Described as "Sin City" meets "The Sopranos" -- and starring several Hollywood actors with lengthy resumes, including George Hamilton and Michael Madsen -- the first installment serves as a five-minute setup for upcoming webisodes and an introduction to the cast of characters.
Sony has exclusive rights to air the weekly episodes each Wednesday for the first 24 hours on Crackle, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. online video network, before it is widely distributed on video sites YouTube, Hulu and AOL and on AT&T and Verizon mobile platforms.
'The first one like this'
"This is the first one like this we've done, so as a benchmark you can't really compare it," said Chris Kindt, Sony Electronics' director of media. "We're trying it out to see how it will go. ... The ROI, of course, isn't a straight dollar one. ... It really is more of a learning for us."
Sony Electronics' interest is in promoting its new Vaio FW series of high-definition notebook computers -- complete with built-in, Sony-created Blu-ray players and Sony's Bravia TV-screen technology. For now, Sony is only sponsoring "Coma," and, in the first seven episodes at least, there is no product placement of the high-end Vaio FW.
Mr. Kindt said the Vaio FW is the "ultimate entertainment machine," so the partnership with "Coma" made sense in targeting the mid-20-something male likely to buy a higher-end PC.
"We wanted cutting-edge," he said, as well as a showcase for high-def entertainment "how and when you want it."
Sony Electronics certainly isn't alone in exploring placing products in webisodes or otherwise sponsoring online content. A recent PQ Media report found that while advergaming and webisodes make up the smallest branded-entertainment segment, it is the fastest-growing -- jumping 35% to $217 million in 2007, with webisodes in particular poised to grow about 46% this year.
Microsoft's involvement came about as a Sony computer partner -- its Vista Ultimate software is recommended for the Vaio FW -- and is helping fund the marketing campaign.
An online-heavy ad-banner blitz, as well as some print advertising, is planned to drive viewers to watch the weekly series. A Blu-ray Disc with all the "Coma" episodes plus bonus features will also be distributed in select copies of Wired magazine in October. Universal McCann is the media agency.
Sony got involved in the project when Creative Artists Agency suggested a meet and greet with the show's producers, Drew Fitzgerald and Stefan Haller from WIMO and Miguel Melendez from Overbrook Entertainment (founded by actor Will Smith) and Anonymous Content. They had already decided to use Sony HD equipment to shoot the web stories, but after the meeting, Sony managers also decided that the web series could provide a unique way to promote the Vaio FW.
Setting up the mystery
The first "Coma" installment sets up Mr. Madsen as Lennox, a crime-syndicate leader who is working with Mayor Hannon (Mr. Hamilton) to take down the city's crime boss. However, in the first 30 seconds, Lennox is shot -- causing the aforementioned "Stay with me!" plea in the back of an ambulance -- and the six future episodes promise to unravel the mystery.
But while webisodes have been touted as the next big thing, bridging the gap between traditional TV and online video, Hollywood seems more bullish than some industry watchers and analysts.
"Is it the future? No," said Phillip Swann of TVPredictions.com. "History has shown over and over that the most successful online videos are short, unique and, in most cases, unusual. ... The whole case right now of internet TV is truly the most overrated, overly hyped issue in the tech world today."