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These pilot efforts entice Web portals

Internet sites turn out in force to size up `people who are coming out of nowhere' at the N.Y. Television Festival, which doubles in size.

September 19, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Among the television officials checking out the pilots at the second annual New York Television Festival were a new breed of development executives: website producers.

The festival, which concluded its five-day run on Sunday, was originally envisioned as a way to introduce broadcast and cable networks to the work of aspiring television creators who otherwise lack entree to the industry -- a Sundance for the small screen.

But in this age of YouTube, the gathering also attracted the attention of Internet executives from companies like ChannelBlast, a live digital network, intent on finding a hit that will popularize the concept of Web-based television viewing.

Perhaps the most telling difference this year was the festival's signature sponsor: Web portal MSN, which hosted all of the pilots online.

"We know the people who create great television are the same people who will be creating great online content, and we want to be in touch with them," said Joe Michaels, MSN's director of business development, one of three MSN executives who attended the festival.

To that end, MSN handed out an artistic achievement award at Sunday's concluding ceremony. The winner -- Brooklyn resident Nick Cogan, creator of "Squid Dragon Legend," a mock-anime show about a dyslexic, pink-haired swordsman destined to save the world -- will receive a $10,000 prize and a development meeting with the Web portal.

"That's intended to tell the video content producer community that MSN is serious about distributing their work," Michaels said.

This summer, MSN launched a new initiative to create unique programming for the Web and premiered its first original series, "Fan Club: Reality Baseball," an interactive show that allows viewers to manage a professional minor league team.

For now, much Web content still consists of "silly videos on YouTube," Michaels said.

"There are people dropping tablets into soda bottles and crashing into walls, and I think that's symptomatic of the fact that the artists who make television haven't turned their attention yet to the Web," he said. "When they do finally realize what a powerful storytelling medium it is, we want to be there."

Around 11,000 people attended this year's television festival, double the number of last year. While some industry veterans said privately that the event still seemed somewhat disorganized in its sophomore year, several network executives praised festival organizers for assembling a pool of new talent eager to break into the business.

"As executives, we sit at our desks and get called by the same group of agents and producers," said Robert Sharenow, vice president of alternative and nonfiction programming for A&E, which picked up a festival pilot last year. "This really is a chance for people who are coming out of nowhere, who just have ideas and talent and passion."

Organizers said they are hopeful that some of the 22 pilots that premiered at the festival will get picked up, noting that many of the creators have already received calls from network executives. Last year, three festival pilots got development deals, including "Off the Hook," a reality show about Brooklyn fishermen that is premiering on OLN (soon to be Versus) this month.

This year's crop of shows was substantially more sophisticated than last year's entrants, many of which were initially made as short films and amateur videos, said Terence Gray, the executive director and founder of the festival.

The bulk of the pilots were shot specifically for the festival, with the help of professional editors whom organizers helped pair with the creators. The winner of this year's TV Guide Audience Award went to "Split the Difference," an offbeat comedy about an ad agency shot in the mockumentary style popularized by NBC's "The Office."

"The quality is way up, and I think everyone in the industry is seeing that," Gray said.

The festival also created a pitch contest, a venue for people with no more than an idea in their head. Contestants submitted 60-second video pitches, which were posted on MSN and voted on by the public. The 15 finalists then had two minutes to sell their idea to a panel of development executives at a Greenwich Village theater last week.

The result was an eclectic array, including "Cream," a drama about mob-controlled ice cream parlors; "Don't Tell My Wife I'm a Cult Leader," a comedy about a man trying to hide his extracurricular activities; and "Team XMA," an action series about a group of taekwondo-practicing teens who outwit terrorists. The latter was the brainchild of 11-year-old Kyle Ditzig of Jacksonville, Fla., whose family drove up to New York so he could make his pitch.

"There were some really fresh and innovative ideas, some diamonds in the rough," said Rachel Smith, director of development and production for original series for the Independent Film Channel, which gave the winner an $8,000 development deal.

That prize went to Echo Park painter Mark Norris, who pitched the panel on "Dictator Island," an animated reality show parody about the likes of Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin stuck together on an island, competing for a Jet Ski.

"Out of sight, man!" Norris said. "Now I've got to make it."

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