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Disney takes big plunge into online video

Times Staff Writer

Eighty years after the 7 1/2 -minute cartoon “Steamboat Willie” helped launch the career of a certain iconic mouse, Walt Disney Co. has returned to its short-form roots with the debut of a digital studio that will develop original content for the Internet.

Stage 9 Digital Media, quietly in the works for two years, will be unveiled today with the premiere of “Squeegees,” a comedy series about window-washer slackers, on ABC.com and YouTube. It is the first of a planned 20 online programs currently in development.

“We’ve all seen the appeal of short-form content grow over the past few years,” said Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group. “The launch of this experimental new media studio allows us to play in this space with some quality content, while giving us an interesting venue for telling stories in a different form.”

ABC Television Group joins a growing number of TV studios, including CBS and Warner Bros., that have set up separate digital creative teams to produce the kind of instant-gratification videos that are popular online, especially among young viewers who can no longer be counted on to watch the networks’ prime-time shows.

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ABC deliberately kept its digital initiative under wraps until it was ready to debut its new online shows.

Statistics show that the number of people watching online videos, and the amount of time they spend, is rising, along with the sheer volume of things to watch. “Younger audiences, particularly 18- to 34-year-olds, have very different media consumption habits than do older audiences,” said Will Richmond, a media analyst and editor of the online publication VideoNuze.

Advertisers, which have been reluctant to promote products alongside potentially explicit or offensive amateur video, are similarly eager to find more established media players online. Toyota Motor Co. will sponsor the initial 10-episode run of “Squeegees” to tout its new Corolla model to young car buyers. Each episode runs about three to five minutes.

At the moment, at least, Disney and the other studios do not have a lot to risk financially by trying to create short-form shows for the Internet. An online series can be produced for as little as $200,000, whereas one episode of a sitcom can cost 10 times that amount.

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“When a major broadcaster does something like this, it shows this is now regarded as a key priority for them,” Richmond said. “Going forward, I expect this type of activity is only going to accelerate.”

Mark Pedowitz, president of ABC Studios, said discussions about forming a digital studio started after ABC struck a deal in 2005 to sell digital downloads of some of its most popular television shows, including “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” through Apple Inc.'s iTunes store.

The studio took shape under the radar, even as Stage 9’s first attempt at original Internet programming -- a comedy called “Voicemail,” which explores the opportunities gained or lost in the space of a missed phone call -- was showcased alongside other network television shows on ABC.com.

Pedowitz said Stage 9 would make it possible to experiment with new forms of storytelling, cultivate young talent and incubate franchises that might someday graduate to the bigger screen, namely TV. And because the financial risks are lower, there is greater creative freedom. The goal is to bridge the gap between the irregular quality of amateur video and traditional television shows.

“We’re hopefully taking their storytelling, in conjunction with our collaboration and our production values, to give the audience something more than they’ve seen before,” Pedowitz said. “We have a pretty good track record of delivering pretty good product to the audience.”

So far, however, original online programming has yet to produce its own version of “The Office” or “Ugly Betty.”

“We’ll see how this Stage 9 agenda unfolds and see if what they do actually sticks with audiences,” Richmond said.

Barry Jossen, who won an Academy Award for his live action short film “Dear Diary,” has been tapped as general manager of Stage 9.

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He said he had been scouting for talent in some unusual places. He found Handsome Donkey, the comedy team behind “Squeegees,” in a New York Times Magazine article about budding online auteurs.

And Shane Felux, the producer of Stage 9’s forthcoming science-fiction thriller “Trenches,” was initially a hit with the Comic-Con comic book convention crowd, winning acclaim for the fan film “Star Wars Revelations.”

Aaron Greenberg, a former associate producer of “My Name Is Earl” and one of the four members of Handsome Donkey, said the production deal with Stage 9 gave the comedy troupe the financial backing to devote itself full time to “Squeegees.” And even a budget for some niceties, such as an actual set.

Working with an established media company like Disney brought some of the structure of traditional television production, which entailed pitching a concept, developing an outline, turning in scripts and making revisions based on notes. There were also certain creative taboos, like profanity.

“We couldn’t just go around doing whatever we wanted to do, but that’s not really our instinct anyway, to do really crass stuff,” Greenberg said. “We didn’t really feel restricted.”

Greenberg said the group was also given a good deal of autonomy.

“In terms of the day-to-day, we were left on our own to sink or swim,” Greenberg said. “We may have dipped below the surface once or twice, but we’ve come out on top.”

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com


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