NBC's New Net Show

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When confronted with a mega-hit like Fox’s “American Idol,” television executives at competing networks typically respond in the same way: they try to copy it. But NBC has decided to jump into the already-crowded music competition fray in a slightly different fashion—by extending the concept to the Internet. This week the once Must-See-TV network announced plans to produce “StarTomorrow,” an Internet series that will let audiences select the country’s next big band or singing group using their computers. If all goes as planned, “StarTomorrow,” which will debut early this summer and run for 16 weeks, will be the first original entertainment series launched by a major network exclusively on the Internet. “The series is totally interactive,” says Jeff Gaspin, president, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Digital Content.

It’s no secret that every network is exploring ways to deliver content via other platforms, be it the Internet, cell phones or iPods (this week Survivor producer and reality TV impresario Mark Burnett announced he's working on an Internet project with Yahoo! and AOL, a division of Time Warner, the parent of TIME). But NBC is hoping that “StarTomorrow” can marry the best of the old and new mediums, giving younger audiences the kind of interactive online experience they like with the already popular music competition format. Viewers will be able to go to NBC.com and watch “StarTomorrow” for a few minutes or two hours at a time. “This is a very conducive way that people like to watch video online,” says Gaspin, who jumped ship from programming to head up NBC’s digital content department. “A three-minute performance, a quick interview, a commentary.”

The online process for “StarTomorrow” is, in many ways, similar to that of "Idol" and its imitators. A new episode will be downloaded each week consisting of about 20 auditioning bands, and users will then be able to vote on which ones they think deserve to go to the next round. They can also link to the groups’ backstories and listen to what music industry executives and other celebrity musicians think of the performances. The winner will be signed to the Casablanca label, a division of—you guessed it—NBC's sister company, Universal Music Group, run by Tommy Mottola, who is also co-producing the series.

The idea for “StarTomorrow” was hatched in NBC’s broadcast department seven months ago, when Mottola and the producers of “The Biggest Loser” pitched the idea as a reality show for the TV network. Gaspin felt the "Idol" genre was already too crowded, but decided—when he started his new job on NBC’s digital end—that it might stand a better chance on the Net. For one thing, it makes economic sense.

"StarTomorrow" will cost about 20 percent of what it would cost to produce for the network; advertisers will also pay less for spots, making it (at least initially easier) to attract their interest (and dollars). More importantly, "StarTomorrow" takes NBC further into the realm of digital entertainment. “We’re a content company and there’s an awful lot of content moving towards the web. We need to experiment and find new things,” says Gaspin. Even, as with this particular "Idol" imitation, they're just experimenting with a new version of an old thing.