Xbox Strikes Out At A Different Game

 I have to give credit to Xbox for something. At its NewFront presentation in the spring, it seemed very much like a content provider. 

Xbox Entertainment Studio chief Nancy Tellem, a former CBS executive and right hand woman to Les Moonves, was up there on stage promoting a bright future for the entertainment arm of Microsoft’s gaming console.  And when her voice got tired, she handed the mic over to Jordan Levin, former CEO of the former WB network and an ace programmer himself.

The NewFront event included a comic—Craig Robinson, late of “The Office” –lending more broadcast network-like patina to the event.  There was even an opening act, the excellent Lake Street Dive quartet, whose Rachel Price sang their hit, “Bad Self-Portraits.”  

That turned to be the most real part of the afternoon, and a dandy bit of corporate foreshadowing.

That’s because Xbox Entertainment more or less has folded—victim of a pretty bad corporate snapshot. It was axed by Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella, as part of a larger corporate haircut of less-than-usual core units that will cost Microsoft 18,000 jobs in total. 

With Tellem and Jordan (and even a Steven Spielberg series, “Halo,” in the works), you’d have thought Xbox, with 48 million subscribers (more than Netflix and HBO),  was going to be the next greatest, improbable thing: A gaming system that become a major content provider.

Nah.

Whatever the heck happened, Xbox disappeared somewhere in the digital Bermuda Triangle.

It’s almost as if it never existed, dead and presumed superfluous to Xbox the gaming company and to Microsoft, the technology company.

You could have seen it coming, says a new opinion piece by The Diffusion Group’s senior advisor Joel Espelien who essayed “A Fear of Commitment” to explain it. To boil it down, Espelien figures that Microsoft realized  what while games are crazy popular, it’s best not “confuse the popularity of games in general with the audience for game consoles in particular, which continues to skew strongly towards young males.”  

He says Xbox had a tough time wooing creatives to go to work for Xbox. Indeed, the only vestiges of the company still intact are producing content that is distinctly game-oriented, including a documentary of the early grand history of Atari.

That TDG analysis sounds right on the button, though somehow still, it seems Xbox is missing a chance.

It has those millions of subscribers, and they do access other content through their device now.  A little push in the content direction might have made sense. Amazon Prime is a pure content provider that had added lots of game opportunities to its service, so, possibly those are not such polar-opposite audiences.

 The Hollywood Report said last week that, indeed, Warner Bros. might be thinking there’s life in that idea. According to THR, Xbox Entertainment would be a nice match for Warner Bros. which has an $18 million investment in gaming site Machinima. And Machinima happens to operate a top app on the Xbox One platform.

It’s also worth noting that in prior lives, both Tellem and Levin worked for Warner Bros.’ units so there is an all-in-the-family feel to this, for what precious little that’s worth in Hollywood. But the Reporter story was mighty tentative, leaving Xbox Entertainment just as it is, for now. And that’s basically, gone.

pj@mediapost.com

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