Does Alex Trebek shave against the grain? Does Karolina Kurkova use SPF 125? These are the do-or-die details magazine underlings Russell (Peter Karinen) and Dylan (Brian Sacca) must confirm in the new eight-episode NBC Digital series FCU: Fact-Checkers Unit. [Ed. note: We feel their pain.] We called executive producer Tom Bannister, whose production company, SXM, also helmed NBC's well-received Web series CTRL (starring Arrested Development's Tony Hale as an office-worker with a magical keyboard), to get the inside scoop on FCU, which debuted this week.
Fast Company: FCU is based on a 2007 short film of the same title. How did you decide to turn the standalone movie it into a series?
Tom Bannister: All of our branded shows so far have come from short-form pieces of content—films, Web videos, etc.—that we have seen and fallen in love with. We saw FCU at Sundance and thought it would be perfect for the Web, because it's kind of a procedural, and it's kind of episodic. So we optioned it at the same time we optioned CTRL [sponsored by Snapple], which is based off a short film called CTRL+Z.
FC: Having pre-existing content probably helps a lot when you're securing a sponsor.
TB: Certainly. Showing an ad agency or brand something that's already been shot makes all the difference in selling it, because people can see the acting, the dynamics, the chemistry between the actors, the humor, and more. It's the same in any area of entertainment. They also know that they're investing in a group that has already proven they can work together and that has really shown a passion for the idea they've come up with. So when [the sponsor] asks them to make more, it can tap into a passion that perhaps isn't there when someone has worked directly from a brand brief.
FC: How did you wind up partnering with Samsung for FCU?
TB: The pitch was that the fact-checkers would use smartphones to check facts during each mission. Which is really organic, because the nature of a fact-checker's job is starting in an office, and then moving to the field to check facts. [Ed. Note: Or just staying in an office and making frantic phone calls.] So it's completely legit that these characters would have a smartphone to help them out, with GPS navigation, search, etc. That proved to be a great way to showcase Samsung's new Galaxy phone.
FC: But can't that kind of product placement get annoying?
TB: Audiences can be very unforgiving if you go into something and the integration is really obvious or heavy-handed, with characters going, "Isn't this XYZ product great?" That's why, when it comes to producing this stuff, you have to make sure the integrations are as clever and seamless as possible.
FC: How do you do that with FCU?
TB: The first episode is a spoof of [the 2009 horror hit] Paranormal Activity called "Paranomal Factivity," and it involves the fact-checkers sneaking into Luke Perry's house to confirm that he thinks it's haunted. So we see him set up his phone camera to tape the ghosts every night, and we have a whole scene that's shot [in the surveillance footage style of] Paranomal Activity from an HD Samsung phone. We really try to do a lot of stuff like that that we hope is a unique and fun way to do product integration.
FC: Do you think the Web can grow into its own legitimate entertainment medium?
TB: For that to happen, there has to be a way to make more money off of it. As business models for online media change and more people start watching it, ad revenues will go up and microtransactions will get more people to spend money online. Then yeah, I think Web TV will become media in and of itself. There's no reason a Facebook TV show can't get the traction of Farmville. It's all about trying to figure out the right economic model, which no one has done yet.
FC: It can't hurt to get celebrities such as Perry, Trebek, and Dave Navarro to make cameos.
TB: Celebrities have fan bases. Also, generally speaking, they're celebrities for a reason: They're really good at what they do. Casting Tony Hale in CTRL, for example, helped us tap into the whole Arrested Development fan base, who are really, really vocal online. And that definitely makes [brands and viewers] pay attention. But again, the key is treating the audience as intelligently as possible, because people are very, very savvy these days.
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A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.