LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- It only took 12 years, but the concept behind the "The Truman Show" has finally been translated to a TV series. But because it's 2010, that series is on the web.
"ControlTV," produced by actor Seth Green ("Austin Powers," "Family Guy"), Matthew Senrich ("Robot Chicken") and Richard Saperstein (former president of Dimension Films) and distributed by Digital Broadcasting Group (Diet Coke's "Style Series"), follows six weeks in the life of aspiring stock trader Tristan Couvares by broadcasting every move he makes live. Only, unlike Jim Carrey in the 1998 movie, Mr. Couvares is a willing participant whose major life decisions aren't selected by an omniscient producer. Instead, he turns to social media's favorite new research tool -- crowdsourcing -- to help determine everything from which life coach he should meet with, what color his tie should be or where he should go on his next date.
And a trio of sponsors is helping him along the way: Ford Motor Co. (Mr. Couvares drives a 2011 Ford Fiesta); Sprint Nextel (he has an HTC EVO 4G phone); and Mars' Snickers (his occasional snack of choice and sponsor of ControlTV.com's "The Week Unwrapped" segments). The ad deals were brokered and packaged by Creative Artists Agency.
Mr. Green said the project had been in development for more then two years before all the stars aligned. And the time for a show like "ControlTV," in terms of where its target audience is both sociologically and technologically, couldn't be better.
"On Facebook and Twitter, you're vicariously sharing your life with virtual strangers. They can see all the comments other people [have] made and make their own comments to sort of virtually participate in something they didn't attend," he told Ad Age. "And we as a culture make mass decisions as a collective, whether it's Alec Baldwin being OK to perform even though we've heard him yell at his daughter, or Jesse James having a career even though he broke Sandra Bullock's heart. So we wanted to explore what happens when you give that a physical voice."
Because of the sponsors' involvement, there are certain ground rules for "ControlTV" despite its 24-hour timeframe. There's no excessive cursing, no sexual material and no violence, and the live feed is broadcast on a few seconds of delay in the event of any untoward surprises. But thus far, the sponsors have been otherwise pretty hands-off, issuing Mr. Green and the producers very few notes -- especially when compared to the typical broadcast series.
"The sponsors' philosophies are very similar to ours. They want to be a direct conduit to their consumer and demonstrate the viability of their product. This is about, 'Look at this awesome car. This guy lives in L.A. and can't live without a car, so look at how useful this is for all his needs.'"
Mars signed up based on that same organic approach, since Mr. Couvares was already a big fan of Snickers.
"When looking at product-placement opportunities, it is important for us to make sure that there is a natural connection between our brands and those we partner with," said Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer for Mars North America. "You will see that Tristan interacts with our brand in a very common way, and his existing love for the product made it less challenging to find genuine engagement opportunities."
Of course, finding an organic audience on the web that's still mass enough to meet the sponsors' audience goals will be "ControlTV's" biggest challenge. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 25, ControlTV.com garnered more than 114,000 visits from more than 67,000 unique visitors, according to Google Analytics, with 57.8% of the site's traffic coming from new viewers. This audience is also stickier than that of the average web series, with viewers staying for an average of 25 minutes per visit. While those may seem like tiny numbers for a show with major producers and sponsors backing it, measuring traffic to the show's hub site is only a small piece of the puzzle.
"ControlTV's" distributors at DBG use paid video ads to distribute the show through its own syndicated video network, including buys on sites from Perez Hilton, CBS Interactive, Heavy, Maxim and Myxer. In its first 14 days of release, "ControlTV" received more than 3 million completed views on the DBG Video Network, with interaction rates as high as 7% on some players. Previous DBG web series have accumulated as much as 50 million to 60 million total paid views for advertisers such as Hewlett-Packard and Diet Coke, which bake alternate organic and paid impression guarantees into their web series deals with DBG.
"The innovative approach was something that naturally attracted us, and the mix of organic product placement opportunities and direct engagement with our target consumer made it a program of great interest," she said.
As for Mr. Green, don't expect too much screen time from him as "ControlTV" enters its last three weeks. He wants the show's narrative -- and, ultimately, success -- to be as organic as possible.
"I think having an actor present for this kind of thing only clouds the focus of the experiment. This isn't 'Punk'd,' where it's based on the relationships between celebrities, or 'The Apprentice,' where it's all kind of based on someone coming to work for me. This was just a cultural thing we were interested in and had the opportunity to participate."