LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- To many brands (not to mention Hollywood actors), the web is still considered a dumping ground for content not considered good enough for traditional TV. And in the early stages of what is now "Easy to Assemble," a web series sponsored by Ikea and created by actress Illeana Douglas, that dictum was true. But after the series became the most-watched sponsored web show in its second season, garnering 5.1 million views and counting, Ms. Douglas and her all-star cast are rewriting the rulebook on how to create quality content for the web with a TV-like viewership.
Web Series Shows a Bit of Quality Can Help Sell 'Crap'
That "Easy to Assemble" found such a large, organic audience in a relatively short amount of time (the second season premiered in late September) is no easy feat. The previous most-watched web series, the Suave- and Sprint-sponsored "In the Motherhood," achieved its audience in large part because of prime placement on MSN.com's well-trafficked home page. MyDamnChannel.com, the main distributor of the second season of "Easy to Assemble," has had a growing following from shows such as "Wainy Days," but hardly enough to put up MSN-like numbers.
The show has garnered increased investment from Ikea, which has seen it as an incubator for the future model of its $300 million global media budget. "Today's marketing landscape still calls for traditional media to play a role, but three to five years from now, we'll be in a period where we need a stronger mix of nontraditional," said Magnus Gustaffson, Ikea's marketing chief and an executive producer of "Easy to Assemble." "Because of the fragmentation of the media landscape, it's important for us to reach as many people in as many relevant touchpoints as possible."
But just as it's reinventing the way brands invest in sponsored content, it's also creating new compensation models for casts and crews in web video. One of the biggest stigmas against online series is that they look like home videos and pay actors far less than TV -- if at all. But the second season was shot in high-definition, and Ms. Douglas' famous friends, such as Ed Begley Jr., Tom Arnold and even Keanu Reeves (who stars in spinoff "Sparhusen"), are being paid in more than just goodwill -- a pact with the Screen Actors Guild ensures that everyone from the guest stars to the assistants is compensated for their efforts at near-TV rates.
Ms. Douglas compares her show's unique path to her early days in independent film, and seems to be relishing the chance to help Ikea sell more crap (that means "quilt" in Swedish).
"If you have a well-liked brand that you really enjoy working with, it ends up working out. People will find the show on their own," she said.
The origins of "Easy to Assemble" date back to 2004, when Ms. Douglas was shopping around a network pilot called "Supermarket," in which she played a fictionalized version of herself -- a Hollywood actress who found fame in independent film ("To Die For," "Cape Fear"). When she takes a job at a small Los Angeles supermarket, Ms. Douglas is surprised to find it's become a breeding ground for other Tinseltown refugees -- several of whom (Justine Bateman, Jeff Goldblum) have since returned for the show's latest iteration.
"Supermarket" never got past the pilot stage, leading Ms. Douglas to look to the web for alternative distribution and a sponsor to foot the production bill otherwise covered by a TV network. Enter Ikea, a Swedish superstore with a do-it-yourself approach to furniture that lent its quirky brand to the show's new title and its Burbank store for shooting key scenes -- not to mention a rabid fan-base that readily consumes any Ikea-related content.
Roughly 20% of the second season's 5.1 million views have come from syndication to sites such as Ikeafans.com, where users ate up new episodes faster than Ikea's signature meatballs and lingonberry sauce. (So far "Easy to Assemble" has amassed 6.1 million views when you combine the audience for the first two seasons; "In the Motherhood" reached a collective 5.5 million views for its two seasons.) Ikea and its social-media agency, CJP Digital Media, promoted the show by doing marketing outreach to key Ikea fan sites and web video blogs, syndicating clips for fans to share with their friends or comment on Ikea message boards. Within two weeks, Ikea fans racked up 500,000 views alone for the show's second season.
Investing in quality
"We want to establish new ways of making a web series as a statement to respect the art, respect the actor and pay them accordingly. We as content providers are the ones that need to lead the way," said Dominik Rausch, the series' executive producer. "Everyone is aware there's not as much money in the web world yet, but by showing what kind of result you get with 'Easy to Assemble,' you need a certain amount of money to be able to get that quality."
Ms. Bateman, a broadcast TV veteran of "Family Ties" and "Men Behaving Badly," had been waiting for the web to catch up to TV both economically and creatively. "There's been an incredible amount of money spent on stuff that's just not good on the web," she said. "Everybody dismisses that concern with, 'It's just the internet.' But if people are fronting that they are content creators, let's see your best work. You can still have a compelling narrative, still hire actors who know what they're doing and still get a talented director of photography -- you just need the right resources."
