The shows, tech and reasoning behind Microsoft's grand experiment with television

This summer 85 million people will get a chance to see what Microsoft thinks a TV channel for gamers will look like.

Starting in June, Xbox Entertainment Studios will begin to roll out their original programming on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One through Live. The early shows include plenty of Halo, a sci-fi drama about robot servants and the potential for television shows based on best sellers, graphic novels and, of course, more Microsoft-owned video games.

That suite of streamed documentaries, comedy, drama, features and reality shows was shown off last week in a loft rented by Microsoft, just blocks from where crowds of movie-goers were packing the streets and theaters for the Tribeca Film Festival. The two hour meeting wasn't meant to reveal a massive new brand or even detail the full scope of the ever-growing project, but rather to set the stage for what is shaping up to be a massive Microsoft endeavor.

Formed in 2012 to create interactive television content for Xbox Live, Xbox Entertainment Studios is spearheaded by former CBS Television Studios president Nancy Tellem, who is now Microsoft's entertainment and digital media president. And it was Tellem and Xbox Entertainment Studios executive vice president Jordan Levin, who sat down with a gathering of journalists last week to walk them through this most significant push by Microsoft to enter the world of television production.

Starting up

What drew both Tellem and Levin to this relatively new initiative was the chance to step outside the bounds of the seemingly immovable rules of the world of traditional television.

"My problem is I was probably always five or six, or 10 years ahead of my time," Tellem said. "I spent a lot of time in San Francisco going back and forth with the tech companies trying to figure out how all this was fitting in, and kind of the perfect match was when I had this opportunity to start Xbox Entertainment Studios for Microsoft. And this has been an amazing year and a half. And the cool thing about it for me is, it's like, it's effectively a startup that's obviously well financed with a company backing you, but, certainly, we face all the same challenges as any startup, both externally and certainly internally."

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Another attraction was and is Microsoft's relatively massive reach.

"When you look at all the challenges that these, either cable providers or satellite providers, have, the first challenge is how do you get these people to connect," Tellem said. "And we have 85 million global connected devices. Then you have about 48 million subscribers, which, relative to what cable channel or even a Direct TV service, that exceeded it. And not only that, it's a global network, so a lot of it was my own discovery of certain assets that were, at Microsoft, viewed much more through gaming, which obviously is an amazing process and incredibly important to the console business."

Add on top of that the reach of MSN and, Tellem says, when you "look at Microsoft as a whole, from the morning to the night, we touch about a billion people a day.

"From my traditional media standpoint, it completely blew me away, but when you look at the technology and how you can deliver video content differently, you start obviously with really premium content," she said. "That's one thing that we feel really strongly about, and then you add, in a very organic way, interactive features that will enhance the social community, that enhances transactional, if indeed that's something people want to do, and enhance the narrative and storytelling. And those are our focuses."

Content

First and foremost comes the shows. Tellem, who helped create such landmark TV as Friends and ER, knows content is king in the world of television.

During a thirty minute or so video mix of both glimpses of and inspiration for new shows, Tellem and Levin talked about the Xbox's first line-up.

There's Signal to Noise, six documentary films overseen by the duo behind Searching for Sugarman and Man on Wire, that explores the influence technology has had on humanity. Both for better and worse. There's a live concert, a street soccer reality show, both a Halo series and a Halo feature, and one new drama, a sci-fi show based on the Swedish series Real Humans.

This first slate of locked down content will be augmented by a number of shows currently being piloted. Those pilots include a couple of original comedies and shows based on graphic novel Winterworld and another based on novel Gun Machine.

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And of course the group is already looking beyond the next year, looking at how they can attract talent in an environment that now includes original programming from the likes of not just HBO and Showtime, but Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.

"Jordan and I have spent a lot of time in our business," Tellem said. "So (attracting creatives) starts with personal relationships. As fare as financial commitment, we certainly are not limited. It's a big company and it ranges, like certain projects you really want to invest heavily in, others it's not warranted. So we cover the entire range and we view ourselves as more of a premium cable offering."

And because this is content rolling out on a gaming console and not a cable box, Microsoft can be creative in how they release it.

"That's also what's fun about this," Tellem said. "This isn't season by season in a traditional television way. We're looking at what makes the most sense with respect to our schedule. We're looking at the entire year, and we also are looking at game releases, which obviously attract a lot of the subscribers and figuring out how that will work with the introduction of video content. So it's driven by a lot of different considerations. Not really akin to a traditional media schedule."

Interactivity

One of the biggest differentiators that the Xbox has over a cable box, especially the Xbox One, is the ability to do things other than stream content. The Xbox One's Kinect is stuffed with cameras and microphones. The consoles can use tablets as a second screen. And the team at Xbox Entertainment Studios are already looking into how they can make use of that.

Last week they even debuted an early experiment at the Tribeca film festival, a set of movies which allows the audience to have a direct, real-time impact on how they play out seamlessly.

