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Originally published Monday, April 7, 2014 at 6:47 PM

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New game for Xbox: original TV shows

Six full series that Microsoft has committed to include programs whose executive producers are Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott.


Seattle Times technology reporter

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It wasn’t so long ago that broadcast and cable networks were just about the only companies vying to produce original programming.

Now more and more tech companies want in on the action, from Netflix and Amazon.com to Microsoft, Sony and, reportedly, Yahoo.

Microsoft’s efforts will accelerate in June with the debut of the first of its new spate of original programs greenlighted by Nancy Tellem, who came to Microsoft from CBS about two years ago to spearhead the effort to create more original content for the Xbox platform.

In June, Microsoft will provide live event coverage from the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee.

Also to debut sometime this year is a tech-focused documentary series produced by Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn of multiplatform media company Lightbox. The first installment tackles the urban legend that in 1983 video-game company Atari had buried millions of its not-well-received, unsold “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” game cartridges in Alamogordo, N.M.

Those are two of the six full series that Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios, under Tellem, has committed to. The other four are:

• A “Halo” TV series with Steven Spielberg as executive producer.

• A “Halo” digital feature executive produced by Ridley Scott and David Zucker.

• “Every Street United,” an unscripted series about street soccer.

• “Humans,” a drama series set in a parallel world where families own robot servants, produced by Kudos, a U.K. company, and presented in partnership with U.K. broadcaster Channel 4.

“Humans” is to debut in 2015; the others do not have set debut dates yet.

Microsoft has three other series in the early stages of development :

• A sketch-comedy show with comedy collective JASH, founded by Sarah Silverman and Michael Cera, among others.

• A hybrid stop-motion animation project by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, creators of the TV show “Robot Chicken.

• “Fearless,” an unscripted series starring Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy bomb-clearance diver and shark-attack survivor.

It’s all part of Microsoft’s push to create more original content as consumers increasingly use cloud services and mobile devices, as well as set-top boxes, to watch TV.

Creating original programming is not new for Microsoft, which in years past has produced the digital series “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn” and “Halo: The Animated Series.”

But the plans accelerated in 2012 with the hiring of Tellem, former president of CBS Network Television Entertainment Group. She became Microsoft’s president of Entertainment & Digital Media, overseeing a new production studio — Xbox Entertainment Studios — in Los Angeles.

Tellem told Variety last year that developing the original programs was taking longer than planned, but that she hoped to launch the first of the programs in the first or second quarter of 2014.

Microsoft is seeking to differentiate its shows by focusing on the interactive potential of the Xbox platform and the company’s mobile devices.

“We are exploring all forms of content, focusing on how we can make it more engaging and accessible through multiple devices,” the company said in a statement.

New shows, the company said, are developed with interactivity in mind from Day 1.

“Our creative teams sit down with our developers and engineers as they begin ideating on a show at the start — that’s a very different approach,” Microsoft’s statement continued. “Specific interactive elements will vary based on what makes sense for each show.”

Such interactive elements might include extra scenes and minigames for the series “Every Street United” or ways to follow the characters outside the show “Humans,” according to a Bloomberg News report, which also noted the programming is targeted at the Xbox 18- to 34-year-old, male audience.

Microsoft has long been trying to position its Xbox console as not just for gamers but also as a hub of living room entertainment. These days, it’s moving toward pushing its Xbox Live service and Xbox platform as a hub of entertainment accessible through mobile devices.

But the battle for the living room, and for people’s entertainment attention, has been heating up.

Netflix and Amazon already are producing their own original content, with Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” generating buzz.

Last week, Amazon.com introduced its own set-top box last week — the $99 Fire TV.

Sony, meanwhile, announced last year that it would be creating original programs for the PlayStation and last month ordered its first original series for the platform.

Yahoo is reportedly close to ordering four Web series, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The push to create original content comes with the evolution of how people spend their time on their devices: watching movies and TV shows, interacting with the content and with others.

“It’s a natural extension that these technology companies want to provide content that match these activities,” said Brian Blau, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

Plus, “having this type of original content is one more pillar that these companies can stand on to differentiate themselves from the guys down the block,” he said.

It’s also a way for them to try to get users to stick around and become brand-loyal, and, by extension, to entice developers to create apps and other content for their platforms.

The more “sticky” or engaging the companies can make the content — by providing must-watch shows or must-play exclusive games — the more the opportunity to sell products and services to users over time.

“There have been some success the last few years,” Blau said. “But it’s still very early days. They’re all getting a feel for what it is. They’re all trying to figure out a way to find the content, deliver it, and figure out cost effective ways to do it.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.



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