The new made-for-mobile series "Interns" launched yesterday on Playboy's mobile Web site and iPhone Web app. As these things go, it is unremarkable, but the execution actually does show some insight into how mobisodes might work. Years ago, in the early days of VCast, at least one or two providers tried to create reality and scripted TV mobisodes. My vague recollection of these early misfires was that the setup was too complex, the cast of characters too vast for mobile. Vuguru's "Prom Queen" series got a modest following on phones, but I found that series overwrought and cluttered with too many storylines and characters to work as a mobile snack.
Someone at Playboy may have been taking these lessons to heart, because "Interns" is stripped-down TV, simple enough for a drunken undergrad to grasp quickly. Aiming squarely at the college crowd, the series puts three cartoonish undergrad interns into the Playboy marketing department to get their butts kicked by a gorgeous hunk of a male boss. There is no mistaking who these people are -- or at least what types they represent. Ashley loves rich men and wants to be a star at all costs. Horny Charlie wants in at the Mansion. And bespectacled geeky Wesleyan grad Jon is just trying not to get stuffed by Charlie into a locker. Playboy, which has always been brilliant at inoculating itself from the most obvious criticisms, set this trio up as such silly and shallow self-parodies, it almost seems pointless to bash them.
Early attempts at mobisodic programming from pioneers like Fox Mobile tended to misuse the small screen. Long shots, quick cutting and dark scenes are virtually unwatchable on most handheld displays. "Interns" is shot and cut with mobile in mind, although it too suffers from framing and editing that taxes a smaller screen. The medium-framing seems to presume an iPhone widescreen, and some of the text overlays are just too small. Nevertheless, the first episode, which sends our crew to the streets of New York to find Playboy's 100th Cyber Girl, is sculpted nicely for a four minute mini-sode. The situation is set up in seconds, the challenge is simple enough to encapsulate in 30 seconds of street time, and the resolution back in the office plays out cleanly. The launch episode has a story arc, and the storyboard progresses in a simple way that makes the full episode watchable. The sequence feels longer than it actually is, which probably is a good goal for mobisodic programming.
Lessons learned? You can't be too simple and uncluttered for mobile video. There is an art to this, but it requires starting with a limited set of elements -- characters, tensions, events -- so that each gets enough time to play out in a limited space.
That being said, it is too early to tell whether the core content is substantial enough to make "Interns" compelling. Despite their cartoonish qualities, the cast is not showing signs of great liveliness or conflict. The boss seems too supportive. He actually gives lessons to the interns on more sensitive ways to refer to women's anatomy and perceived flaws. Yeah, I know. Having a Playboy marketer instruct others on gender sensitivity is like, well, Hugh Hefner arguing for women's rights in The Playboy Philosophy decades ago. It is as intellectually dishonest as it is perversely brilliant.
There is also the issue of distribution, which remains the Achilles heel of mobile media generally. The series lives on the Playboy mobile sites, and the current issue of the magazine is promoting it through an MMS photo opt-in. Snap the "Interns" logo from the page and send it in for a WAP push. If you go into the mobile sites at the front door, however, I am seeing no alert mechanism for reminding me each week a new episode has arrived.
Playboy mobile director Ed Lang tells me that MMS opt-ins should be getting episode alerts. Playboy says it is being distributed as well through something called the "Playboy Audience Network" that includes MyWaves, Zoovision and other Quattro Wireless partners, but so far there are no signs of the show in the wild. It doesn't show up in a Truveo mobile video search either. It would be interesting to see a full court press of a mobile video series that pulled all the levers now available to the mobile Web. We need to get a better sense for how specific content properties might or might not bubble to the top of this nascent eco-system.
By keeping it on its own reservation, however, Playboy's "Interns" is able to surround the video content with supporting material that gives the series heft. There are profile pages for the cast as well as trailer and cast intro videos that flesh out concept and character, although not by much. Playboy might want to follow the good example set by auto marketers and their very good micro-sites. Give mobile users the option of drilling very deeply into a property and they might surprise you. Give them a feedback and sharing mechanism, neither of which is very apparent right now, and you may spark a viral mobile hit.