HBOlab Experiments With Content in Ad-Free Zone

Like everyone in the online content business these days, HBOlab is big on experimentation, still trying to figure out what consumers will watch online and how they want to watch it. What it is not interested in — at least not yet — is how to make money from it. And that puts it in a unique position to try something new.

At the moment, that something is a Web series that will bring together some of the most recognizable YouTube stars against the backdrop of a college campus and a lot of text messaging (and instant messaging and social networking and maybe a little bit of Twitter.) The 10-part series is called Hooking Up, and it will star Jessica Rose, better known as LonelyGirl15, as well Web personalities such as sxePhil and KevJumba.

“The whole series is written by an incredibly promising young writer, a 24-year-old HBOlab member,” said Fran Shea, head of HBOLab. “He showed me this one four-minute piece, and I said, ‘Why don’t you write 10 of these and put in some characters I care about and make it funny?’ and he did.”

Shea didn’t share the exact story of Hooking Up except to say that much of the action plays out through text-based digital applications like instant messaging and Twitter, and that it takes place on a college campus. She said the idea to cast proven Web personalities came from time-tested network TV practice.

“It’s like what ABC did with Brothers and Sisters,” she said. “They had this great show and could have cast anyone, but instead they got Sally Field and Rob Lowe and all these well-known actors, and it brought in those audiences.”

Whether the approach will work on the Web won’t be known till the show debuts on Hookingupshow.com on Oct 1. But that’s fine with the folks at HBOlab, as experimentation is, for now, their only mandate.

“We’ve been around a few years now, and dabbling in content really has been our whole mission to date,” she said. “We put our content out there and basically see what happens.”

The idea is to give HBO time to find a Web presence before it burdens that presence with the pressures of making a profit, whether that means slapping pre-roll ads on anything that moves or forcing tiny boxes of breath mints into every other scene of a Web series to satisfy a sponsor.

Instead, Shea and her staff have been focusing on what they can learn. And it would seem they are learning a lot — though they are understandably less than forthcoming about their conclusions.

“We’ve learned how audiences work on the Web, what they will watch and how they watch, how loyalty builds, how do you make stars out of people and what constitutes a star,” she said. “We’ve been trying all kinds of experiments along those lines.”

Shea has a long history in network television, having spent 10 years in production at HBO from 1980 to 1990, followed by 10 years at the E! channel; when she left in 2000 she was president of that network. She returned to HBO as head of HBOlab two years ago.

But as many before her have learned, what works on TV does not necessarily work on the Web, and for that she is grateful.

“I love the collaboration online,” she said. “On network TV everyone does their own programming side by side but there’s no collaboration. On the Web everyone works together.”

That goes for both distribution and content. HBOlab now counts MySpace, YouTube and Yahoo among distribution partners. And it is encouraging viewers to collaborate on the entertainment as well.

“We encourage mash-ups,” she said, “and we did a shorter series where we asked viewers to put up a lyric, and one of the characters would have to write a song around it. People on the Web want to collaborate.”

When it comes to advertising models, Shea insists she is under no pressure to find one yet, but says that HBOlab is paying attention to others who are.

“The advertising piece I think will come, because we’re also taking a look at all the different business models,” she said. “But I know for now I live a very charmed life.”

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