Yahoo’s Mayer Looking for TV-Sized Hit

Company talking to top Hollywood studios and agents

At CES, Marissa Mayer had some fun hanging out the cast of Saturday Night Live. Turns out, she wants her own 30 Rock.

The Yahoo CEO is aiming big when it comes to original programming. Per multiple sources, the company is talking to various studios and talent agencies in Hollywood in search of a breakthrough series project. Ideally the company would like to develop around three half-hour comedy series that it would present at this year’s NewFronts in New York. While nobody at Yahoo is talking about spending House of Cards, Netflix-type money, Yahoo—under Mayer’s direction—is seeking a buzzy hit that would change the way Yahoo is perceived in the market by consumers and advertisers.

One producer estimated that Yahoo may be looking for projects in the range of around $200,000 an episode. But another offered: “Think at least [along the lines of] cable budgets, in the range of $1 to $2 million an episode.”

“This isn’t Netflix, but it’s along the lines of what Amazon is doing,” said another.

Mayer appeared at last year’s NewFront in New York, where she showcased Yahoo’s comedy lineup for this past fall. Included were a slew of projects developed under former Media head Mickie Rosen, and ex-Yahoo head of video Erin McPherson, who’s now running content at Maker Studios.

Yahoo’s fall lineup included lots of short-form comedy that looked and felt like celebrity side projects, inspired by its success with Burning Love, a Bachelor parody developed by Paramount. Among the new shows were Ed Helm’s action spoof Tiny Commando and the Jack Black-produced Ghost Ghirls. While these shows have received some critical praise (the puppet cop show The Fuzz just won an industry award), the overall lineup—while produced on a tiny budget—has generated little to no buzz. And worse, Yahoo had a ton of trouble selling the shows to brands.

But instead of bailing on originals, Yahoo may be doubling down. Mayer believes that given Yahoo’s huge daily audience, the company can pull off a big hit along the lines of Netflix’ Orange is the New Black or Arrested Development. And since her initial focus on mobile technology and reinvigorating Yahoo’s engineering, Mayer seems enamored with Hollywood and stars—see the Katie Couric deal and the SNL pact.

“Marissa knows that shows like Tiny Commando are never going to be seen as more than cute by some people,” said an L.A.-based production head. "She wants something big and traditional TV. A smart comedy.”

Yahoo declined to comment for this story.

Of course, there are hurdles to clear and skeptics to convince. For one, Mayer has been looking to hire a new media executive for nearly six months; she’s been talking to a variety of big names from the TV world. Presumably, whoever is hired would need to be on board with this new programming strategy.

Per sources, Mayer has had some difficulty hiring a programming executive in part because this person would likely have to report to COO Henrique de Castro, who's under pressure.

Plus, there’s the matter of getting people to watch this new slate of higher-profile shows. More than a few Web programming executives complain about the lack of support for Yahoo’s current originals and the imperfect user experience on Yahoo Screen, the company’s video hub. “Discoverability is a huge problem,” said a top production executive. “I can’t believe she’s OK with it.” According to one agency exec, the team behind Jack Black’s Ghost Ghirls has been particularly frustrated. And, speaking of discoverability, the less said about the Yahoo Screen Apple TV search functionality, the better.

Other content executives complain that Yahoo is schizophrenic when it comes to programming, saying it wants "cool comedy" but then is constantly feeding the homepage with generic news and entertainment clips.

Of course, all that could change if Mayer gets behind a big show. “She could make sure it’s on the Yahoo home page,” said a source.