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Xbox Originals TV to fill the gaps between game launches


Xbox has a place for original television, wedged somewhere between major game releases. Of course, we can't get away with just calling it television - Xbox Entertainment Studios is making "premium television experiences," said president Nancy Tellem, who joined Microsoft in 2012 after heading up CBS. It's the kind of "network that probably none of you watch," she told a group of journalists in San Francisco earlier this month. We must have had the scent of cable cutting about us.

We also heard from Jordan Levin, the studio vice president and former CEO of WB Network, where he shepherded shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls." Levin sounded cautious about the first-year slate of Xbox Originals, which will bring a considered mix of original documentaries, reality shows and episodic fiction to Xbox 360 and Xbox One starting in 2014. "We're both not delusional about how tough it's going to be, and how long it's going to take," he said, framing Xbox Originals within the domain of premium cable. "We aspire not to talk down to this audience."

Both are certainly sold on the numbers available to them through Xbox: 85 million consoles, 48 million Xbox Live subscribers, hours and hours and hours of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video consumed, and "all the assets of Microsoft at out disposal," Tellem said. These numbers and the "gamer" audience tied to them are the most concrete directive I could discern from this early Xbox Originals showcase. The consumer-facing end of it – the cost, the quality, the distribution – is in progress or just plain wishy-washy. And what's a "premium television experience" anyway?

These are the confirmed shows coming to Xbox Originals so far, as described by Microsoft:

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"Halo" television series

The "Halo" television series is a groundbreaking original series based on the award-winning "Halo" franchise. Award-winning filmmaker, director and producer Steven Spielberg will executive produce the live-action TV series, created in partnership with 343 Industries and Amblin Television.

- "Every Street United"

"Every Street United" is an unscripted series of eight, thirty-minute episodes and a one-hour finale, featuring legendary soccer players Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids, focused on the global search for soccer's most gifted and undiscovered street stars scouted across eight countries (United States, England, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, Ghana and South Korea). The series culminates this July in a 4v4 street game finale in the shadow of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.

Each episode will feature unique and incisive narratives about the grassroots street stars and the communities that shaped them. Industry veteran and eight-time Emmy-Award winning producer, director, writer and editor Jonathan Hock ("Streetball," "30 for 30: The Best That Never Was") is directing the series. Emmy-Award winning producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media are executive producing. Professional soccer luminaries, Henry and Davids, will serve as coaches for the 4v4 street game in Rio. "Every Street United" will premiere in June 2014. All episodes will be available through Xbox Video for Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8 (PC and Surface) and Windows Phone 8.

- Bonnaroo

Xbox owners around the globe can experience the magic of the 13th annual Bonnaroo music and arts festival with a live concert destination on Xbox Live Friday, June 13 through Sunday, June 15, 2014, brought to viewers in partnership with Superfly Presents. With the Bonnaroo app, fans can enjoy live music like never before, with a virtual experience featuring the best performances, multiple stages, biggest artists and amazing SuperJams, and explore this year's lineup to see the best of Bonnaroo's past with exclusive performances. Fans can also join the conversation with fellow virtual-Bonnaroovians and get connected to their friends and the festival. Xbox is the exclusive broadcasting partner for Bonnaroo and the only location to get all of the interactive features.

- "Signal to Noise"/"Atari: Game Over"

Xbox is creating a new six film documentary series, "Signal to Noise," (working title) with two-time Academy Award winning producer Simon Chinn ("Searching for Sugar Man" and "Man on Wire") and Emmy winning producer Jonathan Chinn (FX's "30 Days" and PBS's "American High"), through their multi-platform media company, Lightbox. The series will expose little known stories of how modern technology has radically altered the way we interact with our world.

The first installment, "Atari: Game Over" (working title), explores the fabled Atari mystery, dubbed "The Great Video Game Burial of 1983." As the legend goes, the Atari Corporation, faced with overwhelmingly negative response to the E.T. video game, disposed of millions of unsold game cartridges by burying them in the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Fuel Entertainment took an interest in the legend, and in December 2013, with help from local garbage contractor Joe Lewandowski, acquired the exclusive rights to excavate the Alamogordo landfill. Fuel Entertainment then brought the opportunity to Xbox Entertainment Studios. The team will head to the landfill in question to determine if the story is true, interviewing a cast of characters related to the game and its mystery along the way. "Atari: Game Over" is directed by writer/director Zak Penn ("X-Men 2," "Avengers," and "Incident at Loch Ness"). It will air exclusively on Xbox One and Xbox 360 in 2014.

- "Humans"

"Humans" is a bold new drama co-produced with UK broadcaster Channel 4. Award-winning UK production company Kudos ("The Hour," "Utopia," "Broadchurch") will produce the hour-long, eight-episode series, which will share a premiere broadcast window on the Xbox platform and Channel 4 in the UK in 2015.

