Tuned In: Netflix, Hulu to unveil original shows for Web
Steven Van Zandt stars as a New York mobster who joins the federal witness protection program and moves to Lillehammer, Norway, in Netflix's original series "Lilyhammer."
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Original online TV programming gets a boost this month as several big-name tech companies make a push into territory that historically has been the realm of TV programmers.
These new series look like traditional TV shows, but you won't find them on a broadcast or cable network. They're shows made to be viewed online and via broadband streaming.
Next week, Netflix debuts its first original series, "Lilyhammer," which will be followed next year by a fourth season of the former Fox comedy "Arrested Development." YouTube.com already has launched several new niche content "channels" dedicated to original programming, and on Feb. 14 Hulu.com debuts its first original scripted series, "Battleground," about a political campaign in Wisconsin.
While these series represent new steps for their content providers, they do not mark the first attempts at original online programming. Sony's Crackle.com and Warner Bros.' TheWB.com have tried to get Web surfers to watch their original series since August 2008 with limited success. "Children's Hospital" began on TheWB.com before its migration to TV's Adult Swim on Cartoon Network, but WB.com series "Blue Water High" and "Sorority Forever" didn't attract much notice.
Blame it on a lack of marketing but also because TheWB.com is not the sort of destination Netflix and Hulu have become. Hulu averages 30 million monthly users; Netflix streamed 2 billion hours of video in the last three months of 2011, according to the Associated Press.
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said his company's programs will be high quality and indistinguishable from programs made for TV networks. Netflix also will use customers' ratings of past TV shows and movies as a guide to steer them toward original programs, like "Lilyhammer."
"We don't have to cast a huge net across our subscriber base," he said. "In personalizing it's a way to present the show to the most likely audience."
If a Netflix customer likes "Lilyhammer," he or she will give it a good rating and that will "expand the viewership of the show in a way that doesn't require excessive external marketing." Mr. Sarandos said. He's confident Netflix customers will appreciate "Lilyhammer" because it's the kind of serialized one-hour drama Netflix viewers are particularly interested in watching at a time when broadcast networks often develop more procedural shows.
Steven Van Zandt -- Sil on "The Sopranos" -- stars in "Lilyhammer" as New York mobster Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, who rats out his boss and joins the federal witness protection program, moving to Lillehammer, Norway, which he liked the looks of from telecasts of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The premiere episode is punctuated with profanity (mostly Frank's routine exclamation, "What the f--!"), but its fish-out-of-water story and local characters bring to mind something akin to "Northern Exposure."
The premiere offers a quiet, sometimes exasperatingly slow build that brings to mind "Fargo" in its characters (the police chief has some resemblance to Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson), snow-covered setting and pace. But patient viewers may find themselves drawn into this world that offers knowing winks to mob stories (Frank finds a sheep's head in front of his house) and a lovable lug lead character.
The first season of "Lilyhammer" consists of eight episodes, and they'll all be available to Netflix members for streaming on Monday, allowing the opportunity to gorge on the series in the same way TV fans devour a full season of a series on DVD over a weekend. Initially, "Lilyhammer" will be available only via Netflix streaming; a DVD release will follow at some point down the road.
For Hulu, original programming is a next step in the company's mission to help people find and enjoy the content, when, where and how they want to, according to Hulu senior vice president of content Andy Forssell, a 1987 Carnegie Mellon University grad who grew up near Titusville and lived in Sewickley before moving to Los Angeles to join Hulu six years ago.
"One question we've asked ourselves over the last several years is how come you don't see this sort of vibrancy and creativity that has developed in the world of independent film?" Mr. Forssell said last month at a Hulu press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "In TV, it hasn't happened. ... But we've built an ecosystem where somebody can say, 'I'm just going to make a show.' ... We're giving them an outlet to do that.
"Now, it comes with a challenge," he continued, "and the challenge is it can't be a student project. It's got to stand up to the best of TV that was on last night, because that's on Hulu as well."
Unlike Netflix originals, which have no commercials, Hulu programs are ad supported, but Mr. Forssell said Hulu originals will have less commercial time than a typical 30-minute TV program, which carries about eight minutes of ads. Hulu will roll out new episodes of its original series weekly, like a show you'd watch on TV.
For Hulu's debut scripted series, the company enlisted Marc Web, director of "500 Days of Summer" and the upcoming "Amazing Spider-Man," to executive produce a half-hour comedy-drama about the staff of a senate campaign. Actor/writer J.D. Walsh wrote all 13 of the 22-minute episodes of the series, which he acknowledged has a lower budget than a prime-time TV show.
"It is a half-hour, single-camera show, which typically leans towards funny quirky comedy, the kind of stuff that you see on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' or 'New Girl,' " Mr. Webb said. "What J.D. did was try to create -- and tone was a big part of this -- something that felt more real and that leaned into the drama a little bit."
It's worth checking out. "Battleground" is an entertaining, well-made hybrid that's more engaging than any half-hour show to debut so far this year on traditional TV.
HBO's "Luck" drew 1.1 million viewers in its premiere episode Sunday -- compared to 1.3 million for Showtime's "Shameless" -- but ratings are of little consequence to HBO, which renewed "Luck" on Tuesday for a 10-episode second season to air next January. ... Back when he rode his bike through Pittsburgh in May 2009, "Amazing Race" host Phil Keoghan was also making a documentary about his 40-day ride from Los Angeles to New York. "The Ride" premieres at 8 p.m. Feb. 18 on Showtime. ... Lifetime's "Army Wives" and "Coming Home" return for new seasons on March 4. ... VH1 and VH1 Classic will re-air "Soul Train: The Hippest Train in America" tonight at 10 in tribute to the show's creator, Don Cornelius, who died this week. ... Showtime has renewed its three Sunday night series -- "Shameless," "House of Lies" and "Californication" -- for new seasons to air next year. ... MTV and Logo will air an "It Gets Better" special, hosted by "It Gets Better" co-creator Dan Savage, at 11 p.m. Feb. 21, spotlighting the emotional and societal struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Pittsburgh native Zach Quinto, who came out as gay last year, will be among the celebrity guests. ... Season two of PBS's "Michael Feinstein's American Songbook" debuts tonight at 9 on WQED-TV. ... 23-year-old Anna Mancuso of Robinson, who had never modeled in the past, was recruited to model for The CW's "Remodeled" (9 p.m. Wednesday) during a visit to Columbus, Ohio, last fall. She'll appear briefly among a group of models in the Feb. 22 episode.
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Downton Abbey," "Hell's Kitchen" and "CBS This Morning." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on the "Arrested Development" revival, "NCIS" and "Body of Proof." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Lost Girl," "Luck," "Project Runway All Stars," "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "American Idol." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.
First Published February 3, 2012 12:00 am