Tom Hanks, Tablets, And Arby’s: Inside Yahoo’s Content Strategy

Yahoo’s head of TV, Erin McPherson, outlines the company’s programming strategies and ongoing challenges.

Tom Hanks, Tablets, And Arby’s: Inside Yahoo’s Content Strategy

Erin McPherson believes that original TV content on the web is about to explode. “Consumer behavior has reached a tipping point,” says Yahoo’s VP and head of TV, who credits the introduction of tablets with priming consumers to finally get in the habit of watching original shows online. “Silicon Valley and Hollywood are following consumers’ lead.”

Erin McPherson

If her calculations are correct, the coming debut of Yahoo’s Electric City, an animated series created by and starring Tom Hanks and slated for a summer release, is poised to be the web’s first international blockbuster premium series, which will arrive complete with a robust set of interactive components. It’s one of a handful of new ventures the 17-year-old web company is preparing to introduce after years of producing successful–if not exactly groundbreaking–original video programming.

On the eve of Yahoo’s Digital NewFront presentation, McPherson gives Co.Create a thoughtful assessment of Yahoo’s content strategy and a tantalizing peek at Yahoo Screen’s two big upcoming series, Electric City and CSI creator Anthony Zuiker’s Cybergeddon.

Silicon Valley And Hollywood: Together At Last?

As McPherson tells it, there is a fundamental difference between how the tech industry and the entertainment business go about creating content. “For Silicon Valley, it is a means to an end,” she says. “I’m making a generalization, but content flows through a product; whereas for Hollywood the content is the product. It is not fungible. It is lasting.”

Yahoo is working to meet in the middle, between the infinite, ubiquitous content of, say, YouTube and the precious, one-of-a-kind creations of certain Hollywood studios. McPherson, a former entertainment attorney, who worked with such clients as Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, might be a perfect intermediary as the company works to create Hollywood-style tentpole programming while maintaining its core of quickly and cheaply made shows that narrowly target audiences primed for information, whether about a diet craze or a news story. “Twenty of the top 25 shows on the web are these quick picks of ours,” says McPherson of the 3- to 5-minute, news-you-can-use segments. “That’s something that Yahoo just has down pat. We can drive those kinds of programs really, really well, and target that audience right off our front page.”


As online content becomes more premium, McPherson says, Hulu and Netflix will move toward Hollywood’s “blockbuster mentality,” whereas Yahoo will try to differentiate itself by having a balance of blockbusters and consumer-serving content, such as its high-rated financial news show The Breakout, hosted by two former CNBC analysts, Jeff Macke and Matt Nestor. “One of the things we are is a broadcast network in our scale, in our ability to galvanize a massive audience around a single event…the Olympics, the elections, the Super Bowl, the Royal Wedding, to give real-world examples.”

Content As Change Agent

“I feel like we have a startup inside of Yahoo,” McPherson says of Yahoo Screen and her role as head of TV. “This is a completely nascent, burgeoning business and what’s wonderful is everyone from [Yahoo CEO] Scott Thompson down is supporting it. I haven’t felt it miss a beat,” she says, referring to the much-reported layoffs that are currently going on at Yahoo, which could be a major impediment to any progress. But what seems to be a bit of a frustration right now is the ongoing difficulty of evolving an old institution to new ways of behaving. As an old-school email service, Yahoo must continue to give its users a well-run product. And so, even if you like to, for example, email with your mother about Downton Abbey, the company won’t alert you to its sketch comedy hub Sketchy‘s hilarious send-up of that series, called Downton Arby’s. Says McPherson, “I’d like that to change so when you log into mail you are introduced to Downton Arby’s, especially because we’re going to personalize that. We are working on that. But this is very much like an ocean liner turning.”

As the company gets better at creating viral programming, it hopes to see itself moving up in social awareness. “Downton Arby’s is moving up right now on Facebook,” says McPherson. But then the company has to contend with a perceived downside: people ripping their programming and streaming it on YouTube. “Sketchy has done a quarter of a million illegally on YouTube. What that tells me is, we’re onto something. We’ve hit something. I would characterize this as a complete turnaround.”


