BrewTube NYT Magazine
My good friend Scott E should find this one interesting. He spotted this trend a log time ago, and is working on creating a digital studio by assembling an A Team of talented producers and old TV execs.
Published: February 4, 2007
For the past 26 years, Jim Schumacker has toiled for the marketing machine that is the Anheuser-Busch Companies, doing his part to stoke Americans’ cravings for a cool Bud, or a Michelob, or a Bud Light. Eight of those years were spent overseeing the beer maker’s creation of 30-second commercials, those gently mocking vignettes whose characters and catch-phrases often burrowed their ways into the nation’s consciousness.
Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
Future Spot Kevin Farley on the set of "Futureman," one of a group of new Web-only comedy series appearing on Bud.TV.
Product Displacement Filming ‘‘Finish Our Film.’’ Like all series on Bud.TV, ‘‘Finish Our Film’’ tries to bring cool to Anheuser-Busch without ever (or rarely) mentioning beer. The Viral Corporation Bud.TV shows like "Futureman" are purpose-built to be passed around the Web like any YouTube video, albeit bearing a Bud.TV logo.
But lately, the man everyone calls Schu has been working on a different sort of content, programming for a new online entertainment network called Bud.TV. The network, which will make its debut on Monday at www.bud.tv, is the most ambitious and costly effort to date of a marketer creating Web content tailored to its own specifications. And Schumacker, a 54-year-old avuncular sort partial to earth-tone suede sandals and with a soul patch that sets off his thatch of wavy salt-and-pepper hair, is the project’s creative shepherd.
One of the first shows that will appear on Bud.TV is called “Finish Our Film,” a mash-up of reality show and making-of-a-film documentary that will be produced by LivePlanet, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s production company, best known for “Project Greenlight.” LivePlanet will shoot the first and last minutes of a short film and ask hopeful auteurs to plot out the middle. The person with the best treatment will be invited to Los Angeles, and every last moment of the moviemaking process (or ordeal) will be captured on digital tape.
The concept as concocted by the writers, who have done their time at the likes of “The Howard Stern Show,” “The Man Show” and “Da Ali G Show,” would at first glance be perfectly suited for a beer commercial. The film opens in a strip club during a raucous bachelor party, where a groom-to-be named Steve suffers through a lap dance. But the party-hearty tone swiftly changes when the flirtatious dancer turns deadly serious, urgently warning her abashed customer that if he desires to live past the night, he’d better grab the note nestled in her cleavage. Steve does as he’s told, and when the film resumes, he is seen beaten, blindfolded and bound to a chair, a firing squad taking aim.
Strippers notwithstanding, much of the pitch for “Finish Our Film” subverts the expectations of a beer company — it’s closer to the mind games of the David Fincher movie “The Game” than the bacchanal of “Bachelor Party.” And Schumacker, whose official title is vice president of digital marketing and branded entertainment, and other executives at Anheuser-Busch want the rest of Bud.TV to do the same. Yes, the site will carry the high-concept comedy of “Replaced by a Chimp,” in which a great ape tries to do the job of its evolutionary betters, including dentist, car mechanic and ad executive. But Bud.TV is striving to be more than a repository for Budweiser ads and lighthearted, slightly mocking beer-commercial humor; Schumacker and his team are aiming to redefine what an online entertainment network and marketer-created content can mean in a short-attention-span world.
Performers and writers from “Saturday Night Live” have signed on to create and star in recurring series. Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Films, has agreed to supply short movies. Satirical shows about celebrity entitlement and the news are on the schedule. The sports announcer Joe Buck may do a talk show from the back of a New York cab. And Schumacker has acquired a slickly produced science-fiction series, made in conjunction with the leading video-game maker Electronic Arts. Most of the shows will run from one to eight minutes, but some will be as long as a half-hour.
