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Everything you need to know about why Microsoft is getting into the TV business

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

What are Xbox Originals?

Xbox Entertainment Studios has begun development on a production slate of scripted, reality, documentary and feature programs that will begin to roll out on Xbox consoles this summer and continue indefinitely. Microsoft calls them Xbox Originals. These projects will eventually capitalize on Microsoft's library of properties, though most of the shows presented at our media briefing were decidedly smaller endeavors.

Wait, isn't Xbox just a video game company?

No, Xbox isn't solely a games company. It never was. Xbox hardware has always been Microsoft's play for the living room. They're more explicit with their broader strategy now, thanks largely to the advent of streaming media and the ubiquity of computers and high-speed internet.

Over the past decade, games have been a Trojan horse for the company, helping to install what are essentially easy-to-use computers underneath millions of televisions across the world — 85 million consoles, to be precise, according to Microsoft's entertainment and digital media president, Nancy Tellem. And 48 million of the people and families that own Xbox consoles globally have the Xbox Live internet service.

That's not to say games aren't a priority. They very much are, according to every Microsoft representative we've spoken with since Xbox One's launch. Instead, Microsoft wants you to think of television programming as an expansion of what can be done with Xbox hardware. They do games. And they do other stuff, too.

Did you say 48 million subscribers?

Yes, that is the number of subscribed users across Silver and Gold, the two tiers for Xbox Live; it's staggering. Both Tellem and Xbox Entertainment Studios executive vice president Jordan Levin were eager to repeat the number, and with good reason. In television, studios have to worry about who is able to access their show, and how it's curated. For example, not every channel is carried by every cable company. And even if it is, the channel might be buried deep within 1,000 other channels. And then a show might air at a shoddy time on said channel.

With Xbox, the television group not only knows the size of its potential audience, it also has the ability to precisely curate it. In theory, a new show could be the first thing you see when booting up the machine. And it can be viewed at any time, not burdened by air dates and Nielsen ratings.

Here's another way of looking at that number: BBC America's Orphan Black began its second season with an average of 620,000 viewers. If less than 2 percent of Xbox subscribers watched a show — one theoretically advertised on the screen every time the Xbox turns on — then the show would total Orphan Black's viewership.

Got it: Xbox has a huge potential audience for TV. Does Xbox have experience making television?

Sort of. During the Xbox 360's life cycle, Microsoft flirted with interactive television, most notably with an animated version of the game show 1 vs. 100, in which contestants came together from living rooms across the country. The system also once allowed users to watch programming on Netflix with friends across the globe on a virtual couch that resembled the Mystery Science Theater 3000 silhouettes. That option disappeared, rumored to be a casualty of stringent contracts with other content holders. And last year, 343 Industries collaborated on a live-action web series set in the Halo universe called Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.

But mostly, no, Xbox wasn't a television company in the past. If they were dipping their toe in the water before, now they're deep-sea diving.

Since they don't have gobs of experience, Xbox has hired people who do, like Nancy Tellem, who has had an incredible career in television, including serving as president of CBS Television Studios. She was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 2006.

Jordan Levin served as the CEO of Warner Bros. in the era of Buffy, Angel, Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls. More recently, he founded Generate, a cross-media company. So he's been in senior positions for both mediums that Xbox Entertainment Studios wants to merge.

Do any of the shows look good? Like, Buffy good?

Let's just say there's no obvious hit, not yet. The earliest shows feel like stopgap programming, easier- and cheaper-to-produce reality and documentary productions that will serve as proofs of concept for the later, more expensive and time-intensive programming to come.

There's a reality show about an Australian marine who lost an arm and a leg to a shark during a training exercise. Now he will experience firsthand the careers of other people who put their lives on the line to do good: storm chasers, smoke jumpers and — because it's reality television — shark conservationists. Tellem referred to the show as inspirational. It's clear those involved want their shows to have some purpose beyond being mindless brain candy.

There's a six-part documentary series about tech called Signal to Noise that will begin with the story of Atari and the urban legend about the landfill of unsold E.T. Atari cartridges. And there's a series about eight street soccer players that will play in the "shadows of the World Cup." That one's called Every Street United and is a clear play for the global audience — not just us Americans. The footage shown looked like a good 30 for 30 injected with the occasional on-brand marketing shot. "Congratulations," a Surface tablet bleeps at a soccer player. "Xbox is taking you to Rio."

Xbox Entertainment Studios also has comedy projects at various stages of development from Jash and from Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the creators of Robot Chicken. And they've committed to an eight-episode season of Humans, a drama developed by Kudos, which you might know from Broadchurch, and in partnership with Channel 4 in the U.K. The show is an adaptation of the Swedish series Real Humans; it will arrive in 2015.

As Tellem said a couple of times, these sorts of shows take time to develop, produce, promote and distribute. The group at Xbox Entertainment Studios has only been working together for the last year and a half. Levin joined in February of this year. So it's early stages.

Is that all of the shows?

Nope. Xbox has also acquired the rights to Warren Ellis' Gun Machine. It's in the process of getting a pilot. Winterworld by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Jorge Zaffino is being adapted into a limited live-action series.

What about shows based on games?

"There's no mandate to turn these games into series," were Tellem's exact words, which were followed by a promo reel showing clips of State of Decay, Halo, Fable and Forza, and hyped the idea of your favorite Xbox games becoming honest-to-goodness series.

This is purely speculative, but State of Decay seems like the obvious candidate for a number of reasons.

