartphones, TV widgets—because it's too often an expensive diversion. The emphasis now is on centralizing output in order to recruit an audience. "Anything that makes people watch in real time is a good thing," he said.

It all comes back to The Office, Carole Angelo, NBC Universal's vice-president of digital content and development, said on Wednesday's panel. Because many of the actors on the show are also writers, it comes naturally for them to play their characters online. For example, the characters Kelly Kapoor and Ryan Howard, played by Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak, now play out their on-again, off-again relationship in real-time on Twitter.

For the coming season, NBC will be launching Twitter accounts for characters on 30 Rock, said Angelo. The network now has a practice by which junior writers can test out the voice of the characters on a show by portraying them online and "extending the creative fiction of the show," she said. It's not possible to control everything that goes out to social media—especially when it comes to actors like the popular Twitterer and The Office star Rainn Wilson—but "shows know to check because they will get slapped down if they go rogue," said Angelo.

Webisode SuccessThe Office also just wrapped another Webisode series, due later this year, which gives more minor characters a chance to shine and cast members a chance to direct. These are the followups to the Webisodes that writers of The Office prominently decried during the writers' strike, since they weren't getting paid to make Web content at the time. Now, apparently, everybody loves doing them.

To be sure, NBC might also just be good at winning Interactive Emmy nominations. While all its entrants centered around online marketing and derivative content, Andrade said that the online originals coming from Cameron Death's NBC Universal Digital Studio also have been quite financially successful. Those include Ctrl and Gemini Division, both shows that have baked in sponsors to a blatant—but also artistically consistent —degree. As long as originals make money, NBC will keep making them, Andrade said.

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Liz Gannes covers the web for GigaOM.

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