LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- CBS Interactive is rolling out a web series whose entire narrative will depend exclusively on the two most hard-to-find attributes in digital entertainment: sponsors and active fans.
Luckily for CBS, the former is already taken care of when it rolls out "Around the World for Free," an online spinoff of "The Amazing Race" that makes its debut July 26 on CBS.com and other CBS Interactive properties.
The series will chronicle the real-time travels of Jeff Schroeder, a veteran of CBS reality shows "Big Brother" and "The Amazing Race," as he attempts to globe-trot without so much as a dollar to his name, relying on strangers and online viewers to dictate and potentially accommodate his every move -- all with the aid of integrated sponsors AT&T, to connect Mr. Schroeder to his fans, and American Airlines, to fly him to his various destinations.
The ambitious premise echoes that of 19 Entertainment's "If I Can Dream," a reality series on online video site Hulu that also unfolds in real-time and allows fans to vote in new cast members, with integrations from presenting sponsors Pepsi and Ford along the way. And just as "Dream" got more than a little bit of traditional media exposure from cross-promotion on 19 Entertainment's "American Idol," "Around the World for Free" will be heavily promoted on CBS Corp.'s radio properties, online audience network and prime-time summer lineup, particularly during the new season of "Big Brother," which makes its return July 8. Mr. Schroeder will make appearances on CBS's "The Early Show" to reach the daytime crowd as well.
CBS is also boldly going where broadcast networks have only recently dared to tread by ramping up its investment in online programming. ABC, one of the first networks to dip its toes in digital waters with the launch of Stage 9 Productions in 2008, quickly saw its web video business fizzle after producing too many web series with TV budgets and no business model or sponsor support to offset the costs. NBC has found recent success with branded web shows for American Family Insurance ("In Gayle We Trust," recently renewed for a second season) and Hidden Valley Ranch, while Fox is expected to debut new cross-platform projects from new branded-entertainment head Roger Mincheff later this year.
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In the past year, CBS Interactive has produced original web series for Saturn ("Novel Adventures"), Head & Shoulders ("Heckle U"), General Motors ("The Ghost Whisperer: The Other Side") and AT&T (TV.com's "TV in a Flash"). Joe Ferreira, senior VP-general manager of the CBS Audience Network, said web series are held to different success metrics than broadcast series, so 1 million views over the course of a month is often a good benchmark compared to 14 million viewers for one night of prime time.
"The idea of a hit for us is on a bit of a smaller scale, but what we've seen for all the series we've put out there has hit all those marks," he said. "We've been doing this for two to three years, and each time we've learned something. Now we're at the point where we're really taking this to the next level."
Although the 35 short-form episodes that make up "Around the World for Free" are being produced at a fraction of what they would cost to produce for prime time (which also means less cameras, less edit time and shorter episode lengths), the cost savings do not come at the expense of quality, said Anthony Soohoo, CBS Interactive's senior VP-general manager of entertainment.
"We think we can deliver a series to the user at a level unseen in the past online," he said. "The user behavior, quality of the cameras and the emergence of social media mobile tools we can use from the advertising community as well as our users put us in a pretty unique spot to deliver something we'll be looking at years from now. We want 'Around the World for Free' to be the inflection point for a new wave of storytelling for the next few years."
Plus, by having sponsors onboard at launch, the series is already a profitable venture for CBS. "The web-original business for us is at comparable margins if not better across the line than any other entertainment properties we currently run," Mr. Soohoo said.
AT&T is expected to be featured throughout the series as an integrated mobile sponsor, and will promote the series within its own properties in the coming weeks. American Airlines, in its biggest investment in an original web series to date, will sponsor all of Mr. Schroeder's trips. Coming off a high-profile integration in last year's "Up in the Air," an unpaid placement valued to be worth as much as $14.5 million of exposure by entertainment research firm Front Row Analytics, the bar is very high for American's latest foray.
"The key to any product placement for a brand, in film, TV or online video, is relevance," said Billy Sanez, American's director of advertising and promotions. He added: "Flying Jeff [Schroeder] around the world is simply what we do for a living. We naturally take our passengers to their destinations."
"Around the World for Free" is actually the second season of a show that was originally conceived by "Amazing Race" winner Alex Boylan and "Survivor: Pearl Islands" vet Burton Roberts, produced independently and eventually acquired by CBS. The archived season is currently available on a micro-site.