Bud.TV may be a marketing venture at heart, but it is marketing sotto voce. The shows’ plots won’t revolve around the quest for the perfect beer and a beautiful woman to share it with. Characters won’t declaim the virtues of Budweiser’s freshness at every opportunity. The site won’t be cluttered with banner ads. Anheuser-Busch executives are banking on a more subtle connection. Attach a brand name to something cool, something entertaining, and that elusive young man (and to a lesser extent, young woman) may check out Bud.TV’s offerings again and again, send them along to friends, even take a stab at creating his own minifilm for the site. Cultivate that warm, fuzzy feeling about Budweiser, and the company may cement the loyalty of the existing customer, or better, woo the uncommitted or hard-to-reach drinker to a Bud Light or a Michelob or a Peels malt-liquor beverage.
Bud.TV represents Anheuser-Busch’s search for a toehold in a world where the traditional advertising model revolving around 30-second ads has been sideswiped by technological change and the proliferation of entertainment choices. The company, like almost every big marketer, is also trying to seize on the video-sharing democratization of YouTube, albeit on its own controlling terms.
It’s an expensive undertaking — it’s expected to cost more than $30 million in its first year — and one that could be mistaken for creative hubris. Anheuser-Busch has created some of the more memorable 30-second ads, like the wisecracking lizards Frank and Louie, the “I Love You, Man” Man, the “Whassup?” guys and Ted Ferguson, the Bud Light daredevil who attempts feats of amazing inconsequentiality. But full-fledged original programming is something else entirely. Ultimately, Anheuser-Busch executives told me, they believe they have no choice but to take this leap of faith. “If we don’t start playing in this digital game now,” said Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of global media and sports marketing and Schumacker’s boss, “we’re going to be playing catch-up for a long time. And this is an industry that can’t afford catch-up.”
On the Tuesday before Christmas, Anheuser-Busch’s digital adventure took Schumacker and his colleagues to the Venice Center for Peace With Justice and the Arts, a squat, faded yellow building bordering a skateboard park a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. During the day, the community center holds programs for special-needs kids. It also contains, on the second floor, the achingly hip office of Matt Piedmont.
Piedmont has never worked for an advertiser before. A former writer for “Saturday Night Live” and a consulting producer for David Spade’s “Showbiz Show” on Comedy Central, he spends most of his days creating TV pilots and movie projects, like the film with Spade and Ice Cube, tentatively titled “Someone Stole My Weed.” But Anheuser-Busch has brought him aboard to serve as executive producer over what will be one of Bud.TV’s signature shows, “Happy Hour.”
Each weekday, at 4:55, “Happy Hour” will feature a new one- to four-minute episode of a rotating group of comic series. That week in December, Piedmont wrote eight episodes for most of the series, with help from Matt Murray, a current “Saturday Night Live” writer who gave up a chunk of his holiday hiatus to work on “Happy Hour.”
Describing the tone and image he was shooting for in these shows, Piedmont tossed out admiring references to the Coen brothers’ “Big Lebowski” and the absurdist oeuvre of Wes Anderson (“Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”). He plans for the silly/smart mix to have plenty of deadpan and observational humor, and he hopes to inject a visual sense a cut above typical Web programming, thanks to the use of two high-definition cameras (one a Steadicam) and high-end post-production. But these shows are still being done quick and on the cheap; the budget for all six of the “Happy Hour” shows comes in well under $1 million.
As “The Beat Goes On” by the Young-Holt Unlimited played on the turntable, Piedmont ran through the concepts. “Ice Vision and Chef” follows in mockumentary style the comeback attempt of a defrocked superhero, Ice Vision, whose special powers went to his head and got him booted out of the Elite League. In “Futureman,” a technician at the Institute for Science and Research Institutional Institute makes contact with a man from the future who’d like to benefit today’s world with his knowledge, only to display an appalling ignorance of anything important.
Piedmont’s comedy connections have paid off in casting. During his six years on “Saturday Night Live,” he wrote often for and with Tim Meadows, and the actor has agreed to play Ice Vision. “I can relate to the character,” Meadows said with a laugh when he dropped by the office for a meeting later that day. “He once had it all and lost it.” Chris Parnell and Kevin Farley, brother of the late Chris Farley, have filmed their “Futureman” episodes.
