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Episode Three: Steinway & Sons
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That changes late tonight when ESPN.com debuts "Mayne Street," its first scripted online video series. The series stars ESPN mainstay Kenny Mayne as a loosely fictionalized (read: less considerate, more put-upon) version of himself who works on a slightly askew version of "SportsCenter."
Waiting for the right time
So what took ESPN.com so long? To hear Ron Wechsler, VP-series production and development, ESPN Content Development, tell it, even one of the media world's pre-eminent brands was hesitant to careen face-first into the still largely uncharted waters of web video.
"We obviously noticed that humor on the web was doing well and that we had people in our midst who'd be a good fit for it," he explained. "At the same time, there are already plenty of cautionary tales out there. We wanted to do it right."
"Mayne Street" was first pitched a few years back as a TV series, then mutated to a web project when Mr. Mayne, who had recently re-upped at ESPN for two years, expressed interest in reviving the idea. From there, the pace quickened: Mr. Wechsler estimated that the scripting took two months and that the shoot itself lasted a mere three weeks. As of last Wednesday, post-production work was still continuing.
Perhaps owing to the lengthy developmental curve -- at least compared with the great majority of quick-hit web video series, anyway -- "Mayne Street" arrives more refined than most such offerings, boasting a game cast (including former Fuse mainstay Alison Becker) and a few notes of main title music by Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament. Episodes will debut on ESPN.com every Tuesday and Friday for the next seven weeks.
Humor with bite
While the content is sharper-elbowed than one might expect (the show boasts the alternately deadpan and absurdist tone of the network's "SportsCenter" spots, with Mr. Mayne doing a Larry David-ish twist on his persona and profession), "Mayne Street" quickly attracted Vicks NyQuil as a presenting sponsor. Starcom MediaVest Group played matchmaker for the P&G brand and ESPN early in the developmental process.
The brand folks enjoyed considerable access during production, to the extent that ESPN put together an early rough cut of the series for sponsor approval. "We got to see them in execution, rather than just on the page, and weigh in at that point. That was important to us," said Jason Partin, assistant brand manager, Vicks. He quickly adds that he "loved it" right off the bat and suggested exactly zero tweaks.
The first batch of "Mayne Street" episodes arrive without actual product integration, but with a cheeky nod to the role such placement has come to play in scripted programming. One of the first episodes shows the disaster that befalls the proprietor of "Louie's Original Roast Beef" when an overenthusiastic ESPN suit attempts to integrate a sandwich into a live Shea Stadium shot.
"Ten years ago, kids rooted for teams, right? Nowadays, they root for brands," the faux-exec notes confidently, right before Louie's offerings are dismissed by bum and streetwalker alike.
Such gibes notwithstanding, Mr. Wechsler said ESPN will consider product integration in both "Mayne Street" and future web series, but only in those instances when producers "can naturally bake it into the content." Mr. Mayne similarly stressed he has "no problem" with integration if handled smartly.
Broadcast boundaries blur
Nor does he make a distinction between a series produced for the web and one produced for TV. Mr. Mayne has been writing and performing in "Mayne Event" comedic spots for "Sunday NFL Countdown" and other ESPN programs for some time, which placed him in the middle of Barack Obama's victory rally in Chicago on election night. Amid the excitement, Mr. Mayne and his cohorts filmed a skit, which aired on Sunday, in which the Obama/Biden fantasy football league conducted its midseason re-draft during the election-night frenzy.
The "Mayne Street" shoots posed fewer logistical hurdles, of course, but required more manpower than the "Mayne Event" bits. "With most of those, it's basically just four people doing their thing," Mr. Mayne said. Still, he generously talks up the "Mayne Street" players and writers, noting that the scripts were so funny that he kept his improvising to a minimum.
Asked if other web series have caught his attention, Mr. Mayne admitted that he has been too busy to check out the competition. For the record, his internet home page is MSNBC.com, his first morning clicks are to New York Times columnists like Thomas Friedman and Frank Rich, and he recently entered the world of Facebook to promote his book, "An Incomplete & Inaccurate History of Sport."
"I've never been to Facebook. My niece and nephew made up a page to try to get interest in my book. That's all I know of it. But I wish all Facebook kids the very best."
As for "Mayne Street," Mr. Mayne admits to one small concern: the title, which he jokingly worries might be confused with "Mayne Event." "I was thinking we could call it 'The Show With Kenny Mayne That You See on Your Computer,'" he deadpanned. "But they told me it was too wordy. So that's what I'm dealing with."