Earlier this week, Microsoft detailed their Xbox Originals TV service, an Xbox-exclusive video service set to offer original video programming for Xbox One and Xbox 360 owners. The company is pitching new programs across the board: sports, music and even two projects based around their pride-and-joy franchise, Halo. It’s a big deal, especially with competition from not only other services like Netflix and Hulu, but their gaming rival Sony and their PlayStation 4. The listings are set and the visions are out, but it’s clear that Microsoft is taking a big gamble with Xbox Originals TV, a gamble where the risk is high and the plan is far too unstructured. This is not something Microsoft should be doing right now.
With the success of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, console owners were not only able to download their favorite new games to their system of choice, but also binge watch their favorite TV shows and movies from the comfort of their own home. My PS3 and Wii U became the go-to systems for me when I wanted to check out an episode of Sword Art Online or Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix, and I wasn’t the only one. In 2011, it was reported that over 50% of Netflix users used a video game console to access that service. It’s clear that entertainment apps are close to home with gamers. But with Netflix’s success of syndicated series on their service, the next logical step was to create original programming that could only be accessed on the streaming service itself without a cable airing to speak of. Hulu aired a number of original series like A Day in the Life and The Awesomes, while Netflix got the long-anticipated fourth season of critically acclaimed series Arrested Development along with new series like Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards (which was also the first series that was exclusive to online streaming services to win a Primetime Emmy Award).
With the multimedia push displayed in Microsoft’s Xbox One, it’s not too surprising to hear that the Big M wants to get in on the growing trend of service-specific content on the system. Earlier this week, Microsoft announced six confirmed productions for their original TV service, Xbox Originals TV, with a number of other series reported to be in development and aren’t likely to air before the end of 2014. Of the six confirmed productions, two take place in the Halo universe. Others include Every Street United (a soccer-themed reality show featuring up-and-coming soccer athletes), Humans (an English-language adaptation of the Swedish series Real Humans), live coverage of the Bonnaroo concert festival, and the more curious Signal to Noise (whose first episode detailed the former urban myth of the buried E.T. Atari 2600 cartridges that were buried in Arizona following the Video Game Crash of the 80’s). All of these shows are set to air exclusively on Xbox One and Xbox 360 systems.
At the moment, Microsoft is having trouble nabbing the attention of the core gaming crowd away from their immediate competitor Sony. The Playstation 4 is taking control of a majority of the market and most of it is attributed to their involvement in the gaming realm. Sony has invested a tremendous amount of energy into grabbing the gamers and keeping them on the PS4 side of the fence with AAA releases like Infamous: Second Son and a steady stream of indie support in between major releases. Though their console does have all of the typical streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video, Sony has not been pushing their multimedia functionality as diligently as Microsoft has. The Xbox One has been pushed as a multimedia device since Day 1, displaying itself as the single device you’ll need for all of your media, regardless of format. In a way, Xbox Originals TV is an extension of that mentality, though not necessarily for the better. As a system that’s already on thin ice with the gamers, the Xbox One is walking further down the path of appealing to non-gamers, using the same signature tactics that Netflix and Hulu did. Microsoft continues to treat the Xbox One as a media device, and instead of supporting each of the different formats with equal attention, the focus on video content is making the gaming appeal of the system much less of an importance.
And that’s not even judging the kind of programming that Microsoft is aiming to air under this label. We’re currently living in a golden age of episodic television, one where amazing TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men are getting so much attention, along with a social media presence that makes watching these shows with fellow fans a very community-driven environment. The choice of programming that Microsoft wants to air doesn’t seem to have that massively open-ended appeal that something like Netflix’s House of Cards would have. A lot of the announced shows are the kind of things you’d see on a much smaller channel like Spike TV. The sports show Every Street United fits absurdly well into the stereotypical “sports-centric” audience that Microsoft has been labeled with over time, while Humans, despite a sci-fi theme of evil robot conspiracies, looks extremely niche, nowhere near the Emmy-peaking drama of something like House of Cards. The coverage of Bonnaroo is remarkably inventive, allowing you to switch stages on the fly to see the live shows, but that is nothing worth buying a console for, especially since it’s not a series (just a single event).
This really leaves the Halo series and digital feature and Signal to Noise as the only shows that appear to appeal to a gaming audience, and both of those are a huge stretch. To be fair, the excavation of the E.T. Landfill was a pretty engaging moment. My Twitter feed blew up once the news broke that this urban legend was proven true. However, this is only the first episode of Signal to Noise, which is set for a total of six installments. The press release detailing the program read “The series will expose little known stories of how modern technology has radically altered the way we interact with our world.” That’s a vague statement, mostly because “technology” can be used amorphously. It could be referencing a smartphone or gaming system, but it could also be referencing digital surveillance or social media networks. There’s no set theme detailed in this series, so there isn’t too much of a chance that this series’ content will be what gamers want to hear.
But Halo has a following. It’s still one of the most popular and recognizable franchises in gaming; with a grandiose and involving mythos, along with plenty of action-focused setpieces, it’s not a series without substance. The Halo TV series will be executive produced by Steven Spielberg himself with close coordination with the current Halo helms 343 Industries. Similarly, the Halo digital feature will have the pedigree of Alien director Ridley Scott as executive producer, also with coordination with 343 Industries and direction by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan of Battlestar Galactica fame. Both of these Halo projects appear to be targeting fans specifically, which is a stark contrast to the broader appeal seen in any of the other Xbox Originals TV projects, so if any of these series can make the service worthwhile, it’s the Halo projects.
The overarching issue that’s being seen with Xbox Originals TV is a lack of focus. Normally, that wouldn’t be too much of an issue, because variety is the spice of life. However, in this context of paying for production of original content, Microsoft is casting their net too wide. It’s great seeing high-budget projects like Halo and Signal to Noise, alongside traditional drama like Humans, but if you look at a service like Netflix, you’ll find their episodic original programming series to be rather condensed. Out of the four ongoing adult series on Netflix, most of them have been proven successes. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black have been critically acclaimed, with the other two, Lilyhammer and Hemlock Grove, earning enough viewership to continue production. They’ve earned support and funds required for further seasons. Microsoft isn’t focusing on only drama or only humor; they’re trying to appeal to so many different audiences without any assurance that these varied ideas will succeed. This is exacerbated further by shows with high production costs. The Halo features are demanding, especially with Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott pedigrees; they will be expensive to produce. This makes Microsoft’s TV vision look much more like a gamble than a goal. If these series don’t catch on, a lot of money will go down the drain
Xbox Originals TV sounds like a good idea, but the way that Microsoft seems to be going about it is discouraging. They’re pushing TV shows, many of which are expensive to make, without a proper target audience. So many different kinds of programming are being made, dividing the Xbox One userbase and not offering something that every owner can enjoy. This investment in TV programming is also pushing away gamers, who are already paying for Netflix or Hulu and don’t want another subscription fee in their credit card bill. