Amid Upfronts, Brands Experiment Online

Meet Simon, a laid-back groom who’s in way over his head in the world of wedding planning. And meet Rochelle, a budding bridezilla prone to shrieking meltdowns over flower arrangements. Watch these two head toward the Big Day, mockumentary style, and wackiness will no doubt ensue.

That’s the premise of a new series called Road to the Altar from MWG Entertainment, a Los Angeles digital production house that has gathered Pier 1 Imports, iRobot and Panda Express as brand integration partners and got semi well-known actors like Jaleel White (Urkel from Family Matters) and Leyna Weber (of Days of Our Lives) as stars. But don’t look for the show on any of the broadcast or cable networks. It’s available via YouTube, Joost, Sling and various mobile platforms.

The series is part of a burgeoning trend that has marketers partnering with Hollywood producers to embed their products into digital entertainment as a low-cost, low-risk addition to broadcast or cable. As the TV upfronts stall and ad budgets contract, marketers may increasingly turn to this kind of tailor-made entertainment that they can own, surround and promote.

For example, NBC Universal’s digital unit this winter presented a slate of in-development programs to advertisers, opening up those pieces of content early in the creative process to brand integration. So far, there’s a deal with Coca-Cola’s Nestea for placement in a short-form series called CTRL. More such alliances are in the works. Kraft’s Tassimo, Unilever’s Suave, AT&T and Procter & Gamble’s Tampax are stitched into online films that blur the line between selling and entertaining.

In some cases, such programs are drawing audiences on the scale of broadcast shows. Haute and Bothered, a Web series backed by LG Mobile and produced by Alloy Media + Marketing, has been viewed by 6 million people so far, and In the Motherhood, a Web series backed by Sprint Nextel and Unilever, racked up 17 million hits before hopping to TV as a short-lived sitcom. The yardstick used depends on the brand, but industry vets say that between 15 million and 20 million views for an eight-to-10 Webisode series is considered a hit.

The appeal for such vehicles is obvious: Industry veterans say it costs anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 per episode to produce an original Web video series, with distribution and promotion costs usually double that amount. When it’s finished, there’s an hour or more of entertainment that can appear on multiple platforms, such as in-store networks, e-mail, blogs, mobile devices and interstitials for TV. In comparison, a traditional TV spot can cost as much as $1 million just for production, not including media buys.

On the downside, there’s a risk that no one will tune in. For instance, episode 1 of Road to the Altar, which launched in mid-June, has so far only gotten about 3,000 hits on YouTube. For their part, the networks don’t appear too worried about the competition yet. “They’re not diverting substantial dollars, but they’re dabbling and they’ll continue to do so,” Mike Davis, executive producer at Brand Arc, a branded entertainment firm, said of advertisers. “As the eyeballs justify the spending, they’ll funnel more into this area.”

That said, marketers that are dabbling in Web-only series are wary of repeating the errors of Anheuser-Busch’s Bud.TV, a $30 million attempt to turn the site into an entertainment portal. Keeping costs down (the production value on some online shows appears to be one step above Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space), getting some well-known (but cheap) stars and tapping existing well-trafficked Web channels are three ways marketers are hedging their bets.