  • AMC's The Walking Dead is the most popular show on cable television, drawing a staggering 15.7 million viewers for its most recent season finale.
  • Why else would State of Decay — a great game, but one not nearly as well-known as the rest of Microsoft's library — be so heavily referenced in their media materials?
  • A zombie TV series would be markedly cheaper to produce than a series set in a sci-fi or fantasy universe.
  • Levin developed The Walking Dead webisodes during his time at Generate.

The point is, Microsoft has a lot of properties that other production companies would pay gobs to license. Mandate or not, they will make these shows. They will try their best — like any other company with a catalog of characters that appeal to a young, male demo — to replicate Marvel's success, milking everything fans love for everything it's worth. This isn't a Microsoft thing; this is a state of the media thing.

I could swear there was a Halo show. Or was it a movie?

There's a Halo television series and a Halo "feature."

The live-action series will be executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, in collaboration with 343 Industries — the company that handles all things Halo — and Amblin Television, the studio that handles Spielberg's TV projects.

I put "feature" in quotations because Tellem and Levin are dodgy about what "feature" means. Is it a movie? Will it be in theaters? All we know is it's a standalone project executive-produced by Ridley Scott and David Zucker, and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. It will be released later this year, so let's assume we'll see something about it at E3.

What is the difference between a program that is committed and a program that is in development?

A committed project has made its way through the many complicated stages of development and has been approved for full production. Xbox Entertainment Studios has already committed to producing a handful of series and documentaries, and a digital feature. Signal to Noise and Every Street United are committed projects.

A project that's in development may never receive a full production. Hundreds of shows and films are in development each year at dozens of studios, only to never be seen by the public. Development can mean a studio has optioned the rights to a property, that they've hired someone to write a script or that they want a pilot episode, so they can see what the final product would look like. Development doesn't guarantee commitment. For example, the Jash project is in development. They will shoot a pilot in June, after which Xbox Entertainment Studios will watch that pilot and decide whether or not they'll commit to a full series.

Does this mean Microsoft is competing with Amazon and Netflix or Time Warner and Comcast?

If you ask them, no. You can get Amazon and Netflix on the Xbox, and the HDMI-in option on Xbox One has allowed users to voluntarily funnel cable into their machine. As they see it, if you're watching television or streaming movies on Xbox, they've already won.

And yet, that logic doesn't hold much weight. More and more televisions have Netflix and Amazon built into them. Entertainment hardware, like Apple TV and Google's Chromecast, is considerably cheaper than an Xbox. It's hard not to look at Microsoft's television slate — and its other applications and capabilities — as enticement to spend the extra money and make their machine the one you keep plugged into the living-room television.

As Levin put it, they're not just competing with video providers; they're competing with music, games, the internet and everything else for the most valuable commodity: your time.

Can they compete?

This week, Amazon spent a rumored $300 million on a three-year deal to stream HBO's older shows. Netflix is rumored to have spent $50 million on House of Cards' first season. The famed "Blackwater" episode of Game of Thrones cost $8 million alone; the average price for an episode is a paltry $6 million. All three networks, along with Hulu and a handful of other competitors, have already developed multiple seasons of television shows, along with the structure necessary to produce so much programming. These companies, along with Showtime, FX and AMC, and the broadcast networks, attract a great deal of talent.

If Microsoft is competing, they have to cover a lot of ground quickly just to catch up. This initial set of shows is interesting, but again, there's no House of Cards, no Arrested Development; there isn't even a Betas.

Neither Tellem nor Levin would outright say Microsoft is prepared to invest the sort of money Netflix and Amazon have into production. But they did claim the company is incredibly supportive of the initiative, and that they will be able to compete when it comes to attracting talent.

Is there anything that separates Microsoft television from normal television?

No one would commit to specifics, but there's a fascination within the company to make use of the Xbox hardware's interactive features. For example, Tellem loves Game of Thrones, but would like its second-screen features to be made available immediately, not after the show airs. When discussing Fearless, the show about the Australian marine, Tellem speculated the viewer could cue up alternate shots, or interact with an online community of good-doers covered in a specific episode.

Switching cameras? How would that work in a television series?

Maybe novel ideas like switching cameras would work in a reality series; maybe it wouldn't. It does seem like an ideal fit for live event coverage.

What are you getting at?

This summer, Xbox Originals will stream Bonnaroo, the ginormous summer concert. Now that Coachella is popular with our parents, it might have looped the cultural loop into cool again. Viewers will be able to switch between stages, and queue up to interview bands backstage via Skype. Gimmick? Without a doubt. Step in the right direction? Absolutely.

So who gets to watch these shows? And how much will they cost?

According to a Microsoft representative, "All of our original content will be available for Xbox One and Xbox 360 users through Xbox Live."

Tellem believes the programming airing this summer will be available to all subscribers, but that's not confirmed. Whether you will need a Silver or Gold subscription, and for which shows, is still undecided. It's also likely that some shows will air outside the Xbox ecosystem. Tellem and Levin want the programming that airs on Xbox to be exclusive or for Xbox to be the best experience, as in, viewing a show on Xbox will somehow be different and superior to watching it elsewhere.

One last thing. Is it just me, or are all of these shows really... young and male?

Funny you should mention that. When arguing that Xbox isn't in direct competition, Levin pointed out Xbox will cater to a "focused" market. Where Netflix and Amazon want to reach a massive audience, Microsoft is developing for the coveted Millennial demographic. There was a bit of verbal acrobatics around the word "male," which sometimes was used and other times wasn't.

Yes, there's a clear audience here: young men. It will be interesting to see how that audience changes — if it changes — over the next few years, as the production slate expands and Xbox Entertainment Studios appeals to all 48 million subscribers, not just the dudes.

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