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Online TV explodes as big names step into field

Alec Baldwin (left) and Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld’s “Comedians.”Screen Grab

BEVERLY HILLS — A woman races against time to clear her name in the high-tech thriller "Cybergeddon," a murder mystery unfolds at a tony prep school in "The Runaways," a military officer investigates an assault in her unit on the front lines in "Lauren," Jerry Seinfeld tools around town with friends in "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," Larry King reemerges on the new talk show "Larry King Now," Kevin Spacey stars in the political drama "House of Cards," and Tom Hanks produces and lends his voice to an animated series about a dystopian future called "Electric City."

It sounds like a preview of the fall TV season, but it's not. All of those shows are original online programming, the latest sign of a rapidly expanding world where large corporations and star actors, along with big-name directors, writers and producers, are stepping in to build on what was already a tidal wave of new content.

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Original web videos are not new, but now the wide-open creative possibilities of the Web are intriguing advertisers, who recognize that desirable young viewers are willing to watch "television" on whatever device they have handy, from laptops to tablets to smartphones.

"Fifty percent of the people who watch online video are under the age of 35," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media.

As viewership either migrates from television to online or diffuses between them, so do ad dollars. "eMarketer projects that online video advertising could be $3 billion this year, up from $2 billion," says Adgate. "It's still a pretty small segment of online advertising, but I think it's the fastest growing."

Hulu is offering its own original programming and partnering with creators as a distribution platform on both the free Hulu site and its sister subscription service, Hulu Plus. YouTube has launched dozens of new channels that have seen a growing number of professional producers join the ranks of amateur video makers. Yahoo and Yahoo Screen are serving as home base for many creators, and Netflix is launching its own original content.

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Representatives from several of the online shows and platforms — including Hulu, Yahoo, and YouTube — met with reporters at the recent Television Critics Association press tour here and talked about the changing landscape.

The Wild West allure of the Web is strong for creators grown weary of high costs, studio, and network meddling, and TV's time, language, content, and scheduling constraints.

For "The Runaways" producer Brian Robbins, the epiphany came during a vacation in which his 'tween sons reached for their laptop to watch "The Simpsons" or NBA highlights.

"Five days go by and they do not turn on the TV, and this light bulb went off in my head: This is the future, except the future is now," says Robbins, a veteran producer of TV shows like "Smallville" and "One Tree Hill" and the popular Nickelodeon franchise "Fred," which itself began life on the Web.

Robbins and producing partner Joe Davola — a longtime television fixture and key architect of MTV — have embraced the online world, starting their own YouTube channel dubbed "AwesomenessTV," targeting kids and teens with everything from dramas like "The Runaways" to talk shows.

Unlike TV's programming grids, the Internet is a free-for-all. Some of the new online shows mimic the broadcast TV model,while others ignore it.

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"The Runaways" premiered Aug. 31 and will run in short weekly installments of 3-5 minutes. All 20 episodes of Hanks's "Electric City" are available on Yahoo. Screen right now. Seinfeld's "Comedians" pops up Thursday nights, and a recent episode with Alec Baldwin ran 11 minutes and 18 seconds.

Andy Forssell, senior vice president of content for Hulu, says the company asks three basic questions when considering partnering with creators. "What's the right thing for the show? How do we get it in front of a lot of people? And also how do we drive economics that are really good for us and the creator so that we can do more? There's no recipe, and that's part of the exciting times.''

In terms of metrics for success, Yahoo, Hulu, and YouTube work like television in that they are ad-supported, and streams and views are counted.

Netflix and Hulu Plus, on the other hand, hope to generate revenue by luring subscribers with exclusive programming, whether original shows like "The Booth at the End" or known quantities like the resurrection of the critically adored former Fox sitcom "Arrested Development," which just began shooting.

Then there are passion projects like Seinfeld's show, sponsored by video-hosting site crackle.com, in which economics don't appear to be a factor.

For now, the platforms are keeping any viewership numbers they have to themselves.

