South By Southwest Tackles TV as AOL, Yahoo Invade Living RoomsLucas Shaw
South by Southwest, the annual festival for movies, music and technology that begins today in Austin, Texas, is tackling a subject that’s vexed the most successful media executives: the future of television.
Organizers of SXSW, as the festival is known, are hosting panels headlined by filmmakers who recently made shows for online media. Morgan Spurlock, writer-director of the Oscar-nominated “Super Size Me,” will promote the show he’s produced for AOL Inc. Writer-producer Dan Harmon will offer details on his sitcom “Community” and its move to Yahoo! Inc. from NBC.
They’ll join executives from CNN and Hulu LLC, who’ll also address the blurry line between regular TV and Web video as part of the “Future of TV” series. Technology companies including AOL, Yahoo and Amazon.com Inc. are investing in comedies, dramas and documentaries at the same time shrinking live TV audiences are forcing media giants like CNN’s parent, Time Warner Inc., to offer their shows more widely online.
“There is so much interest in how we are watching shows, where we are watching and who is making interesting content for different screens,” said Janet Pierson, head of SXSW film.
Born out of a music festival that began in 1987, the film portion of South by Southwest has often embraced pop culture more than peers like Sundance or Tribeca. In the 20 years since movies became a separate SXSW component, low-budget horror features have screened alongside comedies from major studios.
Since this is a festival where start-ups and venture capitalists often outshine movie stars, Web media companies are using it as a launchpad for their forays into TV. Spurlock’s “Connected” is AOL’s first series with TV-length episodes, and has attracted Sprint Corp. to sponsor.
The show’s subjects, which include a television show host, a computer designer and a gay couple, use cameras to document their own lives and relationships. Professional touches were applied after the footage reached the editing room.
“AOL has primarily been an advertising company,” said Dermot McCormack, president of AOL Video & Studios, said in an interview. “We really believe in over-the-top video going forward, and we will need longer-form content. This could be a watershed moment for AOL.”
Viewing habits are changing in ways that should benefit online companies. According to a Nielsen study released this week, 41 percent of U.S. homes had access to a streaming video service like Netflix Inc. at the end of 2014, an increase from 36 percent a year earlier.
Able to connect on TVs, tablets and smartphones, people also spend more time staring at their Web-enabled devices, almost three hours a day, compared with about two hours for the average TV household, according to Nielsen.
Vimeo, a video site owned by Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp, has in the past used SXSW to announce news, including a fund to acquire original series and movies. The creators of its first series, “High Maintenance,” will host a panel and a screening to discuss the show, which chronicles the journeys of a marijuana deliveryman.
“It’s a natural intersection of audiences,” said Vimeo Chief Executive Officer Kerry Trainor. “Whereas Sundance is more of a film festival, South by is the place where the boundaries between television, episodic, feature film, short film and documentary really break down.”
Pierson has wanted to incorporate episodic series since she started at SXSW in 2008. For the second year in a row, South by Southwest will host a series of premieres for cable TV shows, including FX’s “The Comedians,” starring Billy Crystal, and USA Network’s “Mr. Robot,” with Christian Slater.
“The audience is media-savvy, they respect clever promotion and they are incredibly influential,” said Guy Slattery, a senior marketing executive at the A&E cable network. “We first decided to go down there for that very reason, to get our show in front of a tastemaking crowd.”
A&E screened an episode of “Bates Motel” at South by Southwest in 2013. Time Warner’s HBO was the first cable network to screen there in 2012 with “Girls” writer-creator-actress Lena Dunham, an SXSW stalwart.
In 2014, A&E installed a facade of the motel of “Psycho” fame in Austin, as well as a vending machine distributing brownies. Slattery is upping the stakes this year, building a four-room Bates Motel replica where guests will stay.
“We have been to Comic-Con and other places, but more and more TV brands are coming to South By,” Slattery said. “If you do something clever and smart down there, you get a lot of credit for it.”