BIZ: GEN-Y ROGUES- A Chat with Wirebreak CEO David Wertheimer
by Kevin Dreyfuss/EB Insider
(EBInsider/4.3.00) -- From its inception, Wirebreak.com has been something of a loud,
raucous younger sibling to the rest of the next-gen entertainment
world. They've made no bones about their laser-like focus on the Gen-
Y male audience, which translates into shows like "Girls Locker Room
Talk," a short-lived series that centered on a group of girls
chatting about oral sex and condom preferences. More recently, at
the Yahoo! Online Film Festival, Wirebreak launched their newest show
in the same "guy's guy" vein called "Backdoor Hollywood," it
features male and bikini-clad female hosts giving news and reviews
from the entertainment world, and featuring a heavy emphasis on
booze, cleavage, Tiki-themed decor and one sporadically funny
In contrast to many other next-gen entertainment outposts on the Web,
Wirebreak has made a commitment to homegrown, Web-only content, as
well as a sincere attempt to create truly innovative, interactive
programming. Wirebreak's mastermind, Chairman and CEO David
Wertheimer, comes from three years of experience running Paramount
Pictures' Digital Entertainment arm, where he saw firsthand the
coming digital revolution. "I left in October of 1998 because I saw
a huge opportunity being created in a new form of entertainment
online," he recollects. "I didn't think anybody was really taking
advantage of the medium for what the medium could be."
Wertheimer sees grand designs behind his sometimes Lowest Common
Denominator entertainment, a kind of entertainment that combines
traditional old short films with something new and more
participatory. He sat down to talk with EB Insider on the balcony of
the Wirebreak suite at the Standard Hotel in LA during the whirling
insanity of the Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival.
EB INSIDER: So when you talk about participatory entertainment, what
have you seen working on Wirebreak in terms of the mix between
traditional film or video storytelling and interactivity?
DAVID WERTHEIMER: We're really trying to push the envelope on
interactive entertainment. One of the shows that's been most
critically acclaimed was called "In the Neighborhood", which is not
on our site right now, but will be coming back. "In the
Neighborhood" was an interactive comedy-adventure where you'd come in
and you could choose the path of the story and you could feel like
you were a part of it, like you were somehow directing it. It was
scripted, but it was done in a really interesting way, and a lot of
the research I've done over the years played into how it worked --
like what audiences like and don't like, what is enough work and what
is too much work. What was amazing was that the audience really
responded to the interactivity and the parts that I pushed really
hard on, and what they thought could be improved was the story and
characters, the fictional stuff. So we're now going back and taking
the hard part, which I think is figuring out how to make people
interact with it, and coming up with a different take on the story
and characters, and we'll put that back together and re-launch the
show in a month or two. We're committed to trying to do something
that gets beyond just pure linear, short stuff, because to our mind,
that might as well be on television, or film, or whatever.
EBI: That brings up the sorry history of Hollywood's experiments
with interactive movies. We all know that these experiments have
been universal failures.
WERTHEIMER: It's true, because I think Hollywood falls back on what
it knows as a crutch. And what it knows is how to do linear
storytelling. Which is interesting, because what you see people
talking a lot about on the Internet today is short film, and you
know, short film could really be anywhere. And so, how is that
really taking the medium to the next level?
It's like in the early days of television, all the early TV shows
were recreated radio show. Same exact thing now, the same stuff, now
available in a new medium. And people say, yeah, that's really neat,
it's a novelty. But in the early days of television, people didn't
go out and buy television sets because they saw the same stuff and
said, yeah , it's kinda neat, but I'm not really gonna change my
consumption habits, because it's not fundamentally different. And
then, when the Milton Berle show came on, people said, wow, now
that's something I never could have seen on the radio, so I'm going
to go out and buy a television set and change the way I view
entertainment. And that is what our company is committed to doing.
You see now on the site the first stage of that. We now have 30
programs in development that are taking it to the next level.
EBI: So what's the goal for Wirebreak in terms of how large the
programming offering should grow, and how to grow the site beyond the
Gen-Y male audience?
WERTHEIMER: Our goal long-term is to have a number of different
vertical channels, so our first one was 18-34 year old men. They
were chosen because they were the most likely people to be
comfortable enough with the technology to consume it, and advertisers
are having the hardest time reaching those audiences, so those things
go together really nicely. And it's also a good place to start from
a comedy point of view.
The thing with Wirebreak is that the whole idea is to take a break
from your daily life. Don't take a coffee break, take a Wirebreak.
So it was all kind of a no-brainer, and we started there. We're
going to branch out to a number of other places over time, after we
build this foundation, then we'll have all of these core assets in
terms of production costs, in terms of interactivity infrastructure.
We could then easily throw another skin on it, new programming into
EBI: In terms of production, you announced here at Yahoo! your
production deal with Paradise Digital Production (PDP) for hundreds
of new episodes this year. Are you changing your process like the
DEN is, trying to outsource more of your production, and is that a by-
product of financial necessity?
WERTHEIMER: For us, PDP is a part of our overall our plan, and
always has been. We have a core production staff that is capable of
producing a lot of content. But what I know from my days at
Paramount is that you want to have certain people on staff to do
certain tasks, but you never want to have everybody on staff, because
you need to have the ability to scale up and back. You want to have
relationships with people who are in the business of producing
things, who you can go to on a dime and say, bring together a crew
for me and we're going to produce this show. So PDP is a logical
extension of what we have been doing, it hasn't been a change in
focus, we've just grown past the point where we can produce
everything ourselves and so now we're looking for people who can
produce things at that quality level.
EBI: So how do you deal with advertisers and sponsorships? Even
though the audience numbers aren't really there, is the niche
audience you deliver enough for them?
WERTHEIMER: Advertisers have been incredibly responsive to what
we've been doing, because of the target market, because of the way we
speak to people, because we're offering them a new kind of vehicle.
It's not like buying banners on any other site -- we can provide
with traditional advertising, but we can also go beyond that and
create new kind of advertising vehicles, built into the programming,
flash advertising, and so forth.
Some of the new ad units we've created for advertisers like Gilette
are getting 5 to 10 times the click-through of banner advertising on
any other site. So advertisers are looking at that and saying, well,
the audiences today aren't huge, but we have an opportunity to
experiment with new kinds of advertising vehicles, reach audiences in
new ways, and it's really valuable for us, because the advertising is
a lot more effective.
EBI: Do you see Internet programming going back to the old-time TV
or radio show sponsorship model?
WERTHEIMER: Absolutely, a lot of our shows are sponsored by
different advertisers, and the Net is perfect for that. Because in
the old days, it was the Texaco Star Theater or whatever, but beyond
getting their name there, that didn't really mean a lot. In this
medium, sponsored programming can easily allow that advertiser to get
right up next to the consumer, so if the consumer likes what they see
or hear they go right through and complete a transaction. For an
advertiser, that's a world that they've never been in before.
EBI: And just what are you trying to get out of this Yahoo! Festival?
WERTHEIMER: This festival . . .show . . . nightmare . . .freak show,
it's interesting to us because it helps us maintain visibility with
people who are creative, and what we've found is that people have
really responded to what we've been doing, because it's different
than what everybody else here is focusing on. Everybody else is
fighting with each other to get that guy's short film on their site,
and we tell a very different story. We want that guy to work with us
to create a new kind of program that's going to break through in this
medium and make people say, wow, entertainment on the Internet,
that's different, that's new, I'm doing something different here. So
for us, it's been a great show, because it's allowed us to stand out,
because we're unique in this environment.
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