Branded: Reeling in the High Hopes

According to reports from the recent 3GSM world congress on mobile entertainment in Barcelona, attendees were giddy with talk of delivering original programming via cell phones, a new $50 billion industry. Apparently there are about 2 billion of these tiny screens in the world, which is about double the number of TV households in the globe.

Not surprisingly, big-time producers and networks like Disney and Fox were circling like vultures in Barcelona, looking to strike deals with mobile operators like Vodafone and Verizon, essentially hoping to lock up this new industry, as they have already locked up the TV business, thus becoming the gatekeepers in the new nano net.

Meet Joachim "J.B." Blunck, senior vice president of digital content for Bunim-Murray Productions, creator of "The Simple Life" and MTV's "Real World." Blunck will spearhead M Theory Entertainment, a new spin-off of B-M. He represents a new breed of independent producers, galloping beyond network TV toward the wide open spaces of the Internet, video-on-demand, podcasting, and mobile phones, and asking advertisers to ride along. Producers not named Mark Burnett are tired of being shut out of the product placement budgets hoarded by the networks.

While many producers are still focused on creating the next "Desperate Housewives" or "The Apprentice," Blunck sees these new platforms as unfettered access to advertiser dollars. "Traditionally, we've made shows at the beck and call of our client networks," Blunck says. "The prospect of [expanding the pipeline] to broadband, iPods, and cell phones gives us the opportunity to circumvent traditional distribution and create our own channels."

Basically, Blunck hopes that producers and advertisers can partner to claim a stake in this new media turf before the big boys fence it in and parcel it out for premium dollars to the clamoring sodbusters. Blunck wants to own the ranch, not rent it.

Blunck and his partners at B-M have created Hams.TV, a vote-in talent show, to which people can send in 30- to 90-second jokes, songs, and pet tricks. The project will launch online and migrate to cell phones via Amp'd Mobile, the wireless network aimed at the youth market. Amp'd has a deal with Verizon Wireless to provide broadband-quality content on its phones in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. will be brand-sponsored, says Blunck, who can't resist pointing out that B-M was one of the pioneers in TV brand integration with its long-running "Real World" franchise.

Before you dismiss Blunck as a naïve dreamer, he readily acknowledges the challenges that producers will face. "Getting it out there is one thing; getting people to see it is another thing entirely," he says, referring to today's splintered and cluttered media marketplace.

Most people in Hollywood are either good at cutting deals or creating hit shows. Blunck has done both, mainly for Rupert Murdoch, for whom he won an Emmy for Fox's "The Reporters." His current effort centers on repurposing byte-sized snippets of B-M's TV franchises, including "The Simple Life," episodes of which have been popular cell phone downloads for the past 18 months.

Of course, Apple upped the ante in its deal with Disney/ABC to sell downloadable episodes of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" through iTunes. Not missing a trick, MTV is now selling episodes of the Bunim-Murray-produced "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" on iTunes. B-M does a Web show for MTV Overdrive called "The After Show," an interview-driven postmortem of "Challenge."

Blunck's efforts could be characterized as aggressive but cautious. Reality king Mark Burnett, working on the Web-based "Gold Rush" for AOL, has proclaimed the Internet the next broadcast network, and the efforts of former ABC programming honcho Lloyd Braun to create network type-type programming on Yahoo, albeit on a less ambitious scale than originally indicated, have raised expectations. But Blunck isn't buying all the hype just yet. "I'd love to do a sitcom on the Web, but I can't afford $1 million per episode. At this point in time, we're not convinced that throwing shows up there will work." For now, he's looking for advertisers to partner with him on projects like Hams.TV.

He's not alone in cautiously exploring the new frontiers of video delivery. Verizon Wireless recently announced that it's mulling a two-tier mobile phone video service, including an ad-subsidized model that would be cheaper for consumers.

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