And Then There’s Tom Hanks

Who better than Hollywood’s modern-day everyman to help Yahoo move into the future? In addition to acting, Tom Hanks has been creating content for HBO (Band of Brothers, Game Change) and movie studios (Larry Crowne, The Ring 3D) through his production company, Playtone, for years. “I can tell that Tom’s been working in features [and long-form programming] for a while,” McPherson says, “because Electric City is written as a complete arc, in three acts.” It was written to be serialized, but she says, “There are no artificial cliffhangers.”

Which is why McPherson and Hanks and their respective teams are still wrangling over how best to unroll Electric City. “What I love about this is there are no rules right now,” she says. “We are working with the sponsors who look like they’re coming on board to figure out the best way to distribute it. We can put it up all at once–I think we should do that–and really say to our consumer, ‘We want you to get lost in this world.'” Or, Yahoo can roll the series out act by act and work to satisfy the part-time viewer [Electric City is composed of three acts, each act comprising six or seven episodes of roughly four minutes each, totaling 20 episodes in all.] Either way, McPherson hopes to achieve what so much of premium television has accomplished in recent years, with shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Homeland, which has been to turn TV viewing into an immersive experience. “Electric City is a very cerebral piece in a lot of ways, and will require the audience to work to figure it out.”

Designing A Show For Tablet Viewing

“It will work on all platforms,” explains McPherson of the post-apocalyptic, future-set series about a world in which people need a source of energy. “But it’s going to be really cool on a tablet.” There will be, for example, a 3-D map that will allow tablet viewers to zoom in and out on in order to explore the city of the show. McPherson also reveals that Electric City will be dubbed into many other languages because it’s being released globally. “I think the story is one that will appeal to a global audience,” she says, “because it’s sci-fi, it’s animated.”


Yahoo will capitalize on the series’ global themes by connecting to news of real-world events, in a way that perhaps only Yahoo News can. “We can create an environment where, for instance, someone who cares about the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement, or real commentary about the environment, which is a huge theme in the show, can connect to the series.”

Uniting Yahoo News And Entertainment

“Because we’re such a leader in news,” says McPherson, “we will be able to make what’s happening in Cybergeddon real, in a way.” The show, from CSI creator Anthony Zuiker lends itself to real-world tie-ins. McPherson cites recent reports of the hacker group Anonymous as a real-world occurrence that reflects what happens in the show, about the growing threat of cyber crime.

The anti-virus software company Symantec-Norton has signed on as a sponsor of the series, also 90 minutes long and set to debut in the fall. And, McPherson reports, Norton Antivirus has a say in the content of the scripts. “So much of what they do is protect all of their customers from being hacked, having their identity stolen,” says McPherson, who’s sent a writer on the series up to Yahoo’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA, to learn about the company’s practices. “[Yahoo has] one of the longest standing safe, secure mail systems online. We are true experts in the space. So, again, it is marrying the narrative story and real life. I think that’s an interesting creative element that appealed to the creators of both of these new shows.”

Failure IS An Option


“Right now this is the Wild West,” enthuses McPherson. “We’re all figuring it out as we go. And so some of these things will perform better than others despite every amount of research we can put into it. And that’s sort of exciting as well, because we’re all learning together. We sat down with our partners from the start and said, ‘This is going to be a partnership and an endeavor that we have together, and some things will work and some things may not.’ Which is the beautiful thing about digital. Unlike a huge hundred-million-dollar movie with massive, national P&A (prints and advertising budget), we can adjust, we can change. If a certain editorial programming move isn’t working, we can fix it… real time, right then.”

What she’s saying applies much much more to Yahoo’s smaller projects than to Electric City or Cybergeddon, but McPherson gives one example of a venture that went south, on Yahoo’s recently launched women’s site. “We’ve had some shows work better than others. We pulled a show that just wasn’t working. We partnered with [former NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman’s studio] Electus on it and we did so many other projects with them. They were like, ‘We get it.’ The show was developed around data and insights we had that it would work, but it didn’t come out in the creative of it. And in fact we may shelve it and bring it back, because we still love the concept. It’s called Your Friends Will Never Believe You, a lighthearted, Candid Camera-y show with celebrities surprising people.” Snagging a big celebrity every week proved tough. The show featured Jennifer Love Hewitt on one and Joe Jonas on another but, she says, “It’s hard to hit that every week.”

Plus, readers voiced their criticism online. “They said, ‘This just isn’t such a good show.’ That’s the beauty of the medium, you can have that dialogue with your audience, in real time, and we listened to that.”

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.