Developing original series for Microsoft has taken a little longer than veteran TV executive Nancy Tellem had hoped, but her first slate of shows will launch on the Xbox videogame consoles early next year.
“We’re hoping we will be able to put something up in the first quarter, at minimum second quarter,” said Tellem, president of entertainment and digital for Microsoft, at Variety’s Dealmakers Breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
“I’m incredibly ambitious and impatient,” said Tellem, who took the job to produce original content for the Xbox platform in 2012. Because of that, the time it’s taken to develop the first slate of series, including a high-profile project based around “Halo,” with Steven Spielberg producing, has been “slower,” but “reflecting on what we’ve done and what lies ahead, it’s been pretty good.”
Tellem was attracted to joining Microsoft after spending years at CBS and the CW, closely monitoring how content was changing websites and how millennials interact with it.
“I was always looking for the next thing,” she says. “Technology and the transition that was taking place was incredibly interesting to me. It’s very exciting for me to be in this position right now and see how the business model evolves and how content evolves.”
With 48 million Xbox Live subscribers on more than 72 million Xbox consoles around the world, Tellem has a large base of viewers to put her first shows in front of. The hard part for her has been to explain to Hollywood just where Xbox fits into the new world of digital platforms.
“We aren’t Netflix, we aren’t Amazon, we’re a different animal,” she said. “We’re neither or we’re a little like them. It all depends. The lack of black and white and this is the template and this is what we’re following is very difficult. As we continue to do deals everyone’s going to get more comfortable.”
But any confusion is understandable. As Tellem meets with Hollywood dealmakers, she and her team at Microsoft are still figuring out what will resonate with Xbox’s audience and which business models will make sense for producing content, she says, along with the number of episodes a series might require or specific formats that don’t have to meet the release schedules of a typical TV season.
“Depending on the piece of content, the deals change,” Tellem adds. “We’re talking about exclusives, exclusive first windows, exclusive second windows. We play a lot with windows and co-production arrangements” and “whether we feel these are ideas are franchise building or we can own completely.”
And when it comes to original programming, “we’re trying to focus on whether it’s only on Xbox or best on Xbox,” Tellem said, referring to exclusive series or interactive features added to NFL broadcasts, for example.
But if a show “doesn’t resonate, interactive features won’t matter,” Tellem said.
Microsoft’s hiring of Tellem comes as the technology industry is signaling that it’s starting to understand the value Hollywood offers.
“We’re in this amazing time where these two worlds are coming together,” Tellem said. “It’s only now that we’re getting comfortable with each other. Everyone recognizes how important content is in device adoption. There’s always talk about what apps are available on your phone or what apps you can get. It can be an incentive to buy something or not to buy something.”
Hollywood must now also realize the opportunities technology and the variety of mobile devices flooding the market provide content producers.
“I started when we had three networks and dictated what the audience would watch and when they would watch it,” Tellem said. “Millennials are now dictating what we’re doing. I prefer a more passive experience, but this new millennial generation are multi-tasking and leaning in. They want the option to watch when they want to watch.”
Tellem’s goal at Microsoft isn’t to redefine, but to evolve the television viewing experience, she said, while increasing the number of subscribers to Xbox Live. In doing so, she’s eliminating some of the waste TV networks are known for, like spending heavily to produce pilots for shows that will never make it to air. She also wants to eliminate the many layers that make talent feel as if they’re working in a silo.
“We’re here to support the artists and the talent,” Tellem says. “We don’t have the layers traditional media has. Our studio is very lean which allows us to be a lot more nimble and have a direct relationship with talent and help them realize their vision.”
Tellem is developing shows for Xbox as owners of the company’s consoles spend more time consuming video content than playing video games.
As for the future of Microsoft and the company’s next CEO who will take over from Steve Ballmer in 2014, “addressing the demands of the consumer” and embracing the TV Everywhere model “will hold true to anyone who is running the company,” Tellem said. “The content and what we’re building will be an important part of our future.”