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Microsofts Digital Upfront: Showcasing Web Video

msftEvery year, usually in the third week of May, TV executives roll into New York City with an exclusive little circus called “Upfronts.”  Across the city’s famed theaters like Radio City and Carnegie Hall, and in the back rooms of elite hotels, each major network puts on an extravagant show and party: music, celebrities, food and of course, the reason for the show: TV footage.   The audience of advertisers and media buyers takes notes on the presentation of new TV schedules, forms impressions of the projected new programs, and then they make bids for some of the coveted advertising slots.  The whole process unfolds like a futures market for TV advertising.  It’s even treated as a barometer for the advertising industry and a weather forecast for television.  The show is glitzy, over-produced, and especially: exclusive.    If it’s not a network show, it’s not shown.

Thursday, Microsoft, a seemingly unlikely source of original video programming, decided “who needs your Upfronts?” and moreover, “who needs TV.”  Ahead of schedule and paving a new path, the software giant decided to create their own sandbox to play in.  For press and advertiser alike, they hosted a showcase of their own. The catch: they were prescreening episodic content for the web. This was  a “digital upfront.”  The event was staged at New York’s Guild Theater; Microsoft’s first ever Digital Showcase. 

That Microsoft is serious about video is no surprise.  The company more than signaled they were serious about video at January’s Consumer Electronics Show.  It was clear both in their product presentations and in Bill Gates’ Keynote.  Last week they built further on the theme with the announcement of first of kind a content production agreement with Hollywood veteran Peter Safran.   That deal, which will yield original Xbox Live programming, won’t bear fruit until late summer or fall at the earlier, however. 

The content shown at the Guild was a little different than that foreshadowed with the Safran deal.  This material was work in development for the past months.  It is aimed as much towards the interests of advertisers as it is audiences.  In fact, some of the programming is open to adjustment as needed.  A program can be reworked to suit the needs of a brand sponsor.

Gayle Troberman, head of branded entertainment at MSN made a point of saying that they “want to prove beyond a reasonable doubt…that we produce the biggest hits on the web.”  That’s a large ambition. 

The shows presented spanned a wide range in focus and originality.  One title called “In Need of Repair” aims to be a comedic take on home improvement shows for 20-Somethings (didn’t Tim Allen do that for the  family audience on TV?.. Home Improvement?).  Another, “50 Greatest,” plans to spoof VH1 and MTV.  “Xtwins” will follow video game playing twin sisters in an Xbox Live reality show.   

More serious fare will include an eight episode look at past presidential elections hosted by Tom Brokaw.  that will air on MSNBC properties.  Another MSNBC slot will be filled with a twice a week celebrity gossip showcase hosted by columnist Courtney Hazlett.     

All things considered, the interesting thing about Microsoft’s Digital Showcase is not the content but the idea of having an upfront presentation for web video in the first place.  At first pass, the progressive concept seems, well, … a little up front. 

After a little more thought though, it’s not so crazy an idea.   Web distributed video content is increasingly luring professional production talent.  From Michael Eisner to Jerry Bruckheimer to the Coen brothers, A-list filmmaking talent is all getting involved.  At the same time, the advertising models through which the programs aim to make money remain in flux.   Removing the audience and putting the commercial sides of projects together is a way of an opening a dialog.   In a way, it’s even similar to a film festival.  It’s a chance for distributors and partners to see what’s out there and has the potential (if so structured) to let an auction environment dictate pricing.  Why not? 

Kudos to Microsoft for creativity…at least in thinking about how to sell their programs.  As for the programming…. From the sounds of it, that might need a little more original thinking.


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