MSN Gives Original Programming Another Shot

Everything old is new again as MSN takes another stab at original content development. It did so unsuccessfully 10 years back, but this time around it’s more likely the audience and advertiser interest will be there. Through its new MSN Originals venture, the media powerhouse reportedly is pairing up with Reveille, the production outfit behind NBC’s “The Office,” and Be Jane, a media firm developing home improvement content geared towards women.

MSN says its “Originals” projects will combine video, interactive community features and editorial content. The company announced the effort today at its MSN Strategic Account Summit marketing conference in Redmond, WA.

The company said it will offer advertisers traditional display and streaming video opportunities, but also product placement and involvement with content creation and production.

According to published reports, MSN has approved four original Reveille pilots including a two-and-a-half minute-long sitcom starring Tom Arnold as a hapless airline pilot, a music-themed show called “Under the Influence,” a celebrity cooking advice program, and an interactive pop-culture roundtable discussion show called “Face Off” that will derive conversation topics from top entertainment-related keyword searches on MSN. Under the 1-year agreement, Reveille is to develop 10 Web pilots for MSN.

Greg Smith, EVP director of insights, planning and analysis at media agency Carat Fusion, is somewhat skeptical of MSN’s new direction. “It’s very hard when your original business is one thing, to interject something else,” he commented. “Entertainment development is very different than developing a portal….I’m not expecting Google to come up with the next ‘Lost.'”

Content developed by Be Jane will be featured in a new Be Jane section set to launch July 1 within MSN’s Lifestyle channel. Along with animated tutorials and other editorial, Be Jane will produce original video clips monthly featuring women’s home improvement stories, or based on particular themes such as “creating a backyard retreat.” Be Jane content will also be linked to MSN’s blog and social networking site MSN Spaces.

Like its site editorial, print columns and planned satellite radio content, the programming Be Jane will create for MSN is not just about do-it-yourself, explained Be Jane CEO Eden Jarrin. “We will really bring in the emotional aspect.” Jarrin expects interest in the new MSN offerings from large national advertisers from tool makers to beauty brands and banks. The Be Jane site currently works with advertisers including power tool brand Ryobi; the media company plans on offering crossover ad opportunities on both Be Jane and MSN.

Other reports indicate that MSN is developing a user-generated content project called “Warhol” that will also be featured in a variety of MSN site sections. The company will continue licensing content developed for TV and will allow Reveille to repurpose the Web shows it produces for television or mobile distribution. MSN signed a deal to distribute animated content from JibJab Films late last year.

Carat’s Smith calls MSN’s plan to work with companies that specialize in entertainment production “logical.” However, if the new shows don’t attract the right audience, he doesn’t think he would place ads there. “It is of interest, but first and foremost we’re most interested in the audience,” he stressed, “Audience first, environment second.” Carat Fusion has placed in-stream ads currently running within streaming versions of ABC‘s “Desperate Housewives.” Broadband adoption has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and users have grown more accustomed to consuming Web video, prompting other media companies, including Yahoo, to develop original programming for the Web.

In 1996, Microsoft began developing original Web content shows including “Project: Watchfire,” a show about U.F.O.s and a live weekly comedy show titled “This Is Not a Test.” The company eventually cancelled all the shows.

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