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Television's New Frontier

From ”Halo” to ”Hotwives,” an ambitious slate of new digital programming promises to redefine how we watch TV

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Think The New York Times is a newspaper? No way, it’s a TV network. Think Yahoo and AOL are sites where you (used to) check your email? Don’t be silly: They’re TV networks too! Same with Hulu, Microsoft, YouTube, and even EW’s corporate parent, Time Inc. They were all pitching Madison Avenue on diverse varieties of video series last week at the “NewFronts,” which is what the Interactive Advertising Bureau has dubbed a slew of annual presentations from new(ish) media companies courting ad buyers. In short, it’s the online answer to the decades-old broadcast-TV “upfront” pitches to would-be advertisers later this month.

You’ve probably already noticed that practically every website is trying to push you to watch its videos. It could have something to do with national online-video ad sales jumping 44 percent last year to $4.2 billion. Now every company wants to be the next CBS. What this means for you: new shows, a lot of them, scattered all over the place. Microsoft has a live-action series produced by Steven Spielberg based on its hugely popular Halo videogame franchise. Hulu has its Real Housewives spoof The Hotwives of Orlando, starring Happy Endings‘ Casey Wilson and The Office‘s Angela Kinsey, which starts streaming in July. Yahoo unveiled its first two full-length scripted-series orders, including Other Space, a futuristic comedy from Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig about a group of explorers who stumble upon an alternate universe. And AOL has a staggering 16 series in production, including Park Bench, on which actor Steve Buscemi has unscripted conversations with fellow New Yorkers, and the ongoing series city.ballet, where executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker explores the backstage world of the New York City Ballet.

Ad buyers are drawn to streaming content because they can snag younger viewers who aren’t watching traditional TV — cord cutters and so-called “light viewers,” notes Horizon Media ad buyer David Campanelli. Online series also tend to have nonskippable ads, and fewer of them — so there’s less chance of your message getting lost in the cacophony. The downside is that while Internet shows often have much smaller viewerships, online ad rates can be as hefty as those for prime-time shows. “I can reach a couple million people in one night watching Fargo on FX that would take a month to reach with an online show,” says Campanelli, who added that he was nonetheless particularly impressed by AOL’s slate.

So where is all this headed? With so much investment flowing into online TV start-up efforts, expect Web productions to get increasingly lavish and to draw bigger-name talent. But also expect to be totally confused — there are hundreds of cable channels, plus Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, and now all these other outfits. Who can keep track of every available option and method of access? How many memberships and access boxes are we going to need to simply watch some quality television? “It’s not a new problem — how did the Golf Channel get people to tune in when it [launched]?” counters IAB president and CEO Randall Rothenberg. “Marketing can handle a lot of that.”

In time, the deluge of new digital content could also erase our current notions of what makes for good TV. The usual genres — the drama, the sitcom, the reality show, the talk show — will share space with curious new alien forms. “You’re going to have a broadening spectrum of types of content,” Rothenberg says. “The video universe is increasingly multidimensional, with formats that don’t even have names yet.” The New York Times is offering Verbatim, for example, where members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe read legal transcripts. Microsoft’s presentation included Possibilia, starring Girls actor Alex Karpovsky, an interactive romance where viewers decide which path a story takes. Or how about the bulk of BuzzFeed’s 1,600 viral videos, such as one that measures the average human life span using jelly beans?

Next up in NYC: Broadcast TV will present its fall wares. Okay, so a 16th season of NBC’s Law & Order: SVU isn’t very sexy, but at least you know where to find it.