Comic short-form videos are a staple of the Web these days, particularly at sites like Heavy.com, which cater to young men, and the rest of Bud.TV’s lineup will be filled with such offerings, some with the requisite audience participation. “Blow Stuff Up” (although the actual title uses a more profane noun) allows the public to submit videos showing the objects they detest most and why they’d like to see those objects destroyed. And just as John Candy and Joe Flaherty did on SCTV’s “Farm Film Report,” the show’s professional pyrotechnicians will blow up those hated possessions “real good.”
Bud.TV’s parody of reality competition shows, “Fool’s Gold,” follows 12 contestants on a search for buried treasure in Death Valley, Calif. They’ll quickly find millions of dollars in gold nuggets, but the bonanza comes with a catch: they can keep only what they can carry out of the desert, and they have to survive the physical and mental challenges set to them by a crusty old miner named Pick Ax Pete. “Every day is a wacky death march,” said Alex Keledjian of Omelet, the Los-Angeles-based agency that came up with the idea.
But Schumacker insists that he doesn’t want Bud.TV to be pigeonholed, and if one program demonstrates his ambitions for Bud.TV, it’s the science-fiction series “Afterworld.” The series tracks an advertising executive on a business trip who wakes up in a country where hundreds of millions of people have suddenly gone missing; he then tries to make his way home to see if his wife and child are still alive. The mix of live action and animation (from Electronic Arts) runs 130 episodes; a new one will be doled out each weekday.
“People aren’t expecting that from Bud.TV,” Schumacker said. “Which I think also is a benefit for us, long-term, to balance out that whole ‘Oh, those guys are going to give us the comedy act’ to ‘Wow, they’re going to have a broad range of programming.’ ”
The idea for Bud.TV came to Schumacker about two years ago, when he confronted at least 300 commissioned scripts for commercials piled on his office conference table. “This is insane what we’re doing,” he told his colleagues. Only a handful would make it on to television. And some of these scripts, he saw, could be better if the characters were developed and the story lines were extended, perhaps on the Web, which a younger generation was increasingly turning to not only for information or blabbing with friends but also as an entertainment option.
“And I said, ‘Let’s start Bud.TV,’ ” he recalled. “We all laughed about it. And then I got up and went and got a soda, and when I came back I said, ‘I’m serious.’ ” His colleagues were skeptical. “They’re like, ‘Good luck selling that,’ ” he said.
But Schumacker, who at the time was the head of creative development for the company, was not the only executive there thinking along those lines. Tim Murphy, the senior director of digital marketing, was hatching his own idea for an online network. And persuading their bosses was surprisingly easy. What drove Anheuser-Busch to build a site that will dwarf every corporate foray into digital entertainment that has come before was a combination of changing drinking and media habits. Not only is beer losing ground to wine and liquor, Anheuser-Busch’s market share has slipped, and its flagship brand, Budweiser, saw its dollar sales tumble 7.5 percent in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 3, 2006, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets (excluding Wal-Mart.) No turnaround will be possible without capturing the impressionable taste buds of people entering their prime drinking years. But that potential Bud lover is a particularly devilish person to reach and a difficult one to talk to, particularly these days, and particularly through traditional 30-second commercials. The TiVo generation revels in its newfound power to control the television-viewing experience, dictating the terms of how and when to watch their favorites in ways unfathomable only a decade ago. And increasingly, that means skipping right past the ads that marketers spend billions on every year to produce and put on the air.
Anheuser-Busch’s 30-second spots still work better than many, largely because of their crowd-pleasing humor. (Last year, in the three days after the Super Bowl, the beer maker’s ads were viewed more than 21 million times on the Web.) But no advertiser is immune to the shifting media landscape, and connecting with tomorrow’s beer drinker will become only tougher in the years ahead. Already Anheuser-Busch has slashed the percentage of its advertising budget devoted to network television, from 53.5 percent ($292.8 million of the total $547.1 million) in 2004 to 47.3 percent ($287.2 of $606.7 million) in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence, which tracks advertising spending. The company told investors in November that 2007 will see network television play an even smaller part in the beer maker’s marketing. But shoving those ads to the Web, where the multitasking, short-attention-span crowd spends hours and hours, won’t suffice.
