Hash Attack - A Q&A With the Creators of E!'s new show Hashtaggers

As traditional television networks struggle to compete with non-linear upstarts such as Netflix that are capturing the attention of millennial viewers who prefer to bingewwatch, or watch programs on mobile devices and computers, one network is pushing back in a novel way. E! has launched Hashtaggers, a comedy series that features a group of millennials who ghost-tweet for celebrities. This sounds ripe for a lot of silly things happening, especially considering how easy it is to step into the wrong hashtag on twitter. So, what's the twist? Hashtaggers is not airing on the E! network; it appears exclusively on E! online and is being promoted by a campaign that airs on its TV channel in a bid to reverse-capture elusive younger viewers. Take that, HBO on the go and you other device-flirters.

Hashtaggers was created and produced for the network by Los Angeles based Stun Creative, whom we have met before. They're no strangers to innovation, or comedy. Stun is the independent entertainment content studio and early adopter behind a slate of successful digital series including Very Mallory, the animated CW Seed comedy; the 2013 Webby winning Presidential Clippings; three seasons and 49 episodes of The Single Life for Conde Nast/Glamour.com; the ten episode web series The Writers Room for Crackle/Sony; and the animated comedy series Obamourage for Comedy Central’s Atom.com. The list goes on.

Founded in 2000 by Brad Roth and Mark Feldstein, Stun built its reputation on witty network promos, such as their Cannes Film Lion Finalist spot for Curb Your Enthusiasm and commercials. Since then, Stun has fast-tracked into one of Hollywood’s most prolific creators of comic new media content. One year ago the shop produced a spec episode of Hashtaggers, then called TwitWits, as a possible backdoor TV pilot. Little did they know that the digital revolution would transform their clever little concept into a game-changing online program that is challenging the primacy of televised entertainment.

adland: How did you come up with the idea for Hashtaggers?

Brad Roth: It really crystalized for us about three years ago, after an incident on Twitter. Lindsay Lohan sent out a tweet during Hurricane Sandy. She naively asked what’s everyone getting all panicked about? Of course, it turned out there was a lot to get panicked about. There was a tremendous amount of damage. She took a lot of heat for that tweet. Mark and I were thinking, why is she tweeting on her own? Someone else should be handling that for her. We thought there must be a business that handles the social media correspondence of celebrities and public figures so that faux pas like this don’t happen. Of course it turned out there are such businesses and we thought, what a great set-up for a workplace comedy, especially for a millennial-based comedy.

adland: Was the original idea a TV or a digital concept?

Mark Feldstein: We just thought it was a great idea, and that it could work for both. But our thinking leaned towards digital; since it was about social media we thought it would be smart to deliver it through social media. We also realized it could be cross-platform, with a presence on linear TV with an extension on digital.

Roth: We shot a small pilot in our office. We like to call it a presentation tape. It captured the concept, the milieu of a social media agency and the characters that we loosely sketched out. It was basically a three minute trailer and it just really popped. E! was the first place we took it to. We thought it made a lot of sense for them because it represents a merger of pop culture, entertainment and celebrity culture, everything that their network is about. We've created advertising and promotions for the network, so we know their brand.

Feldstein: We also knew their audience. It’s an audience immersed in social media.

adland: Do you guys often work on spec?

Roth: We are a micro-studio at Stun, complete with our animation studio Buster. This allows us to create productions, mini-pilots, presentations and animation samples in-house, and helps us sell ideas. We did this with Very Mallory, The Single Life and others.

Feldstein: As a micro-studio, with a creative department, we have the resources and aptitude to conceive ideas and to bring them to life.

Roth: And this works great in the digital age, because if you produce a three or four minute spec episode, that’s the same length as the final show. When you produce a 20 or 30 minute spec piece for TV, it’s not as an effective or efficient tool. There’s a lot of real estate at stake in that, not just in terms of production but also in terms of developing a story arc. In the digital world, if you can tell a really effective story in three minutes, the leap to making it into a show is easy.

adland: Hashtaggers is being promoted by E! on its TV network. Why?

Roth: When networks first started having a web presence, the sites were simply meant to promote the linear programming. What is obviously happening very recently and in a short period of time is that networks now see their digital platforms as a very valuable distribution tool. They are recognizing a major shift in the way media is consumed. Now they are pushing from their linear network to their digital channels, the pipeline is going the other way.

adland: Did you have any idea this would happen?

Feldstein: No. In the past, web content basically stayed in its own ecosystem. Now it’s crossing over. I think this represents E!’s confidence in our show and their belief in their web property. They’ve created lots of traffic. It’s a very valuable piece of real estate.

Roth: The fact that they are pushing from on-air to the site confirms that they see online as an equally viable place for content.

adland: This appears to signal a subtle but major shift in the media landscape, no?

Roth: It does signal a major shift, for two reasons. One, network executives really believe they can develop a strong concept for digital and scale it to network and do it at a much better, cheaper price point. They can essentially create what’s called a backdoor pilot or an incubator online rather than on-air, which can be costly and often prohibitive. This idea has been out there, but it’s becoming more real because there are more eyeballs than ever glued to these digital properties. Two, networks are now able to say to brands that are now advertising on-air, ‘Hey, look at what we’ve done for you on TV, we can also take your brand and integrate it in and around a digital series. It’s a growing sales tool.

Feldstein: Networks now more than ever are realizing that traffic to their websites is growing tremendously. They have giant numbers of loyal followers. E! has about 44 million uniques a month. They don’t see online as a lesser medium for content, they see it as another viable and lucrative channel and they are investing in it, creating content for it. And that opens up lots of opportunities for content producers, like Stun. And here’s another interesting development; back in the day there were just TV and movie celebrities, now there are YouTube celebrities, who are in many cases more well-known and better paid than some of the more traditional celebrities. And brands are tapping into them for endorsements and advertising. This is a significant shift.

adland: Does the linear network benefit from having successful digital series?

Feldstein: Yes, and here’s an example, our CW Seed series Very Mallory. Every episode features stars from programs on the TV network, such as The Flash and Arrow. That was very intentional. It’s a cross promotion that’s been very successful. You can have a very strong linear network driving traffic to their digital property as well as strong digital content driving viewers to the linear side.

adland: What’s the future of this reversal trend moving forward?

Roth: Right now Stun has three series on three different network home pages, E! online, CW Seed and Glamor.com. All scripted, comedy, live action and animation. I don’t know many other shops in Hollywood that can say that. There’s so much volume out there right now. Digital is a strong future for companies like ours.

Feldstein: The future is here already.

Roth: And to move the needle even further it will take a true, narrative digital series that becomes a sensation, not a clip of someone sitting in a desk chair discussing video games. I’m talking about a True Detective for online, that really captures the attention and imagination of audiences; that becomes part of pop culture. That’s what we need. That would be the tipping point. I bet if you put 50 people in a room and ask them about online content, no two people among the 50 will know the same series. They might know a YouTube star, but not a true scripted series online.

Feldstein: Right now you have millions of young people watching things like Pewdiepie, which is fun but doesn’t really have a narrative. When you get the type of narrative content that can pull in viewers from a more mature demographic, that’s when the big shift will happen. That’s when digital will take a huge leap forward. But that then raises the question, where will that content ultimately live, what will it look like? Will programs expand to ten or twenty minutes, or stay at three minutes. Will each episode be just one scene, or many? It’s certainly going to be interesting.

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Dabitch Creative Director, CEO, hell-raising sweetheart and editor of Adland. Globetrotting Swede who has lived and worked in New York, London, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm after growing up in Kiruna, Raleigh and Jiddah.