NewFront Reviews: PBS, National Geographic and Maker Wrap 2014 NewFronts

By Simon Applebaum TV / Video Download Archives

Ten business days of Digital Content NewFronts ended earlier this week with another event tripleheader.


Venue : Hudson Theater on W. 44th St., home to many a music, variety or stand-up comedy TV special. Amazing that more programmers don't use this stately, flexible space for upfronts (Disney Channel did last spring...come to think of it, why didn't Disney do something this spring?) Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Presentation : Compact in length (30 minutes), engaging and by far the most revelatory of the rookie NewFront participants. Many in the crowd didn't know PBS, under its Digital Studios unit, has offered short-form Internet series for nearly two years, or knew the 30-plus series now available and in production (some 2,000 segments produced/up to 100 new episodes a month) have found their way beyond to YouTube, Xbox and Roku, with smart TV distribution in development. "We're creating under the radical idea that (digital) media not only entertains, but educates and inspires," noted PBS president Paula Kerger. "This generates a whole new group (millennials) relying on us for content they can't get anywhere else." Plus a new opportunity for advertisers to be involved, added Digital Studios senior director Matt Graham. Kerger and Graham kept the remarks short and the clips plentiful. Grade : 5 Jacks

News : Frankenstein M.D., the first scripted series from this enterprise, will debut this fall, featuring prodigy Victoria Frankenstein in search of eccentric medical experiments. This creation of Emmy-winner Bernie Su will be joined by three other new series this summer and fall: Bongo Bongo (the history of words), Food Buzz (food news made funny) and Pancake Mountain (music/variety series for family viewing). For a closer, Graham presented a Pancake rendition of The Carpenters classic "Close To You" from singer/musician Reggie Watts and friend. Grade: 5 Jacks

Host : Graham stayed on point, assisted by a well-assembled set of videos leaving no doubts over the scope of programming available. A few highlights:Idea Channel, It's Okay To Be Smart and Blank On Blank (animation set to rare interviews with iconic trendsetters). Grade: 5 Jacks

Overall Grade: 5 Jacks PBS showed you can deliver a solid upfront message in timely, engaging fashion. Bravo to all involved. Better yet, how about PBS stations and video-on-demand channels running these series? Top-notch creativity in action.

National Geographic

Venue : Edison Ballroom on W. 47th St., framed on all sides with, you guessed it, breathtaking National Geographic photographs from all over the world. As attendees feasted on coffee, tea and flavored popcorn (later on appetizers from tuna/salmon sliders to sweet potato fries) an Instagram green-screen near the entrance allowed people to snap selfies from various landmarks worldwide. Grade: 5 Jacks

Presentation : When Nat Geo asked industry officials what an upfront presentation should do, the answer was, "Tell us who you are, what you're up to and where you're going, entertain us and get us out on time," according to executive vice president Claudia Malley. With plentiful help from that beautiful Nat Geo footage she provided the answer. What's more, she split the effort into six sections -- exploration, adventure, travel, kids, news and photography. Each section highlighted one or two new short-form series launching this fall, plus live commentary or demonstration from a Nat Geo contributor. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

News : There's a plentiful assortment of fall 2014 series worth catching, based on the videos on display. Among them:The Explorers Project, Expedition: Raw (think one/two-minute video selfies from the scene), What It Takes (adventure preparation), I Heart My City (personal recommendations from city notables), Weird But True News (fun factoid news briefs for teens) and Extreme Exposure (cutting-edge location photography). Grade: 5 Jacks

Host : Malley moved things along in a sparkling manner. Several of the live experts rambled longer than necessary, but the videos and pictures that accompanied them kept everyone from any restless movement. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Overall Grade: 4.5 Jacks Balanced effort, and you can always guarantee Nat Geo's production values and material shines under any circumstances.

Maker Studios

Venue : The Liberty Theater, semi-hidden behind a bar lobby on W. 42nd St. near Times Square and home to both wonderful events (Advertising Week panel sessions) and disasters (BBC America's crowded upfront last spring). For this NewFronts 2014 closer, Maker turned the place into a funky electronic palace, with screens (playing Maker content, including sponsor-created videos) on all sides, DJ to the right and chairs, tables and sofas mixed throughout the floor. Three kinds of meatballs and macaroni and cheese were served in the bar lobby pre-presentation. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Presentation: The ink isn't dry yet on Disney's acquisition of Maker, but that didn't stop this brewer of short-form programming from making allusions to it throughout. An opening video in sepia ended with Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger declaring "I'm A Maker"; another video showcased all the ways Maker's brigade of some 50,000 creators already incorporate Disney characters, and near the close, chief content officer Erin McPherson invited advertiser reps in the audience to start developing ways to connect with the next Star Wars movie. "We'll develop content for all the Disney divisions, including Disney," promised executive chairman Ynon Kreiz. Disney is buying a venture on fire, McPherson added, with Epic Rap Battles of History becoming their House of Cards in online viewership, and other series nearing that mark. When Disney wasn't the topic, unique content -- broken down by 23 categories from comedy to gaming -- was front and center in dazzling fashion. That content will find its way to smart TVs in the near future, McPherson added. Grade: 5 Jacks

News : Under a new Labs@Maker project, notables will co-create original series with Maker and get access to technology tracking viewership or viewer feedback. The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman will be on board with four new scripted series organized through his Skybound comics line. Pop artists, actor James Franco (that's two NewFront undertakings from his corner, the other with AOL's Making the Scene) and extreme sports star Nyjah Huston are the other charter participants. Scripted series ahead include Oh, You Pretty Things (drama about the underground music/fashion scene which launches week after next) and Over the Top (the autobiography of musician Chester See with an original song in each episode). A pair of notable nonfiction projects: Smartish: Entertain Your Brain, Morgan Spurlock's collection of programs featuring new talent with a smart edge on science, economic or cultural matters, and Mind_Craft, gamer Joseph Garrett's educational outreach for kids. Grade : 5 Jacks

Host : McPherson handled the matter with flair and a penchant to react in the moment, as in this one-liner after a Miss Piggy comedy bit. "I idolized Miss Piggy and insulted her at the same time." The Gregory Brothers crooned a folk tune with banjo, and (joined by protege Cody Wise) wrapped up with a multi-song set. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Overall Grade: 4.5 Jacks Dazzling all the way, taking advantage of the new Disney connection. Will this connection lead to Maker's creators engaging in new half-hour/hour series or specials for ABC, ABC Family, Disney Channel, ESPN, A&E, Lifetime, etc.? If so, how soon? These are questions worth pursuing another day.

5 Jacks - Excellent
4 Jacks - Very Good
3 Jacks - Good
2 Jacks - Fair
1 Jack - Poor
0 Jacks -Worse than bad

Next up: Fox Hispanic Media and TVGN

Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!

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