Big Web Series Emerge Around Marquee Names

No longer the guy with his webcam, these have strong production values and big-name talent

The glut of big-name original Web programming announced at the “digital newfront” presentations is solidifying around some key shows­—one of which wasn’t even at the presentations. Warner Brothers has “low seven figures” invested in its very popular series H+, a J.J. Abrams-ish sci-fi serial on YouTube and produced by X-Men and The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer. “We weren’t ready,” sighed Lance Sloane, head of digital development for Warner. “We really wanted to be a part of that, but we just had to sit there and bite our tongues.”

Sloane’s series with Singer is just one of the big-name shows entering the digital world: Yahoo has Electric City, with Tom Hanks producing and starring, as well as Anthony Zuiker’s upcoming Cybergeddon.

The obvious has become clear in hindsight: Consumers really like production value. Much has been made of the slick look of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which Seinfeld and pals like Ricky Gervais riff for the cameras, although that show is very quiet about its resources—episodes don’t include production credits, and requests for comment on this story were politely declined. That H+ figure—between $1 million and $2 million—is far below what you’d see spent on a full four-hours-and-change of science fiction on a cable network, but it’s a lot more than a guy-talking-into-his-webcam series costs.

Comedians doesn’t have visible ad partners (although it would be a great campaign for the National Coffee Association), but Cybergeddon has an integrated sponsorship with software maker Norton and H+ has airline Lan Chile.

And some production value is just elbow grease. Eva Davis, evp and gm of Warner Premiere, who oversaw the project, said that the H+ team had to go all the way to Chile. “In a relatively small circumference of geography, we were able to get office buildings and forests, and there’s a set piece in a parking lot,” said Davis. “So in Santiago or just within a few miles of it, we were able to get all of that.”

Warner Premiere is going away—its core business, direct-to-DVD movies, has fallen on hard times—but H+, with 3.1 million views and 67,000 subscribers, is definitely not. The show has changed hands to Warner Digital Distribution, and Sloane said that the unit’s Web series have a bright future ahead of them. Ironically, H+ is among YouTube’s most popular shows, despite the fact that it didn’t get promoted at the newfronts.

“Needless to say, we’re really happy,” said Sloane. “The sales people internally are really interested in it. We started out of the gate when we launched the series. It was sorta nebulous in a way, but it’s grown quickly in the last few weeks.”