The glittering lights of Hollywood are attracting another Internet giant: Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.
Two productions launching today highlight how MSN is accelerating its courtship of traditional media players, even as such rivals as Yahoo Inc. scale back their entertainment-industry ambitions.
This morning, “The Big Debate,” the first of 10 planned MSN Originals shows from hotshot television producer Ben Silverman, will make its debut on MSN Video. The three-minute Web series, scheduled to run five days a week for the next month and sponsored by Cingular Wireless, features two comedians debating celebrity and entertainment news.
Then, at tonight’s Golden Globe Awards, MSN will be the only Internet portal allowed on the red carpet and in the press room, offering exclusive video of arriving celebrities and interviews with award winners. Citigroup Inc. is sponsoring MSN’s Golden Globes website.
“It gives you that up close and personal feel that may not come across in a linear program,” said Michael Mahan, senior vice president of corporate development for Dick Clark Productions, the show’s producer.
The moves follow a flurry of entertainment-related activity at MSN. In recent months, the portal bought online syndication rights for the canceled sitcom “Arrested Development” and struck deals for Web-only shows with NBC Universal and such producers as Silverman, whose company, Reveille, has backed “The Office,” “Ugly Betty” and “The Biggest Loser.”
“It’s become clear to us over the last six to nine months that the Hollywood community is really excited to work with MSN and sees our excitement for this space,” said Rob Bennett, MSN’s general manager of entertainment and video services.
MSN is betting that short, slickly produced videos will attract enough audience and advertisers to recoup its costs.
Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only Internet player courting Hollywood to improve its online video offerings. They all want a bigger piece of the $20 billion that advertisers are expected to spend online this year.
With 14.2 million U.S. visitors in December, MSN Video is the fifth-most-visited video website, behind YouTube, Yahoo Video, AOL Video and Google Video, according to ComScore Media Metrix.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo blazed a road to Los Angeles in November 2004, when Lloyd Braun, the former chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, was hired to create the Yahoo Media Group in Santa Monica.
Braun originally hoped to bring big, TV-like productions to Yahoo, but he scaled back his ambitions and launched only a few small Web shows, which were created with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” producer Michael Davies and incorporated amateur video.
Braun left in December after a corporate reorganization greatly reduced his responsibilities, but Yahoo is still pursuing partnerships in Hollywood, such as the contract it renewed this month to promote NBC Universal’s “The Apprentice” online.
Time Warner Inc.'s AOL has also plunged into entertainment. It sells downloads of movie and TV shows through AOL Video and has tried its hand at producing entertainment. Some, such as the Network Live concerts service, didn’t catch on.
Others have been big hits, including the TMZ.com celebrity news site, live music on AOL Sessions and “Gold Rush,” an online game show from “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett.
AOL today is announcing its own awards-show coverage, featuring an Academy Awards pool, the latest Oscar odds by a Las Vegas bookie and a blog by “Project Runway” winner Jeffrey Sebelia about red-carpet fashions.
Google is another major player in online video distribution. Its search engine, YouTube video service and targeted advertising system make it an attractive partner for TV networks -- which are investing heavily to improve their own Web operations.
Todd Chanko, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said the Web has yet to produce a genuine hit show. He questioned whether MSN could make it happen, saying such efforts are far from Microsoft’s core competency in software.
“This is the company that gave us Windows, Word, Excel and other artifacts of modern business life,” he said.
Allen Weiner, an analyst with research firm Gartner Inc., doesn’t expect the original shows to drive MSN’s traffic much closer to YouTube’s 29.6 million monthly visitors anytime soon. But he said Microsoft has one advantage over rivals: its connection to the television set through products such as the Xbox game console and the Windows Media Center software for PCs and through video-delivery software it is creating for set-top boxes.
“Microsoft has a bigger stake in the broader distribution ecosystem,” Weiner said.
“They have the pieces to make this successful. They’ve not shown, to date, the ability to put all those pieces together. But they’re there.”
Bennett and other MSN executives have logged thousands of miles flying between Seattle and Los Angeles to brainstorm with Silverman’s team and court other producers for their MSN Originals slate of Web shows.
In December, they hired MSN’s first L.A.-based deal maker: Sharon Martin, who had worked at Amp’d Mobile, Creative Artists Agency and Messina Baker Entertainment.
MSN rolled out several series last year, including “Fan Club: Reality Baseball,” which let fans choose starting lineups for a minor-league team, and “Be Jane,” a home-improvement series for women.
“A lot of people have a view of Microsoft as just a software company, but I was very pleasantly surprised about how creative they are and how willing they are to support smaller companies with good ideas, especially in the area of entertainment,” said Eden Jarrin, chief executive of Be Jane Inc., a Burbank production company.
Microsoft won’t reveal how many people watch its Web shows, but Jarrin said “Be Jane” viewership on MSN is surpassing what she would expect if the show were on cable TV.
“Does it rival a top video on YouTube? Not necessarily,” she said. “But you’re also talking about something that’s more consistent over a long period of time.”
That dynamic has attracted advertisers such as Bank of America, which hired Be Jane to create home-improvement programs to promote home-equity loans on the bank’s website and MSN.
NBC Universal Digital Studios, which creates programs for the Internet and cellphones, sold “A Big Life With Sissy Biggers,” a show about entertaining and decorating, to MSN in November. NBC Chief Digital Officer George Kliavkoff said Friday that MSN just bought a second season and lined up Hewlett-Packard Co. as a sponsor.
“MSN gets great traffic,” Kliavkoff said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to figure out a commercial relationship where we can tell a great story and they can wrap marketers around it.”
MSN has made its biggest original programming bet so far on Silverman’s Reveille, which in May signed what it called a multimillion-dollar deal to develop 10 MSN Originals series.
Reveille plans to seek TV deals for the most successful and share the profits with Microsoft. Kraft Foods Inc. sponsored an earlier online collaboration between MSN and Reveille, a cooking site called “Chef to the Rescue Featuring Cat Cora.”
“We are spending tons of time and energy, and we’re committed to growing this because we believe it’s part of the future,” Silverman said.
“We’ve kind of gone to online university.”