Lexus is making an ambitious foray into online entertainment with former "Friends" star Lisa Kudrow in the driver's seat.
The carmaker is launching an Internet-only branded channel Tuesday stocked with a full slate of original programming headlined by Kudrow in a shortform comedy series in which she plays a nutty shrink.
The choice of the Emmy-winning Kudrow for the lead role in "Web Therapy" should bring attention to what Lexus is calling L Studio, available at LStudio.com.
But the creation of a marketer-branded broadband channel also is bound to get attention given its only precedent: Bud.TV, a similar venture Budweiser kicked off after the Super Bowl in 2006 only to watch it fail after a reported $30 million investment.
"We learned from some of the mistakes that they made in the beginning," said Sandy Blanchard, owner experience manager at Lexus' marketing division, who oversees L Studio.
Blanchard would not divulge the budget for L Studio but made clear that it is not in the ballpark of $30 million. "We were pleasantly surprised as to what we were able to accomplish with what the budget was and the fact that we have people of the caliber of Lisa Kudrow," she said.
In "Therapy," Kudrow plays Fiona Wallice, a psychotherapist who conducts absurdly abridged three-minute sessions via the Internet that do little to help her clients. She juggles five different clients in 15 episodes, including those played by Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Rashida Jones, Tim Bagley and Dan Bucatinsky.
"This is the kind of idea that's just meant for the Web," said Kudrow, who wrote and produced "Therapy" with Bucatinsky, her partner at Is or Isn't Prods. Don Roos, who directed Kudrow in films including "The Opposite of Sex," directed all episodes of "Therapy."
Kudrow isn't Hollywood's only representative on L Studio. "Sex and the City" writer-producer Amy B. Harris joins the site in October with a scripted series of her own, "Puppy Love," in which she examines the relationships between people and their dogs. Harris recruited many other "Sex" writers to contribute to the 40-episode series. The cast includes Famke Janssen, Janel Moloney and Heather Burns.
In an effort to keep the buzz going for the project, Lexus plans to recruit more celebrity contributors in the coming months. For now, the rest of L Studio is an eclectic mix of high-toned nonfiction programming that concerns everything from art to architecture to science. Some notable figures who are profiled on the site include the Doors' Ray Manzarek and designer Patricia Field.
Taken together, the connective thread between the programming mix and the Lexus brand, Blanchard said, is the theme of innovation. "We kind of look at ourselves as a broadband HBO," she said. "Being on broadband in and of itself is innovative for a lot of these artists."
For marketers, the Internet represents an opportunity to talk directly to consumers in whatever form they choose rather than fit into the 30-second pods or product-integration opportunities that TV networks make available to them. While many top brands maintain elaborate Web sites, few have gone to the length of defining themselves as entertainment channels.
In 2001, another car manufacturer, BMW, played a pioneer role in this form of entertainment, introducing a series of branded short films for the Internet titled "The Hire."
As Bud.TV did with Budweiser, L Studio will not shill for Lexus too emphatically. Most of the channel's programs barely show or mention the brand or specific vehicles, "only when relevant and appropriate," Blanchard said. "We don't want to force it."
But a few shows will contain less oblique references to Lexus. "Parts Art" focuses on three artists who take parts of Lexus vehicles headed for the scrap heap and repurpose them as sculptures. Another program focuses on the formation of the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts' "hybrid living" suite, which Lexus co-sponsors. In addition, L Studio will have links that lead to other sites that offer more direct pitches to Lexus.