Even though Anheuser-Busch has no track record in the dicey world of content creation, TV networks in the past expressed interest in making some of the company’s most popular characters — Leon, the me-first athlete; the “I Love You, Man” Man, who would do and promise anything for a Bud Light; the talking lizards — into sitcom stars. And while none of those flirtations with prime time led to anything, “All those things start to click in your head,” Ponturo, Schumacker’s boss, told me. “I guess we’re sort of hoping that we catch a little bit of that magic with the stuff we’re doing on Bud.TV.”
Anheuser-Busch’s desire to call the creative shots evokes the early days of television and radio. Marketers did not pay merely to have their products plugged relentlessly on the likes of “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” during which Gracie would extol Carnation condensed milk while pouring herself a cup of coffee. They often owned the shows themselves and directed their ad agencies to produce them. Colgate had its “Comedy Hour” and Texaco its “Star Theater” (and a cross-dressing Milton Berle). But a burgeoning star structure and a unionizing industry jacked up production costs, and companies began souring on the joys of ownership. The quiz-show scandals of the late 1950s extinguished any lingering infatuation, with the exception of soap operas and a straggler or two. It was more economical for advertisers to buy time for their messages, and it proved to be a great business for the networks too.
But those once-clear-cut divisions between network and marketer, between creator and financial backer, have begun to blur. As digital video recorders become a staple of the home-entertainment center, advertisers are embracing product placement to a degree they never did before, working their products into reality shows and, more recently, into the scripts of dramas and comedies. Every self-respecting advertising agency has started a division devoted to what is euphemistically called “brand integration,” the better to display their clients’ wares and buff their images in projects they can exert more control over or own outright. And studios, like the television group at Warner Brothers, have begun divisions to develop Web, wireless and other programming with advertisers.
Office Max created a reality show about preteens preparing for high school that was shown on ABC Family. Unilever turned its Axe body spray into a special for MTV called “Game Killers.” PepsiCo financed “First Descent,” a documentary about snowboarders (produced by LivePlanet), convinced that Mountain Dew embodies the live-life-to-the-fullest ethos of the featured snowboarders. And the Crispin, Porter & Bogusky ad agency is shopping a movie treatment based on the big-headed King mascot it created for Burger King, the one that pops up in the most unsettling places (like someone’s bed) to serve a piping-hot sandwich.
Anheuser-Busch has plastered its products into shows like “Entourage” and developed elaborate marketing tie-ins with movies like “Wedding Crashers.” Like most marketers, however, it has so far refrained from jumping into the television- or movie-production business (except for its sports-production unit, which televises events like St. Louis Cardinals baseball games), dissuaded by the cost and the craziness of Hollywood.
Web content, however, is not as expensive to assemble as television shows or movies, making it an attractive place to experiment. And viewers’ acceptance of the rawness of Web video, in contrast to expectations of perfectly executed television programming, gives Bud.TV executives room to tinker that network executives don’t enjoy. The promise of control, a concept woven into the company’s culture, was also deeply appealing and is something Anheuser-Busch would not have if it followed the more traditional route of running its online programs on third-party Web sites or working its products into someone else’s creation.
“It’s their own sandbox,” says Joseph Jaffe, the author of “Life After the 30-Second Spot.” “And because it’s their own sandbox, they can make their own rules.”
In an Anheuser-Busch conference room in St. Louis at the end of last November, Ponturo placed a DVD into the player, and the first episode of “Truly Famous” began to unfold. The show, a satirical look at celebrity culture, tags along reality-style with its faux Spanish star, dubbed Crisanto, who comes complete with agent, publicist, personal assistant and bodyguard. The entourage sweeps into Los Angeles establishments catering to the rich and pampered and proceeds to see how much swag and sycophantic behavior they can attract. Hilarity, and crowds, ensue. “We actually had real paparazzi chasing the fake paparazzi,” said Todd Brandes, a DDB Chicago executive who has worked with Anheuser-Busch for nearly a decade.
In this episode, Crisanto and company arrive at a hair salon on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The staff scurries to pay homage to the celebrity among them, even though they’re clueless about who he is. Crisanto receives not only a free haircut (worth hundreds of dollars), but his posse gets lunch ($28 tuna-fish sandwiches) and wine on the house.
