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Video Game Reality Show Jumps From CBS to Machinima

Bunim/Murray-produced The Controller showcases EA's Medal Honor Warfighter
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Last year, Electronic Arts partnered with CBS and famed reality production shop Bunim/Murray Productions (The Real World) to launch a unique Web-based reality series centered around the EA video game Battlefield 3, dubbed The Controller.

But for season two, YouTube gaming powerhouse Machinima took over the distribution rights, exercising its growing clout in the market.

Last week, the first two episodes of season two of The Controller debuted on the Machinima Prime channel, with the first already exceeding 430,000 views. Episodes three and four will premiere today, with 14 episodes scheduled in total.

“Season one was great. But this year a big player in the business said, ‘hey, I want that show,'” said Daniel Tibbets, Bunim/Murray's svp of digital media of Machinima’s move to grab the show away from CBS Interactive. In 2011, CBS ran 10 episodes of The Controller on Gamespot.com and the Gamespot YouTube channel.

That's not how CBS sees things. According to a spokesperson, CBS had first right of refusal for season two, but elected to pass. According to sources close to the network, the show proved costly while delivering a smaller audience than expected. Of course, some might contend that CBS was unable to deliver the gaming audience that Machinima—with it's nearly 4.8 million YouTube subscribers—can

Last year, the show pitted six professional video game players against six reality TV stars, competing over Battlefield 3 for a $50,000 prize. This time around, it's YouTube stars taking on military operations professionals in both real-world shooting challenges as well as the game Medal Honor Warfighter, which will hit stores on Oct. 23.

That timing is deliberate. In season one, The Controller reached over 4 million unique users, according to Tibbets. But after a hot start (1.3 million views for the first episode) on YouTube, the show averaged less than 200,000 views per episode before gradually fizzling out—in part because Battlefield 3 was released midway through the season. “People didn’t come back once the game came out,” said Fabian Andre, Bunim/Murray's evp of business development.

Besides scheduling tactics, Andre said that the Bunin/Murray team learned that some of the classic reality TV tricks don’t work with this gamer audience. “They don’t need a lot of exposition,” he said. “That’s helpful in traditional reality TV, but not here.”

On the flip side, product placement—sometimes an awkward fit in reality TV, works great on The Controller, since the show is essentially about people playing a much-anticipated game sequel. Other brands receiving the product integration treatment are Slim Jim and AMD (EA handled all ad sales for the show, as well as much of the content production). “In TV, visually product placement just doesn’t always operate that well,” said Andre. “That’s what’s beautiful about this show.”