That's why Ms. Douglas and Co. are currently seeking other Swedish sponsors to boost the budget for any future iterations of "Easy to Assemble," but also preserve the uniquely Ikean vibe that has come to inspire the vast majority of Ms. Douglas' storylines ("Co-worker of the year," a contest pitting the show's creator against Ms. Bateman, came out of the Ikea-favored word for "employee"). That limits the pool substantially to Swedish brands that could be integrated without too much intrusion -- Volvo and Skyy Vodka among them -- but opens up the show to more storylines, including flashbacks to the 1970s for fictional in-house band Sparhusen.
"I could see them riding around in an old Swedish Volvo, or show them in a kind of modern house where they could have Ikea furniture from the '70s and have us relaunch products like some really groovy chair in today's market," Ms. Douglas said.
But despite the influx of new fans, there's no rush to take "Easy to Assemble" on the traditional TV route just yet -- especially when the web-to-TV track record has been disastrous. "In the Motherhood," the first web series to be remade into a network show, was canceled after less than half a season by ABC, which abandoned the show's sponsors Sprint and Unilever as well as the user-generated storylines from real moms. Repurposing web content hasn't been any easier, either, as NBC famously proved when it re-aired episodes of MySpace drama "Quarter Life" and canceled the show after two episodes.
Instead, "Easy to Assemble" is being syndicated to more websites and cable platforms to generate more guaranteed impressions for Ikea. This month, the show will be available on Hulu and Roku, as well as Hotel Networks' DoNotDisturb network in more than 2 million hotel rooms. Amazon and iPhone/Boxee applications are also in the works.
"I'd love to get to a point where this becomes a series that starts to reference Ikea less and less but is bridged by an Ikea commercial in between -- like the Colgate Comedy Hour," Ms. Douglas said. "Eventually all entertainment will just be one big box, and all your entertainment will be taken off that box. But advertisers will still want to come to the best entertainment providers, and I want us to be one of the best content providers out there."
Snoring my way to stardomI slept through my web TV debut. And yet, not a single person complained -- in fact, I was praised for my work.
You see, last month I got a chance to go where few media reporters get to go -- on a free plane ride to Sweden with celebrities such as Illeana Douglas, Justine Bateman, Tim Meadows and Disney tween idol David Henrie.
Of course, the "plane ride" was merely a lifelike plane set on a studio in North Hollywood, and it was only free because I had given up an entire Sunday to do some work as an unpaid extra and get in some first-hand reporting from the trenches of web TV. The celebs, however, were real, and we were all a part of "Easy to Assemble," a web series sponsored by Ikea -- hence our destination, the Ikea headquarters nestled in the forests of Sweden.
The sleeping part comes in right around the eight-hour mark of my 12-hour day, when our episode's script called for shooting several scenes meant to take place "at night," as the flight from L.A. to Sweden can run well past the 14-hour mark. I was one of a handful of extras (all of whom were web-TV stars, producers or reporters) essentially tasked with playing "Ikeans," or employees aboard a flight to the Ikea headquarters alongside our celebrity co-workers, played by Ms. Douglas, Ms. Bateman and others.
Our thespian responsibilities were pretty simple -- talk quietly amongst ourselves during daylight scenes, and pretend to sleep during night sequences. Of course, when you have to be in North Hollywood by 7 a.m. on a Sunday, you end up actually sleeping.
So while "Easy to Assemble" cast members such as Eric Lang and Wallace Langham were plugging away on their respective riffs on Swedish pop music and the time-honored sport of "handball" (played with Ikea meatballs), production ground to a momentary halt when the director picked up a distinct snoring sound on set. Turns out a neighboring extra was getting a little too in-character, and needed to take it easy on the method sleeping for the time being. I nodded off, too, and woke up to the director praising us all for excellent napping skills.
So not only did I make it through my first gig as a web TV actor well-rested, I even got a line. OK, it was shared with the entire cast, but it was "We're all going to Sweden!" But tune in to "Flying Solo," a special three-part "Easy to Assemble" miniseries airing Jan. 20, Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 on MyDamnChannel.com, and see if you can hear my voice over my far-more-famous costars. If you can, it'll be even bigger than when my shoulder made a cameo on MTV's "The City" last year.