Executive produced by Jane Featherstone ("Life on Mars," "Broadchurch") and Derek Wax ("The Hour," "Sex Traffic"), and written by British writing team Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley ("Spooks," "Spooks: The Greater Good"), "Humans" is an English-language adaptation of Sveriges Television and Matador Film's acclaimed Swedish series, "Real Humans." "Humans" is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a 'Synth' – a highly-developed robotic servant eerily similar to its live counterpart. In the hope of transforming the way they live, one strained suburban family purchases a refurbished synth only to discover that sharing life with a machine has far-reaching and chilling consequences. Casting for "Humans" will begin in May 2014, and production will commence later this summer.

- "Halo" digital feature

343 Industries and Scott Free Productions are creating a "Halo" digital feature to be released later this year. The project will be executive produced by Ridley Scott and Scott Free TV President, David Zucker. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan ("Battlestar Galactica," "Pillars of the Earth," "Heroes") will direct.

These, on the other hand, are "in development," near or at pilot stage:

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- "Fearless"

"Fearless," (working title) is an unscripted series currently in pilot production starring Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy bomb clearance diver and shark attack survivor who takes on an adrenaline-fueled quest to aid individuals who risk their lives to make the world a better place. "Fearless" will be produced by Australia's International Emmy-Award winning production company, Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ).

- "Gun Machine"

Xbox Entertainment Studios acquired the rights to "Gun Machine," a hardboiled detective thriller based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Warren Ellis. Ellis will executive produce with Brett Conrad ("The Killing," "Sons of Anarchy," Netflix's upcoming "Marco Polo") who has signed on to write the pilot script about a detective tracking a serial killer who is tied to a mysterious collection of guns used in infamous New York murders.

- Untitled JASH Comedy/Variety Half Hour

In this unique comedy format developed by Xbox Entertainment Studios with JASH (a comedy collective founded by Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Tim and Eric and Reggie Watts), the biggest names in comedy will showcase the people that make them laugh. Each week, a different comedian will host/curate a show featuring new and unsung talent, in various video formats. Sarah Silverman will host the pilot episode and Daniel Kellison ("Late Night/Late Show with David Letterman," "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Crank Yankers") will executive produce. The series has a pilot commitment and will begin shooting in June.

- "Extraordinary Believers"

Xbox Entertainment Studios is developing an innovative, hybrid stop-motion show dubbed "Extraordinary Believers" (working title) with Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, creators of the Emmy-Award winning "Robot Chicken," the longest running stop-motion show on television. The executive producers on the project are Seth Green, Matt Senreich, and creators/writers/executive producers are Eric Towner and John Harvatine IV.

- "Winterworld"

Xbox Entertainment Studios and IDW Entertainment are co-developing a limited event live-action series based on Chuck Dixon and artist Jorge Zaffino's seminal graphic novel series "Winterworld," in which our world has been encased in ice from pole-to-pole. The surviving humans have formed tribes that war, enslave and trade with one another in an effort to survive the infinite winter. Ted Adams and David Ozer from IDW Entertainment, and Rick Jacobs and Dave Alpert from Circle of Confusion ("Walking Dead") will executive produce.

Tellem calls Xbox Live a paywall, but isn't sure which shows go on which side of it. "Certain things of a premium nature should live behind a paywall," she said, "while others should belong in front of the paywall." The Xbox shows may be delivered across weeks or in one binge-friendly pile like Netflix does it, but Microsoft hasn't made up its mind one way or the other. And the level of interactivity – the line separating a show from its app – is still being drawn. Tellem envisions social features that are "organic" to the content, with Xbox Entertainment groups in Los Angeles and Vancouver figuring out how to best capitalize on this unique intersection between online games and online television.

You can see the vague spectrum of "premium television experience" so far: On the low end, you'll watch a show and engage with other viewers in real-time, or through time-shifted comments between America's coasts.

In the middle, where Microsoft's Bonnaro app falls, you may select different camera feeds and stages at a live music festival, monitoring what you want and using Skype (Another Microsoft Product) to chat with band members backstage. Xbox is imagining something similar for "Fearless," a pilot-stage reality show that follows Australian Navy diver and shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder. It's meant to be a show for the GoPro camera, and may allow you to choose between multiple angles as de Gelder highlights the dangerous work of tornado chasers, smoke jumpers and bomb squads.

Finally, at the upper end is a hypothetical style that Microsoft might never choose to embrace. It arguably doesn't need to, as video games like Telltale's The Walking Dead have created an interesting episodic output already, letting users influence the fiction and give feedback on the quality of production as the season runs its course. I don't think Xbox Originals is striving for that level of reactive, multi-outcome "experience," but anything's game on your own platforms, right?

It's far too early to say if Xbox Originals can match the caliber of exclusive, original television that we're seeing out of streaming platforms like Netflix ("House of Cards," "Orange is the New Black"). Microsoft has to clarify its delivery method, pricing structure, and then earn that "premium television experience" descriptor. For now, we have to adopt an approach from old television: watch an episode and see how it goes from there.

[Image: Microsoft]

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