'Afterworld' Seeks to Make Its Mark on Third Screen
Madison Clamors for Mobile Series but Content Leaves Little Room for Brands
LOS ANGELES -- If you run into the Energizer Bunny, tell him Brent Friedman says to go to hell.
Russell Shoemaker is the protagonist in the post-apocalyptic
Mr. Friedman, 43, cut his teeth writing sci-fi TV shows such as "Dark Skies" for NBC and "Enterprise" for UPN, and went on to write video games for Electronic Arts, such as the just-released hit "Command and Conquer 3." But now, with an innovative animated series called "Afterworld," Mr. Friedman is devilishly squashing preconceptions and rewriting the rules for branded entertainment.
His new 130-episode raft of two- to three-minute mobisodes was picked up by Sony Pictures Television International in April, and, amazingly enough, deals are being inked with cable and phone companies to distribute it this summer around the world -- in the U.K., France, Australia, Asia and the States. (It's already a viral hit on YouTube, with some 700,000 downloads of its initial 13 episodes.)
Defying conventional wisdom
One can say "amazingly enough" without being cheeky or dismissive because nearly everything about the series defies the conventional wisdom about how to lure Madison into Hollywood's bed. In "Afterworld," an inexplicable global event has wiped out 99% of the world's population and rendered most of the planet's electronic technology useless. Battery-powered devices still work in "Afterworld," but anything that plugs into an outlet has been flash-fried. Its protagonist is Russell Shoemaker, an advertising-agency owner compelled to walk homeward to Seattle from New York City in the faint hope that his wife and child have survived the cataclysm.
'Afterworld' follows Russell Shoemaker as he walks from New York City to Seattle in hopes of finding his wife and child.
But an adman with no technology to shill, no consumers to sell it to and no medium in which to sell it?
"There was this desperate, searching expression on the faces of all the sponsors who approached us," recounted Mr. Friedman, laughing. "You know, 'Couldn't just one car work?' We also turned down interest from Energizer [batteries] right out of the gate. I mean, think of it: '"Afterworld," brought to you by Energizer.' It's so absurdly crass; it would have been a fatal misstep."
Madison Avenue's desperation can be forgiven, as it's currently starring in its own "Afterworld." In TV's worst spring in recent memory, an astonishing number of Americans have vanished from TV land in the past three months: More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox than at the same time last May, Nielsen stats show. What they don't show is where they went, but "Afterworld" producer Stan Rogow has a gut feeling many likely have disappeared to the "third screen" of mobile and broadband entertainment.
In-house focus group
Mr. Rogow's gut seems trustworthy: He created the Disney Channel hit "Lizzie Maguire" when his then-4-year-old son asked him, "Daddy, why don't you make something I want to watch?" Mr. Rogow notes that lately, his now-teenage son and his posse of Clearasil consumers have forsaken the boob tube for YouTube.
While no one can know what happened to regular TV's viewers this spring, research does suggest mobile TV is about to go ballistic regardless. According to industry analyst Datamonitor, mobile TV's global subscriber base will swell to 65.6 million in 2010 and more than double to 155.6 million by the end of 2012, a year-on-year growth rate of 66.2%.
"It was pitched to me on an iPod," said Andy Kaplan, president of international networks at Sony Pictures Television International. "That was a first. But carriers and buyers are all exploring the same issues. ... Every broadcaster in the world realizes they need a broadband and mobile product in a three-screen world."
Even if the branded-entertainment aspect of "Afterworld" seems counterintuitive, the economic appeal of "Afterworld" is obvious. A standard network TV show can cost $1 million for a half-hour. Backed by a triumvirate of Anheuser-Busch's BudTV, Sony and Mr. Rogow's own investment, "Afterworld's" seven hours of content cost roughly $3 million. And unlike regular TV, it's bite-sized, portable and interactive. The website will also feature online games that reference the show's premise and plot.
Battling the WGA
But mobile TV's higher profit margins have also caught the eyes of Hollywood's labor unions, whose militancy has made the networks and studios interesting bedfellows. Last year, NBC Universal filed a complaint with National Labor Relations Board against the Writers Guild, alleging the union demanded several NBC Universal show runners refuse to work on any web-based content unless they were paid more. It was subsequently dismissed by the NLRB this February, further emboldening the WGA.
Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, west, told M&V in an e-mail interview, "Whatever the delivery system or genre of the content, we can -- and will -- design a contract to get the writer WGA benefits."
Clearly, both Mr. Verrone and producers like Mr. Rogow see global ad dollars as substantial source of revenue for mobile TV, provided Madison Avenue gets the message.
"We're willing to integrate, but keep in mind that the world is dead, the cars don't work and the stores are closed," Mr. Rogow cautioned. "That said, if you're a lifestyle brand, I think you line up. The advertising community hasn't figured this out yet, but hopefully we're giving them a sense of confidence because this isn't cheap or tawdry; it's the future."