"It's really interesting, it's called Possibilia," Levin said. "We funded it. It was a way for us to explore the production process of interactivity, and, at the core, it's a very simple, relatable emotional story about a relationship, and a relationship in crisis, and the way in which the man and woman see the dissolution of the relationship through their own eyes. You start to lock into one of their point of view, you can make choices along the way based on what you would think about something, and that leads you to form that point of view towards the relationship."

How much and where you can watch

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While there were plenty of things that Microsoft was willing and able to talk about at last week’s meetings, two big question remained unanswered: How much will this cost viewers and where will they be able to watch it besides their Xbox-connected televisions?

In terms of the cost of this content, whether these shows will have to be purchased or if they will require a paid Xbox Gold membership, or if everyone with an Xbox 360 or Xbox One can watch them, Microsoft’s entertainment and digital media president Nancy Tellem said all of that is under discussion right now.

In terms of the coming summer content, Tellem added that the "hope is, for example, with both Bonnarro and Every Street United, everyone will be able to see that."

And what about viewing these shows if you don’t have an Xbox One, or want to take a show with you as you travel?

Both Tellem and Xbox Entertainment Studios executive vice president Jordan Levin said it’s likely these shows will air outside the Xbox ecosystem. For instance, the UK’s Channel 4 will be broadcasting some of the shows. That said, this is a program designed for Xbox.

"What we say is, either it’s only on Xbox or best on Xbox," Tellem said. "Our hope is that we can actually go off our platform to introduce Xbox originals to people that are not even aware of Xbox."

That idea, then, can be extended to start to react to an audience, with the help of the Kinect camera.

"I mean, there's so much that can be done, and again, the question is, starting out and what we kind of look to in the future," Tellem said. "I think we had our interactive guys here. They pitched us a lot of amazing things, like when you're watching a horror show, during which I have a tendency to cover my eyes, so when they see you covering your eyes, the volume goes up, or they can tell you, ‘Put your hands down.' So those are the interactive things that they can actually play with you."

On a more basic level, there will be shows that allow viewers to change camera angles.

For instance, Fearless, a series about an Australian who survived a shark attack and now joins people on their harrowing jobs, had involvement from the interactive team from the beginning.

Levin said the team focused predominantly on two areas: providing multiple, controllable camera angles in these dangerous situations and allowing viewers to explore some of the jobs and situations examined in the show.

"So, learning more about those causes, being able to connect to community in and around that cause, that's sort of the other core focus on interactivity right now," Levin said. "And again, until we see it, we're not gonna really know if it works or not. We don't want to just put it out there and have it feel like something that's, ‘Oh, it's pretty mediocre,' but at the same time, we do want to put certain things out there just to get feedback."

Another area in which Xbox Entertainment is exploring is how viewers will communicate with one another. One of the issues of having shows that don't "air" at a particular time, is figuring out how you can allow them to share their experience.

"We're working on a feature of time shifted comments, so, because of the challenges of VOD, we want to make sure, or we hope, when anybody tunes in to watch it, it's as if it's fresh," Tellem said. "So the idea that people are commenting, the idea that you'll be able to access those very comments as you're watching and experiencing it at the same time.

"A lot of the things that we're working on are experimental. We have something that, we haven't started but is like an awesome button, where people can react and communicate that way as opposed to tweeting or communicating. So, anyway, we're playing with a lot of different things, and obviously, based on how everybody responds, we'll refine it, and, but again, from my standpoint and I think from Jordan's, it really starts with, starting with content that's compelling."

We'll learn

While both content and innovation are core differentiators for the Xbox's take on television, the most important element is the philosophical approach Microsoft is taking to this endeavor: It's not meant to be in competition with video games, HBO or even Netflix, it's just one more option for people who own their console.

"So actually they enhance, we kind of view this as an environment to attract more people, and, if Netflix has something, it's a win for us," Tellem said. "So I don't really view them as competitors, since they're on our platform. I think we're looking at what we can produce that really caters to our subscriber base."

And, Levin points out, those other content creators don't have the focus that Microsoft's endeavor has.

"They're trying to capture everyone," he said. "They don't have the demographic focus that we're approaching."

Microsoft, both Tellem and Levin were very clear to point out, are chasing the millennials.

Tellem calls the millennials the "most sought after, targeted group" for programmers and advertisers. They're also the group most invested in new technology and most quickly moving away from traditional television

When pressed for a better description of a millennial, asked specifically if that was a male aged 18 to 34, Levin said it wasn't "exclusively" men, but "primarily, we think millennial is male 18 to 34, but we don't want to do anything that's going to be inhibitive to women because the balance is more than you would think."

But Tellem was quick to point out that the percentage of females on Xbox is "very high, close to 50 percent."

And ultimately, Tellem said, that won't matter because successful shows are driven by rich storytelling and wonderful characters that appeal to both, like Game of Thrones.

"This is the fun challenge of it, is just being able to really understand how you drive that kind of audience and try to be as inclusive as you can," she said. "And we'll learn, also, that's a lot of it is, as you can see, we're throwing a lot of broad swath of programming, and, as we say, this is kind of a journey for us, and we'll learn."

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