Google Hopes to Make a Splash With ‘Poptub’

LOS ANGELES Google is mounting another experiment in content distribution that might be even more ambitious than its recent launch of original animation from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.

The Internet giant quietly launched a video series Sept. 8 on its YouTube property called Poptub with Embassy Row, the production company run by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire creator Michael Davies, and Pepsi.

As it did with MacFarlane’s Cartoon Cavalcade of Comedy, which became an instant hit on YouTube, Google plans to distribute Poptub on its Google Content Network, an ad network that provides the additional reach of hundreds of thousands of Web sites beyond YouTube.

But while Cavalcade is simply a collection of 50 short-form episodes, Poptub is intended as an Entertainment Tonight for the YouTube set that will yield thousands of episodes, not to mention a more curated point of entry to YouTube, which it has been criticized for lacking.

“For Seth, it’s about launching episodes on a weekly basis,” said Alexandra Levy, director of branded entertainment at Google. “With Poptub, we’re creating an organic destination on YouTube meant to live there for a longer period.”

Both Cavalcade and Poptub are employing Google’s branded entertainment program, which allows content providers to bring in an advertiser to finance programming that gets distributed over what Google calls its “hub and spoke” model. The hub is a channel on YouTube, and the spokes are in GCN, the countless selection of Web publishers that can be demographically targeted.

GCN embeds the video on these Web pages in Google Gadgets, applications that allow viewers who sample an episode to link back to the “hub” channel, where they can sample more programming and marketing messages from the sponsor.

Combining GCN and YouTube provides a one-two punch for knocking out the primary concern advertisers have about funding content online: guaranteed reach. Poptub alone pledges to deliver 3 billion impressions by year’s end.

Beyond satisfying advertisers, Google’s branded entertainment program could also entice more programmers to try online by offering monetizable distribution with the scale of TV or film while retaining ownership of intellectual property.

“It allows a content creator like Seth MacFarlane to do what he does best and forgo the traditional network model, connect with an audience of similar size and turn a profit,” said George Strompolos, manager of content partnerships at YouTube.

That said, Google is not about to load up on new content additions. Despite strong sampling for Cavalcade, the company is being selective about admitting partners to the branded entertainment program. Earlier experiments with GCN, which previously delivered ads in strictly text or static images, did not do as well as Cavalcade, including a 2006 trial with MTV Networks.

Poptub deliberately was kept under the radar so that it could build a following on YouTube before broadening its exposure on GCN. While there’s been a trickle of Poptub ads on GCN, Google and Embassy Row are waiting until there’s more momentum on YouTube before going wider.

After a month in operation, Poptub has more than 100 content segments produced, with several released each day. The programming mix ranges from cheeky interviews with YouTube-bred sensations such as Obama Girl and What the Buck host Michael Buckley to more conventional red-carpet coverage of Hollywood releases including Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. There’s also a weekly ratings report that ticks down the top draws on YouTube.

Poptub is something of a reconstituted version of The 9, a daily Web series Embassy Row produced that Yahoo! hosted exclusively until canceling it in April after a successful 18-month run. Leftovers from 9 include sponsor Pepsi and on-air host Maria Sansone, but Poptub differs from its predecessor in one crucial regard: Its coverage of pop culture is heavily weighted in favor of the homegrown personalities popular on YouTube rather than the typical Hollywood household names.

“In our world, Michael Buckley is just as important as the stars of Entourage because on YouTube they’re as big as each other,” Davies said. “Buckley may be even bigger.”

As of Oct. 13, Poptub had a modest 3,594 subscribers on YouTube. That number could climb when its GCN component begins. But for all the reach Google’s advertising network has, there are critics who contend that it doesn’t deliver in another crucial Madison Avenue metric: engagement.

“It’s the old way of doing content syndication,” said Jennifer Cooper, CEO of social media company Mixercast and the former director of a similar ad network at Yahoo!.

Dan Goodman, president of the digital division at Media Rights Capital — which brought together MacFarlane, sponsor Burger King and Google for Cavalcade — begs to differ. He credits GCN for driving much of the traffic to YouTube, where more than 112,000 people who watched Cavalcade programming signed up as subscribers to the SethComedy channel.

“One of the things we’ve been extremely surprised about is the community that has built around the show on YouTube,” he said.