Get The Office At Your Office

7 minute read
James Poniewozik

The Office is an acutely funny workplace sitcom in which the cubicle prisoners fight wrenching boredom and dream of escape. By happy coincidence, that describes many actual offices, minus the acutely funny part. So NBC is giving real workers an escape this summer–by offering new episodes of the show to watch online, in the comfort of their own cubicles.

Starting July 13, The Office will begin streaming 10 2-min. “webisodes” through nbc.com Think of them as The Office, the downsized version. The cast is smaller: the plot follows the supporting characters of the Dunder-Mifflin paper company’s accounting department as they track down $3,000 missing from the books. Most important, from the network’s standpoint, the budget is smaller. “I don’t even know if we had a budget,” says executive producer Greg Daniels. “It’s more like an extra fee.” Chalk up another irony for The Office: you have a big year, and the boss asks you to work overtime for peanuts. But the webisode project is less a comedown than the highest-profile example of the race at the networks to bring the small screen to the even smaller screen, fast.

How fast? Just a year ago, the big networks were debating whether it was worthwhile to sell shows on iTunes. Millions of downloads later, CBS has launched an entire broadband network, Innertube, at cbs.com on which can be seen sketch comedy, reality makeovers and chat shows for superfans of Survivor and Big Brother. In June NBC Universal debuted online channels for gay programming outzonetv.com and reruns of critics’ favorite series (brilliant but cancelled.com) ESPN, Comedy Central, MTV, Discovery, HGTV and more have broadband channels. (On Animal Planet’s, you can watch Web-exclusive series Pet Trends for the latest in canine fashion and high-end doggie snacks.) Canceled shows are getting second lives online (CBS’s Love Monkey), while new shows pull double duty (NBC’s 30 Rock, about a sketch-comedy show, will run webisodes with skits from the show-within-a-show). NBC and CBS are even planning online-only reality shows from, respectively, record producer David Foster and Survivor honcho Mark Burnett.

Burnett’s show is called Gold Rush, and that’s pretty much what’s going on here. NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker says digital ad opportunities were “all advertisers wanted to talk about” before this spring’s “upfronts,” where the networks announce their fall schedules to Madison Avenue. Who can blame them? According to technology-analysis firm Forrester Research, 28% of U.S. households had broadband access in 2005–and that’s not counting access at work, which is prime time for online TV. (When CBS streamed NCAA basketball this spring, it included a “boss button” that fans could use to instantly hide the game under a bogus spreadsheet.) More viewers are skipping TV ads using TiVo or other recorders, whereas webisodes are usually preceded by a brief, unskippable ad. Meanwhile, the ratings of even hit shows have shrunk over the years, and some of those former viewers are having affairs with their desktops.

That’s especially true of youth–one reason MTV launched MTVU Uber, an online-only channel for college students. It also goes for upscale viewers like The Office’s, who downloaded the show in droves from iTunes. Still, says Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff, the more mainstream online video becomes, the more viewers of all ages and income levels use it. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Preparation H or sports cars,” he says. “Your audience is online looking at videos, so you want to be there.”

The question is what to draw them with. “Online is the Wild West,” says Zucker. “There are no rules yet.” More precisely, online is Deadwood: a mother lode of new riches, with big companies trying to muscle in on the prospectors. (Or buy them out: Carson Daly just signed a development deal with 20-year-old YouTube comic sensation Brooke [Brookers] Brodack.) Online, the competition is not just CBS and Fox: it’s college kids on MySpace and raunchy comedy sites like collegehumor com The networks can’t take as many risks online–even though the FCC can’t touch them there. Daniels considered letting actors swear in the Office webisodes but says he didn’t think “people wanted to hear their favorite characters shouting profanities they wouldn’t hear on the regular show.” Advertisers sure wouldn’t; one reason they’re urging the networks online is not to have their mutual-fund spots run next to a home movie of a baby farting on YouTube.

Instead, networks are trying to capture the spirit of what makes the Web distinctive. Part of that, says Brian Graden, entertainment president of MTV Networks music group, is a first-person point of view. “If we do a Top 10 music-video list,” he says, “it won’t work as well as if we offer Snoop Dogg’s list of his favorite Top 10.” Short works best too–that quarterly planning meeting is in 10 minutes!–and maybe for that reason, comedy, which also relies less on impressive visuals, plays better than drama (though ABC is working on cell-phone mini-episodes of Lost).

Online shows need to be cheap, of course, because they still don’t draw as many eyeballs as prime-time TV; they may get costlier, however, as actor and crew unions discover there’s money in them. So they can risk seeming like low-rent, store-brand versions of “real” TV. An Office webisode screened at the upfronts was funny, highlighting the show’s richly drawn supporting players, but fans of star Steve Carell will be disappointed to find he’s not in any of the episodes. (His character, boss Michael Scott, is referenced, though; an accountant catches him having expensed a J. Crew receipt as “lunch.”) Only a few network sites re-create the joyful weirdness of the best amateur viral video; Comedy Central’s MotherLoad site, for instance, has Golden Age, a hilarious True Hollywood Story parody about the tragic lives of fictitious celebrity cartoon characters. Other sites are filled with extras that are geekily appealing (Sci Fi Network’s site reveals how prop masters create futuristic beverages for Battlestar Galactica) or superfluous. (Does anyone really need to delve deeper into My Super Sweet 16 online? It’s like scuba diving in a teaspoon.)

You can make the argument, though, that originality online–as on TV–isn’t always the best business. Disney, for example, has resisted doing original Web video for ABC and the Disney Channel, but it’s had huge success airing online reruns. Besides the popularity of Lost online, the Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody started getting its best TV ratings ever after airing episodes online. “This validates what we already knew: that broadband does not take away from television,” says Disney–ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney.

Maybe not, but it could ultimately meld with TV. After all, if you have a cable modem, you already get your Internet and TV through the same pipe. A decade from now, there could just be longer and shorter shows from the same companies (NBCUniversalYouTube, say) that you play on your HD video wall, telepathy phone or iPod contact lens. Or, at least, online and TV could well be separate but more equal. To advertisers, who still pay for most of TV, a picture is a picture. “We’re not really calling it TV anymore–it’s video,” says Jeff Minsky, director of emerging media platforms at advertising agency OMD Digital. Call it what you want, the future of TV is coming soon to your screen. And your other one, and your other one, and your other one.

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