Aug. 18 will mark the premiere of NBC Universal Digital Studio's first original web series, "Gemini Division," perhaps the most significant original programming ever developed by a broadcast network specifically for the web. "Gemini" is planned as a 50-webisode series, with the first two segments premiering Monday on NBC.com, SciFi.com, GeminiDivision.com and a host of video-on-demand platforms including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon FiOS, Dish Network, Amazon Unbox, and Microsoft's Xbox Live and Zune.
Also onboard are a host of advertisers whose brands will be integrated throughout the series. Cisco, Microsoft, Acura and UPS will make appearances, and presenting sponsor Intel will integrate its Centrino 2 processors. The deals were brokered in part through NBCU's relationship with Omnicom Group's OMG Digital agency, the digital studio's first strategic partner.
Cameron Death, VP of NBCU Digital Studio, said the series' content partners will be integrated into four episodes a week, Monday through Thursday. Each episode will run roughly four to five minutes, in addition to other ancillary content. On Fridays, all of the week's webisodes will be strung together into a long-form episode so viewers can catch up. "We wanted to be sensitive to the current viewer behavior and not put a traditional 22 minutes out there. In a sense, we're letting the story dictate where the breaks are," Mr. Death said.
NBC is also open to letting the viewers dictate the show's social-media strategy. Because of the show's flexible web distribution, Mr. Death said his team could shoot additional footage and create ancillary story lines if viewers respond favorably to any characters early on. "We're going to let viewers all around the show, asking them to help solve clues, partner with Anna [a character played by Rosario Dawson] to help uncover the Gemini division," he said. He suggested the possibility of character-specific MySpace pages down the road as well.
Intel also will take an active role in promoting the show online through the partner sites. The technology marketer has long been an active spender in the online-video realm as a founding member of Hulu and sponsor of the NBC, ABC, CBS and MTV Networks video players. Heather Dixon, Intel's consumer-marketing director, said the brand has cut nearly all of its TV budget for 2008 in a concerted effort to reach its consumer target online.
"We're working with these cutting-edge leaders because we believe our technology is crucial in creating this technology in the first place," Ms. Dixon said. "It helps build the relevance of the product and gives people a very compelling reason to upgrade their PC with a better, faster chip."
With all the distribution and advertiser partners at stake, measuring the success of "Gemini Division" will not be nearly so cut-and-dried as evaluating a traditional TV show. Although raw viewership and traffic for each of the three main sites and VOD platforms will be the initial metric, Mr. Death is hoping to go a bit deeper.
"I'm really pushing ourselves and the brands we're working with to reframe the discussion," he said. "What's also important to us are sustainability -- being able to sustain viewership over time vs. just a one-hit-wonder engagement -- and then pulling them into other interactive elements we've created."
To that end, Mr. Death and his team are also beginning to infiltrate the blogosphere with a bit of viral marketing. "We've already released a series of blogs which you won't know until episode 30 are actually related to the show. Instead, we have people engaging with them now as if it were just another blog," he said, refusing to disclose the names or addresses of said secret blogs. "It will come to bear that a relatively innocent-looking blog you're talking about actually ties directly back to 'Gemini Division.' We're creating all these tunnels to send viewers down."
Original online programming
Although broadcast networks have made efforts to develop original online programming in recent months, most notably CBS's "Wallstrip" and ABC's "Squeegees," none have had a marketing push or ad model on par with "Gemini Division." Perhaps its closest predecessor is Unilever and Sprint's "In the Motherhood," developed by WPP Group's MindShare Entertainment and often cited in marketing circles as the model for successful branded-entertainment web series. After two successful seasons that garnered millions of video streams at InTheMotherhood.com and on MSN, "Motherhood" was picked up by ABC as a possible midseason-replacement prime-time sitcom.
Mr. Death was also encouraged by the recent viral success of Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," a three-part web series that racked up 2.25 million video views in its first five days before overactivity crashed the site.
But he isn't banking on "Gemini" to catch on with a similar frenzy. "If you think you know what [works] today, Friday it's going to be something completely different," he said. "People are coming to folks like NBC because we know we have the ability for great stories to get to a level of scale."