“Would it be too crass to have them ask for Bud or Bud Light?” Ponturo asked.
Schumacker pondered the question. “In Beverly Hills, that probably wouldn’t work.” He added, “We have to be careful we’re not promoting other alcoholic drinks.” Perhaps a request for Peels, the fruit-flavored malt beverage aimed at a more upscale audience, would make creative sense.
“Is that going to hurt us?” asked David Rolfe, the lead DDB Chicago executive on the Bud.TV account, before answering the question himself. “As long as the entertainment value is there, customers won’t mind.”
The philosophical argument continued, as the same team members often took both sides of the debate as they struggled to make policy. “We want to make sure we’re not forcing the product,” Schumacker said.
“But the same time not be scared to promote it,” Rolfe added.
Ponturo then issued his edict. “Shoot the blatant but well-done product shot,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work, leave it on the cutting-room floor.”
Both Ponturo and Schumacker understand that pounding Anheuser-Busch products into programming could make Bud.TV seem like nothing more than a propaganda machine. Traditional media is the place for obvious commercialization. “On the entertainment side, you’re better to err on the side of subtlety,” Ponturo said. As it turns out, the first four episodes of “Truly Famous” will carry no product placement.
A similar restrained philosophy also holds for the style of humor — there may be bleeped-out cursing, but no insulting, gratuitous or “Jackass”-style humor will be tolerated. “We want to be edgy, we want to be fun and interesting, but I really want some class to it,” Ponturo said. “At the end of the day,” he added, “we’re a public company whose ultimate mission is to sell a whole lot of beer. So we don’t want to put ourselves at risk for the wrong reasons.”
Anheuser-Busch’s very entry into online entertainment, however, invites confrontations, and some obvious adversaries have already made their displeasure known. In October, 60 health, safety and child-protection organizations urged the celebrities associated with Bud.TV — Affleck, Damon, Spacey, Vince Vaughn, whose “Wild West Comedy Tour” will be featured — to insist that Anheuser-Busch install stringent age-verification measures. But that demand seemed almost beside the point, as it was coupled with a plea for the stars to reconsider their participation altogether.
Any utopian dreams for an Internet free of commercialization may have been dashed years ago, but efforts by beer, wine and liquor companies still touch a raw nerve. “It’s not as if Colgate-Palmolive is undertaking the initiative,” says David Jernigan, the executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University. “We’re not talking dish soap. We’re talking about the No. 1 drug problem of kids.”
The Internet, with no government oversight and leaky parental controls, only compounds the problems. Self-imposed age-verification measures are almost laughable in their naïveté. Most ask visitors if they are of age, or ratcheting up the level of difficulty, request people to punch in their dates of birth to ensure they meet the qualifications. All that’s needed to get around that more advanced system are some basic math skills and a desire to sneak past the virtual bouncer. Anheuser-Busch, to its credit, will have one of the smarter gatekeepers keeping watch over Bud.TV. It has bought an identity-verification system used by casinos and banks, Aristotle’s Integrity, which checks the names and Zip codes against driver’s licenses and other public records.
Yet once vetted, there’s nothing to stop Bud.TV viewers from sharing the goodies with under-age friends, relatives or complete strangers on YouTube. Anheuser-Busch executives understand this viral loophole. With its inherent pass-it-on nature, Web video demands to be shared. Not only does it provide street cred; it’s also an inexpensive way to get the word out. And the Bud.TV logo will be emblazoned on every shared video.
But the YouTube model has it limits as far as Bud.TV executives are concerned. When it comes to the buzz phrase of the media moment — “user-generated content” — they think they have crafted a strategy to rein in some of the overexuberance that has frustrated and even embarrassed several advertisers. Last spring, Chevrolet invited people to create their own video spots for its Tahoe sport-utility vehicle. Thirty thousand people submitted entries during the four-week contest, but the few ads that subverted Chevrolet’s intention by linking the Tahoe to global warming and sexual inadequacy garnered the bulk of the headlines. Marketing experts argue that it’s a small price to pay for connecting with today’s more skeptical, harder-to-reach consumers, and they urge companies to relinquish control and learn to love it. Anheuser-Busch executives do not agree. “I think YouTube does what it does just fine,” Schumacker said, adding, “I don’t want to be YouTube.”
