'V' is for online video, as Eisner sees it

The former Disney chief says success for his new Vuguru and other Net start-ups rides on quality, not technology.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner unveiled on Monday his latest project: Vuguru, an independent production company devoted to online video.

Eisner is a major stakeholder in online video start-up Veoh, but he envisions Vuguru as a cross-platform phenomenon that will spread from browsers to mobile phones to televisions. The first Vuguru production, a serial mystery for teens called Prom Queen that was created in conjunction with online video company Big Fantastic, premieres April 2.

Eisner spoke with CNET News.com shortly after the announcement about Vuguru, officially a project of his investment firm, The Tornante Co., to elaborate on his vision for online video.

Q: This ties in very nicely to the most recent Wired magazine cover, about what it calls "snack culture," or entertainment in smaller portions. Obviously, Prom Queen with its 90-second clips, is an example of that. Do Vuguru's interests go beyond this short, serialized content?
Eisner: Yeah. Actually, the next show that we're doing after that will be either five- or seven-minute pieces. It's another story-driven show with characters, comedy, drama, and so forth, professionally produced. The right length of time for that (production) is more like five to seven minutes. And we have some in development that will be more like 15 minutes. It is what the story dictates it should be.

Do you think Vuguru will eventually do anything with live broadcasts, specifically of collegiate and professional sports? Obviously, there's a lot of advertising revenue there.
Eisner: Who knows what it will actually do. This is the beginning of our commitment to original production, so the basic thrust here is not simply user-generated or live sports or specials or anything like that. The overall strategy is that the time has come for the Internet to be a distribution platform for what used to be called filmed entertainment.

The inaugural series, Prom Queen, is geared toward a female teenage audience. Are there any other demographics that Vuguru is specifically targeting in the near future?
Eisner: I've never done that in my career. No matter what division I was running at ABC or Paramount or Disney, you come up with what you think is a good idea that interests you, and you put it out there. If it happens to be more targeted for men or women or teenagers or young adults, so be it. As far as Prom Queen is concerned, an interesting idea was presented to me from these guys at Big Fantastic, who had done Sam Has 7 Friends, and it happens to be that our first effort in this space is younger people, high school, et cetera.

I'd like you to think there was an overall strategy, but I've never had an overall strategy. It's simply what sounds good or funny or emotional or sad or mysterious.

I'd like you to think there was an overall strategy, but I've never had an overall strategy. It's simply what sounds good or funny or emotional or sad or mysterious. That's what I'm interested in. The platform is so gigantic, the Internet is so gigantic, that very much like broadcast television was 40 years ago, they don't have to be targeted. Yes, young people are early adopters, but that doesn't mean today--as the Internet's becoming more and more established--that more groups, more age demographics are not committed. And Veoh has the capability--and will over time--to move what's coming in on broadband to the television set or any other device you may have.

With regard to the migration of broadband video to other devices like mobile phones or living room TVs, are there currently any partnerships in the works for Vuguru?
Eisner: We're definitely going to be distributing promptly on a mobile partner, and that will be probably announced this week or next week. We will distribute every possible way we can. Veoh has the capability to transpose or transfix or whatever "trans" you want to talk about, from your computer right to your television screen. This is for earlier-than-early adopters, but eventually it will be easy and simple, and that will be just another way to watch television at home. It'll just be a different distribution platform.

What's your take on mobile video in general? It's obviously been touted as the next wave in broadband video, but its potential for success is really still up in the air.
Eisner: This is not a strategy for mobile video. This is a strategy for video distributed through broadband technology, and one of the places that it can appear is in the mobile world. But this is a strategy of bringing entertainment, thoughtfully produced programming, to all these new platforms. So, yes, I guess mobile video will happen, but hopefully Prom Queen can rest on mobile video, on computer screens and, eventually, on more established television screens.

Is there any digital rights management involved?
Eisner: Obviously, as we initially distribute this program, we're going to distribute it as widely as possible. To the extent that Veoh has digital rights, or other partners have digital rights, we will employ them. But my initial interest is just to get it out there. I'm not that concerned with piracy in this first stage.

One of the points that was really stressed in Vuguru's press announcement was the fact that it wants to specialize in high-class, professional content. Do you also see it as a vehicle for potentially discovering and professionalizing amateur content that's already out there and is experiencing viral success?
Eisner: To the extent that people that are doing user-generated content and are prepared to step up in their careers to a more professional level, we are interested. Everybody started some place, whether they were an usher in my era, or a cameraman or film student or whatever, so it's the natural evolution. But when it gets to Vuguru, we want it to be as high-quality as we can make it for this medium.

My initial interest is just to get it out there. I'm not that concerned with piracy in this first stage.

We're not looking for nonprofessional user-generated content. We're looking to translate or transfer people who may have started that way, or use people who are now in the mainstream who want to come to this arena, but the end result will be people who understand beginnings, middles and ends, and comedy and drama, and professionally produced shows that are at a higher level than you would see with somebody just standing on a street.

The focus on professional content is very similar to that of another video start-up that we've been hearing a lot about recently, and that would be Joost. Do you see all these video start-ups as competition or potential partners? How do you see Vuguru standing out?
Eisner: I don't know, because I haven't met with them yet, but we come from a place about story. It is story, story, story. It is emotion, it is humor, it makes you laugh, cry, whatever. We do not come from a technology platform, and we are not interested in a technology platform for anything other than to get it out there any more than I would have been interested in slow motion as the end product of sports coverage. What's interesting in a sport is the game. How you shoot it, and how you use technology, just makes it more attractive. But the game is the answer, and we're interested in the game, not the camera.

What do you see as your prime competitors?
Eisner: I have no idea. I suspect, at the end of the day, everyone will be competitors because...this is the growing-up of the Internet. Most companies, I would suspect, will be thinking about professionally produced product because, at the end of the day, I believe that is what the public will gravitate toward.

The conventional wisdom is that the mainstream media is getting outclassed by these Internet start-ups that are coming out of nowhere because supposedly the more established companies don't "get it" when it comes to the Internet. What would you say in response to that?
Eisner: I wouldn't underestimate the established media companies. There was a moment of time when I was running Disney that people were thinking we were troglodytes. The company's valued at $80 billion. I doubt whether people think of Disney or Time Warner or ABC or Fox, or any of these companies, as troglodytes anymore. There'll be new players for sure, but I wouldn't underestimate the Barry Dillers of the world, I wouldn't underestimate the players that have been successful in other arenas. They're certainly not fools, and they will see where this is going and will be significant, if not the most significant players...Maybe Vuguru will be one of (the start-ups) that finds this place in this crowd and becomes a major player at some point. I don't think it's any more about money. I think it's about style, and taste and editorial judgment. I think that's the new element that's coming into the world.

Out of curiosity, where did the name Vuguru come from?
Eisner: We just liked it. We came up with it internally. We liked the sound of it, we liked the idea that it had a sense of viewing in it, that it's the second person plural of French for "you," it just kind of sounded good, and looked good and felt good, and was original.

In closing, one thing that a lot of people are talking about when they talk about the intersection of mainstream media and the digital world is Steve Jobs' stake in Disney. What is your take on that now that you're going into your own Internet endeavor?
Eisner: This doesn't have anything to do with Steve Jobs.

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