TheWB.com's latest original series, a teen drama titled The Lake, is hardly groundbreaking as scripted entertainment, but it is a very effective centerpiece in a grand platform for advertisers. At a time when traditional and experimental media are colliding and business models are in perilous play that makes it a win for all involved.
The basic story foundation here -- a group of pretty white kids suffering through their own teeny-something dramas -- is vintage WB, recalling more than one series from that late and much-lamented broadcast network. The young and beautiful are the children of four families that spend their summers in a glorious lakeside community, the perfect place to wallow in the kind of problems other folk only dream of dwelling on, especially during this economy.
For the kids it's all about lust, longing, coping with change and finding new friends. Oh, and skin care. The Lake has a single sponsor: Johnson & Johnson's Clean & Clear skin-care line for tweens and teens. These products could not be promoted in a better environment. Eye-catching banner and box ads for Clean & Clear appear above and below TheWB's player, each inviting the viewer to click on it and download a coupon. A breezy fifteen-second spot for the product line appears at the start of and midway through each episode. The spot isn't at all annoying except when viewed over and over again, as is the digital way.
Yes, a couple of the female characters are actually shown using Clean & Clear products during a couple of scenes, but the integration interruptus is extremely brief. It in fact feels organic, to use a tired phrase.
The real impetus that should drive girls (and maybe a few boys) from player to banner to coupon to store isn't the content of the ads or the placement of the products. It's the cumulative effect of watching several teenagers with perfect skin over and over and over again. (There isn't a zit to be seen.) Want to look as good as one of them? Click on the banner above.
This is not to imply that The Lake is just some kind of extended advertisement or high-grade infomercial. It can stand alone as a solid if lightweight show. But, as presented on this platform, it is one-half of a perfect marriage of program and product presented in a way that viewers may very well respond to.
As for the production itself, the tale of The Lake is told in twelve segments custom made for the YouTube generation and ranging in length from approximately 7-12 minutes. Even without the recaps and brief credits that open each episode that adds up to approximately 90 minutes, the length of a typical made-for-broadcast or basic cable movie (which The Lake could be, in that it spans an entire summer and leaves only one significant plot thread unresolved at the end). Overall it is a remarkable achievement: It looks just as good as many broadcast movies and better than many basic cable flicks, yet was produced for a fraction of the cost. (Credit for that goes to the entire production team, especially director Jason Priestley.) At a press conference for this show during the recent Television Critics Association tour, executive producer Jordan Levin (the former Chief Executive Officer of the WB network and now the co-founder and CEO of the multi-media studio Generate) indicated that the budget for The Lake was way below half the cost of a single episode of an hour long broadcast drama series.
Interestingly, even though it is largely about teens that are hot for each other, The Lake is pretty tame when compared to broadcast or basic cable programming. In fact, there is more skin, sex and sex talk in the dramas on ABC Family than there is here. Throughout all twelve episodes there is very little "naughty" language, no sex to speak of and a one-time nudity tease that reveals nothing at all. (Early in the series the teens swim naked. The girls toss their tops and the boys bare their bottoms but it all happens off screen or underwater.) Tellingly, there are several scenes in which underage kids are shown drinking. How strange that alcohol consumption is okay but full moons are off limits.
"We discussed [content issues] pretty openly with [TheWB.com] and we tried to maintain fairly traditional broadcast standards because we recognize that we are catering to, in large cases, a younger audience and we have a sponsor attached and we want to be responsible to that sponsor," Levin told the TCA. "So we may have erred in some cases, being more conservative than many networks that cater to generally younger audiences."
Indeed, that conservative approach might keep The Lake from building buzz and becoming a breakout hit, however that may be defined online. Given what the target audience for this program is already watching on basic cable and the Internet it would seem that, going forward, producers and advertisers alike are going to have to step up and add some adult elements to programs and platforms alike. Still, if The Lake works for Johnson & Johnson that will be a good thing. I'd like to see a second batch of episodes. (Would we call it a sophomore season or a sequel? Since it will run forever online, does it matter?) Meantime, I'd like to see what kinds of Internet programming other big-name producers and directors can deliver with the support of appropriate advertisers. TheWB.com has fashioned a terrific digital template on which others can build exciting models of their own.