The Chernin Group's Billy Parks Imagines Reality TV, Without TV

'Summer Break' Spanned YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram

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This past summer media and entertainment company The Chernin Group (founded by former News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin) released a digital reality series that took the notion of digital media and ran with it.

Billy Parks
Billy Parks

"Summer Break," which followed a group of California high schoolers the summer after graduation, aired episodes on YouTube, but audiences could also keep up with cast members and plot lines as they happened on social networks like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. The show, produced with AT&T and BBDO, got more than 83,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than 136,800 Twitter followers. Its first episode recieved 295,248 views; the final episode has received 99,039 views.

The man responsible for the series, The Chernin Group's EVP-digital production and programming Billy Parks, will take the stage at Ad Age's Digital Conference in San Francisco on October 15. Here's a taste of what he'll be talking about.

Ad Age: Can you give us a quick overview of your role at The Chernin Group?

Billy Parks: I am the EVP of production and programming for digital at The Chernin Group. I came in about almost two years ago now with the idea of creating great content that could live cross-platform and that could engage audiences in the digital space. "Summer Break" was a project that we 'thunk-tank' [sic]. We did several think-tanks on different kinds of programming and things we could do and different revenue models and streams.

Ad Age: How did "Summer Break" come to be?

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Mr. Parks: The first thing I did was call all my favorite smartest people across all different content creation [areas] like Teddy Lynn at BBDO [now chief creative officer at IPG Mediabrands Publishing]. This one came from a kernel of an idea Teddy Lynn gave me. He said, why don't you try telling stories using a multiperspective narrative. We started think-tanking what it would look like if each character tells their own story from different perspectives. After we started kicking around that idea, we talked with different reality producers and thought what if we use a real group of kids and did a docudrama or docusoap like [MTV shows] "The Hills" or "Laguna Beach." How can we moderate each kid, how can we film them and how can we do it in real time? We kept building on these ideas until "Summer Break" became what it became.

Ad Age: Initially "Summer Break" was going to be short 1-minute episodes a day and then three- to five-minute episodes at the end of the week. That changed after the show started airing. Why?

Mr. Parks: We realized the audience really wanted longer episodes. We thought because it was a mobile-first show that we need the content to be short, but realized the mobile completion rates were high even at three-, five- and seven-minute episodes. We used the data.

Ad Age: Did that tell you anything about what lengths work and don't work for digital video?

Mr. Parks: We had long episodes that had really high completion rates and short episodes with low completion rates. It came down to what is the most compelling content and what the audience wants to see. We found that we were going to try to be in sort of a sweet spot [with the shorter episodes], but we needed more time to tell the story and people wanted mroe story. They warmed up into a one- or two-minute piece and that's it, but they want to see more. It's soap opera content, so they wanted more time.

'Summer Break' page on Tumblr
'Summer Break' page on Tumblr

Ad Age: How did you wrap your head around the different ways to distribute the show, and what that could mean for the audience?

Mr. Parks: Before we started we wanted them all to work together very seamlessly. Then more and more we started planning and thinking and working with the audience, and we realized each platform wanted a specific message and to be used for what people used the platform for. There were a lot of skeptics about programs like this: 'Oh, all these platforms, how do you find everything, you're asking for a lot of work [from the audience].' People didn't need to know what goes on on two platforms to know what's going on on one platform. If you wanted to follow cast members on Twitter, you could. YouTube is a completely different beast. YouTube is to watch videos; it's its own unique thing. Tumblr is a completely different experience. You're not so much creating a story as you're creating an aesthetic.

Ad Age: Will there be a second season of "Summer Break," and how are you looking at other program development in light of the first season?

Mr. Parks: We are looking at lots of possibilities and ways of telling stories and continuing to tell stories. We're thinking about another season and other types of programs. We're constantly working on great ways to reach audiences in new and interesting ways.

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