This piece was originally published as part of an entry on September 21, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here.
The latest news coming out about an online series ties into writing we've been doing here at the Convergence Culture Consortium about online video, branded entertainment, and soap operas. Procter & Gamble's Tide brand will be the sponsor of a new broadband series through GoTV Networks, a 10-parter called Crescent Heights.
The series, written by Mike Martineau of Rescue Me fame (see this post relating to Jason Mittell's writing about the FX series and how he feels it serves as a hypermasculine soap opera), will be available not just through Tide's Web site but also through mobile providers as well.
The series raises a variety of questions. First, it points to yet another online/mobile television series among a variety of series that are popping up, as I wrote about last week in relation to the new series Quarterlife, an online series based on a pilot rejected by ABC from the creators of thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Having a major sponsor like Tide as a primary source of funding for this show tackles a lot of the funding questions that many other aspiring online video series have faced. For more on independent online video series, see Jason Mittell's interview with the creators of The West Side that we ran starting last month. The other parts of the interview are available here, here, and here.
Of course, this is more than just an online television show looking for a sponsor. This is branded content, distributed through the Tide Web site, among other places. Branded entertainment causes plenty of controversy, moving past the challenges faced by deals which include product placement and into the realm of concerns of artistic integrity challenged by product integration and the needs of a single sponsor. After all, television historians and concerned observers will point out that one significant reason that television moved away from the one-sponsor model was due to the editorial control that sponsors held over network content.
But I think that many criticisms are often too prescriptive and assume that abuses will happen before they ever do. See our post from last week detailing the complicated negotiation of having Gamekillers as an AXE-sponsored show on MTV. These issues are often carefully negotiated, with a variety of interests at stake.
This isn't the first time that P&G has run a branded online video series. They also featured the show Released, presented by Dawn, on their P&G Classic Soaps channel through AOL. Perhaps not what one would expected of "branded entertainment," the series focuses on the story of a mother-and-daughter team saving birds caught in a deadly oil spill. What does an environmental series have to do with a soap product? Perhaps just to show you that Dawn gets grease out of your way?
But what do these series, like Tide's Crescent Heights and Dawn's Released mean for the traditional form of branded storytelling from Procter & Gamble, the soap opera? If the plight of daytime soaps is to eventually be taken off daytime television (as some have suggested, but which I still feel is far from inevitable), might we someday see Alan Spaulding and Reva Shane arguing on the Web site of Folgers or explicitly branded by Pringles? Or will these short-form Web series supersede the soap opera format? At this points, they are perhaps more interesting experiments than viable long-term properties, but it will be interesting if these shows develop a following and to determine what the industry, and Tide, would consider a successful series.