So Anheuser-Busch will lend a guiding hand, offering freedom with a catch. For its “Real Men of Genius” contest, which it is working on with JibJab, an online video site lauded for its singing wrap-ups of the year in politics, Bud.TV will provide plenty of components for people to build their ads around, including audio tracks and filmed openings and endings. The ads, parodies of 1980s advertising and power ballads (à la Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”), mock-salute the shlubs of America, like Mr. Underwear Inspector No. 12 and Mr. Really Bad Toupee Wearer. The creator of the best ad will get to make an actual Bud Light commercial.
“If 2006 was the year of user-generated content, in 2007 you’ll see elevated production levels,” said Gregg Spiridellis, co-founder of JibJab. “We call it the coloring book versus the canvas.”
Bud.TV still represents just a tiny fraction of Anheuser-Busch’s billion-dollar-plus annual marketing budget, more than $600 million of which will be spent on traditional advertising in 2007, but it’s likely to cost a lot more than anticipated, and its benefits will be difficult to assess. Officially, Anheuser-Busch has budgeted more than $30 million for the start-up costs and the first year of operations of the site, but Ponturo told me that figure is likely to pass $40 million by the time 2007 comes to a close.
The Web site’s technological demands have proved costlier than planned, and Bud.TV’s voracious appetite for new content — at least 15 new segments will be posted each week — has eaten through expectations and forced Schumacker and his team to decide as they go just how much they are willing to spend on programming. The development and production tally for the first three shows Bud.TV commissioned (“Truly Famous,” “Replaced by a Chimp” and a makeover show for clueless Casanovas called “What Girls Want”) came in around $2 million, averaging between $20,000 and $25,000 a minute. At that rate, Ponturo told me, the annual budget would be sapped in a matter of months. “You can let the ball of yarn get away from you very fast,” Ponturo said. The later shows, he added, are costing a more affordable $6,000 a minute.
Beyond keeping a lid on programming costs, Bud.TV executives will also deal with some of the pit-of-the-stomach dread that comes with the job description of any network executive: the tyranny of ratings. If after a year, between two million and three million people between the ages of 21 and 34 are visiting each month, “It would put us in high cotton,” Ponturo said. (An audience of that size would tower over what sites like Heavy.com and Break.com see.) But if that traffic figure is stalled in the mid-six-figures, “then I would think that we’ve missed the mark,” he said.
A middling performance, however, and the question of failure or success becomes a tougher call. Some positive publicity and a smattering of blog buzz may be all that’s needed to keep Anheuser-Busch pouring tens of millions of dollars a year into Bud.TV. Because ultimately, proving that an online entertainment network helps the company sell more beer falls into the realm of the subjective.
“It’s tough to build a business plan,” Ponturo said with exquisite understatement. “Marketers don’t always have to prove two plus two equals four. You have to go sometimes with your instincts and your gut judgment and your years of experience.”
And there’s even the hope that Bud.TV could create revenue streams of its own. Ponturo, Schumacker and their colleagues talk about Bud.TV serving as an incubator for television, DVD or perhaps film. While much won’t translate, “Afterworld” and some of the “Happy Hour” shows just might make the jump. And if the shows end up having a life outside of Bud.TV, whether on Comedy Central, Spike TV or as DVD originals, Anheuser-Busch, playing the role of producer, will get a cut of the back end.
In this topsy-turvy world of media and entertainment, where marketers play programmer, studios play ad agency and viewers play possum when traditional ads come on television, one other twist is in the offing. If Bud.TV becomes a virtual hangout for young men, Anheuser-Busch may well start selling advertising to other companies who crave pushing their marketing messages in front of this fickle audience. That debate is already taking place within Anheuser-Busch. At first, Schumacker itched to market Bud.TV. But on further reflection, he realized that that would negate the streamlined, almost minimalist design of the site. After all, Schumacker told me, he didn’t want Bud.TV to look like it was selling out.
Lorne Manly is the chief media writer for The New York Times. This is his first article for the magazine.