PlayStation's original programming future depends on 'Powers'

Powers is the first series to come from Sony PlayStation's original programming push, a partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, and it's not rated "E" for everyone. With comic books as its source material, the racy superhero cop drama from creator Brian Michael Bendis is a custom fit for the PlayStation user base, especially users that pony up $50/year for Sony's PlayStation Plus subscription service. And it's that particular demographic the PlayStation group is keen to pursue with any future projects. "We are a gaming company, so we want to do what's best for gaming and for our gamers," says PlayStation VP of Platform Marketing John Koller. "We're going to make a decision here after we see how Powers does. But whatever we do, it'll be very centered on the gamer and the gaming audience and what caters best to them."

In a way, Powers can be viewed as an extreme version of fan service. Koller says the series was "designed to provide added value to [the] PlayStation Plus consumer," a segment he openly refers to as PlayStation's "most valuable." It's an insight with considerable research behind it. Koller explains that, for PlayStation's first foray into original programming, his team not only conducted surveys, organized focus groups and set up sit-in sessions with gamers, but also pulled tracking data from users' consumption habits on PlayStation Video (formerly Video Unlimited).

"For us, we noticed that the types of shows that are most watched on the PlayStation Network -- underneath our Video Unlimited service -- are shows that are superhero-based, sci-fi-based and action-based. And [Powers] did very well in that area," says Koller.

Sharlto Copley filming a scene on the set of Powers

The series' first season consists of 10 hour-long episodes, each set to bow on the PlayStation Network every Tuesday. It's a decidedly old-fashioned consumption model, especially considering Powers' birth as a streaming series on Sony's current-gen gaming console, the PlayStation 4. Koller, however, says the decision to avoid a binge-watching release was intentional. With the first three episodes released simultaneously and the rest on a weekly basis, Koller believes the protracted release schedule will spur dialogue within the show's audience. It's a concerted grassroots effort to generate buzz and hopefully attract more eyeballs for the show. "We ... knew that ongoing weekly discussions amongst viewers would help build advocacy for the program," he says.

Powers is a test case for Sony PlayStation. If the series succeeds -- Koller calls it "the most watched show on the PlayStation Network," though he declined to provide numbers to back up that claim -- a second season, or even more series could be on the way. For now, no decision has been made as to the series' fate; PlayStation's still waiting for the full season to air to evaluate its performance. What is certain, though, is that no other series, be it a potential follow-up or a brand-new offering, will debut on the PlayStation Network this year. Koller says the production lead time is too great to rush anything out the door and his team wants to be very careful about its next steps in original programming.

"We noticed that the types of shows that are most watched on the PlayStation Network are shows that are superhero-based, sci-fi-based and action-based."

While an order for a second season is still undecided, that doesn't mean PlayStation users won't be seeing more from Powers. Koller hinted that the series could see new life as a game: "'Is there an opportunity around games?' We know that very well. It's a very good genre for that. It's a very good story. Seems like there's a chance for other things. There's honestly nothing there yet; nothing's even been pitched."

When I ask Koller about the possibility of downloadable content for Powers, specifically a version of inFamous: Second Son featuring Powers' protagonist Diamond (as seen in episode two), he laughs, but doesn't dismiss the concept outright. "That is a good question. I don't have an answer yet," he says coyly.

The cast of Powers

Whatever the future may hold for PlayStation Originals, an open pilot season, akin to the one Amazon holds for its own original programming initiative, is not a part of it. This, Koller explains, is due to his team's familiarity with the PlayStation user.

"You know, we made a pretty open decision not to go that route ... to not go the pilot route," says Koller. "We utilized some internal quant [quantitative data] models and spoke to gamers directly when we decided to pick up Powers. But we didn't think that, for our market and our gamers, that just doing a pilot test and then deciding whether to move forward with the show or not was best for us."

Whatever the future may hold for PlayStation Originals, an open pilot season is not a part of it.

Though a continued working partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment is a likely and natural fit, it doesn't preclude PlayStation from ordering series from outside studios. Koller says the door is open to all great creative ideas, regardless of studio. Nor will viewers of any future series be subjected to a relentless barrage of conspicuous Sony product placement; a sin of which Powers is acutely guilty.

According to Koller, that was not, however, the result of a top-down mandate from Sony. "This was actually an active decision by the directors. We had a number of different directors," he says. "Collectively, they had come and said, 'We'd like to utilize more of a Sony opportunity.' And we're not going to complain about that. That's great. Whether it became more overt for some consumers, I can't comment on that."

Noah Taylor (r) as the criminal 'Power' Johnny Royalle

As for giving airtime to rival gaming platforms on the PlayStation Network, well, that's another matter entirely. He adds: "You know, certainly we probably would not show a lot of competitive gaming products. I would say that's probably fair."

For the time being, Powers lives as an exclusive on the PlayStation Network, but that could change very soon. Koller likened PlayStation's approach to the typical Hollywood model, with the first-run window on PlayStation Plus. What follows isn't yet clear -- Koller wouldn't elaborate, only saying that more details would be announced soon. Just don't expect to find Powers as a downloadable option on iTunes. "Don't hold your breath," Koller says, waving off that possibility.

If and when PlayStation's original programming ramps up, it's possible subscribers to the company's IPTV-like PlayStation Vue service will gain access to a dedicated channel housing PlayStation Originals content. In fact, Sony's VP of Network Entertainment Eric Lempel confirmed as much when we spoke prior to the launch of PS Vue. Koller, however, says that day is far off and that the company needs to focus instead on building out its slate.

"I'd say there's a long way to go before we're looking at having some kind of channel. Doesn't mean that we wouldn't do it, but we need to let content drive that decision. And we still need to decide about content," says Koller.

[Image credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment]