Sunday, July 27, 2008

SNL Stars Wait in "The Line"--Will their online series take off?

Sure they're big on Saturday Night Live, but will Bill Hader and Seth Meyers' new 11-episode video series The Line be a hit online? Should they let their geek flag fly free?
Josh's girlfriend is breaking up with him on the sidewalk: "Josh, this is hard for me, okay? I mean, we were together for a long time..." His gaze shifts across the street to his friend, who is frantically waving at him from in front of a movie theater. Josh, trying to hold on to his relationship, has vacated the coveted spot at the front of the ticket line for Future Space, a huge sci-fi blockbuster debuting in 11 days, and a trio of jealous line-campers are about to enforce the "five minute rule" and usurp his position. "Just give me one..." he pleads as he dashes back to tag his territory and restart the countdown.

Josh is played by Bill Hader, best known as an impressionist on Saturday Night Live and for his roles in Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He co-wrote the series with SNL writer Simon Rich, while fellow SNL performer and head writer Seth Meyers directed. Here's a clip from episode two, "The Five Minute Rule:"

Unlike TV, the short format of online video doesn't give writers time to muck around--you've got to hook the viewers in the first episode (3:19 in this case), get them to tune in again and bring their friends. The first episode, which debuted on July 22, started a little slow, as Josh and his friend Duffy, who camped in line together in high school back in 1996, set up their spot at the front of the line. We are introduced to three guys dressed in white jumpsuits as "The Triplets of Cybar" (or are they costumes?) whose running joke is that they are supposed to speak with "one mind, one voice" but the third guy always ends up missing his cut-off cue and rambles on. So far, it's not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Guild or Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which I wrote about two weeks ago, but as with those series, it's starting to pick up steam in the second episode. In this episode, which was posted on July 25, Josh is literally dumped--his girlfriend played by Liz Cackowski (who also played his wife in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) has unloaded all his worldly possessions on the sidewalk in front of the theater.

Unlike Felicia Day's The Guild, which was self- and PayPal-financed, and Dr. Horrible, which producer Joss Whedon hopes will make money via iTunes and DVD sales, The Line, produced by Broadway Video (Lorne Michael's company), features product placements for upcoming Columbia Pictures movies (owned by Sony, which is sponsoring The Line). These placements are both subtle and jarring--I was puzzled when another camper randomly starts talking about his step brother, until I finally noticed on the third viewing that the camera had panned down to them from the movie poster for Step Brothers.

The series is posted to Crackle (Sony's site), Hulu (a partner of Sony), and YouTube, where they can be viewed with advertising. However, it's not clear why it is posted at YouTube at two channels: Crackle's Cspot channel with ads, and TheLineFutureSpace without ads (Perhaps they are in a catch-22 here: they want to track how much of the volume is based just on The Line, as opposed to the strength of the established channel, but new channel TheLineFutureSpace doesn't have the subscriptions or viewership alone that would qualify for ads).

Also, the YouTube tags for the series feature the Judd Apatow movies Hader and co-star Joe Lo Truglio have appeared in (like the upcoming Pineapple Express which will also be plugged in the series), but I don't see any evidence that The Line is being marketed to it's most natural demographic: fanboys. Hader is an avowed Star Wars fan and both he and Meyers are huge comic book geeks, as demonstrated by the video below from Wizzard TV. Day, who wrote The Guild based on her addiction to World of Warcraft, networked with her fellow gamer geeks to the hilt to get her show noticed. Hader and Meyers ought to play up their nerd cred to get more viewers, but it's like they are ashamed to have their secret identities outed to the mainstream, where they are currrently regarded as cool (you can just hear the fanboys now, calling out "Gooble gobble, one of us!")

Finally, if they are going after Judd Apatow's demographic (a frattier group of kids), why not put this on SNL alum Will Ferrell's site Funny or Die, where Apatow's already got a presence? The product placement in the series supports Columbia Pictures, which is part of Sony. The fact that they don't makes me think Sony sees the series as more than just a commercial for their movies; it's real content and part of a play to build up the channels they have a stake in, Crackle and Hulu.

There is a plethora of web video experiments going on this year and writers, producers, networks, and web portals are trying to figure out the best formats for storytelling and making money with web video. As it is, episode one of The Line has had 14,000 views in five days and the episode two has had 10,000 in two days across and both YouTube sites; about 70 percent of the views are from the CSpot channel on YouTube which has 10,000 subscribers. Dr. Horrible had two million views on three episodes in a similar time period, so it's not a lot. Network TV will cancel a show after one episode if the ratings aren't high enough. Fortunately for Hader, Meyers, and Broadway Video, they're not on network TV and these fledgling online networks have nothing to lose by leaving their videos up while The Line builds an audience. Nonetheless, let's hope the marketing and storyline for the series gains more momentum.

Episode 1 (7/22) Episode 2 (7/25)
YouTube: thelinefuturespace 432 130
YouTube: Cspot 9,178 7,701
Crackle 4,460 2,326
Total on 7/27 14,070 10,157

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