"It would be a crazy question not to ask," says Forssell when asked about the definition of success online. "But I'm worried that it represents a slippery slope down which most of the major TV networks have had to fall, which is as soon as you start saying how many streams [you've had] or give some sort of ratings — even if you did it over a yearly period — then the next question is 'How much came in the first couple of weeks?' And you head down that path where the ultimate ending is you've got to make a show a success in the first three or four episodes, or else it's 'too late' and you've got to move on."

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Much of the online content boom can be attributed to the shrinking of costs to produce high-quality video content. A couple of cameras, some computer programs, a few actors, and you're good to go.

"You don't need a 200-person crew to make a show that looks like this anymore," says Robbins of "Runaways," which has a sleek, "Gossip Girl" veneer.

But to Robbins, more important than the financial freedom — and potential rewards thanks to ownership of the product — was the creative freedom YouTube offered: "We got to make the show we wanted."

"The common thread seems to be the creative freedom to not have to go through notes after notes after notes," says Bill O'Dowd, chief executive of Dolphin Digital Media. His company is producing "Cybergeddon" (a feature-length thriller presented in installments, from "CSI" mastermind Anthony Zuiker) for launch in September on Yahoo, as well as the just-launched "H+ The Digital Series" with producer-director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," "X-Men: First Class") on a dedicated YouTube channel.

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Another attractive feature is the speed with which online content can be made and distributed. "Cybergeddon" was written last fall, shot in the spring, and goes online in September — far quicker than the pace of a feature-film production.

"You're getting the whole world to see it, as opposed to just a United States distributor," says Davola. With YouTube alone getting 800 million views every month, Robbins says "the potential sampling is off the charts, and our audience is on that platform." Plus, adds Davola, with the advent of "smart" TVs, "you can click over to YouTube and Netflix and all of that, it's going to be ingrained in the audience that their programming is just out there. They're not making a conscious choice between network or this or that, they're just going to watch what they like."

O'Dowd says actors are often attracted to online projects, even at a pay cut, because the productions offer widespread exposure. "Cybergeddon," which stars Olivier Martinez and Missy Peregrym, will be featured on the Yahoo homepage, which gets 70 million hits a day. It's especially alluring for actors such as Peregrym or Hulu's "Booth at the End" star Xander Berkeley, who can move up from supporting to starring roles.

Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band member who went on to play the supporting role of Silvio Dante on "The Sopranos," is front and center in the first Netflix original series, "Lilyhammer."

"For them to pick that show as their first original programming was just so hip and such a compliment," he says of the series in which he plays a gangster under witness protection in Norway. "It has reverberated around the world."

When it comes to online programming, humor in short bursts is still the most popular and plentiful type. But more genres are gaining a foothold, from soaps to talk shows, which is where Larry King enters the picture.

The longtime CNN fixture, who retired in 2010, was lured by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to throw his hat back into the ring online with "Larry King Now" on Hulu.

Though he misses taking live calls, King says he loves that he can tape whenever he wants and viewers can watch on demand.

"Last night I was at the Dodger game and four different people came up to me, and one said, 'I saw you this morning,' one said, 'I saw you last night,' one said 'I'll watch you this afternoon.' It's a revolution for me. I think it's a great adventure."

The adventure can offer unexpected rewards: Some shows that originated online have been sold as DVDs or repurposed for broadcast or cable networks. Showtime has already aired Lisa Kudrow's "Web Therapy," the CW will air "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" on Oct. 9, and Palladia will air Daryl Hall's popular music series "Live From Daryl's House" this fall.

For stars with passion projects, the rewards go beyond the financial.

Last season, actress Jennifer Beals starred in Fox's "The Chicago Code." Now with the military drama "Lauren," which launched in August on the "WIGS" YouTube channel, she gets to address a topic she feels is important and doesn't get much mainstream attention: sexual assault in the military. "It's all kinds of questions about gender and power and violence and ethics and a changing paradigm, and the more we talk about it the faster it will change," she says.

For Beals it's not even a matter of being able to tell this story in a way she couldn't on broadcast television: "I don't know if broadcast television would be interested," she says.


Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman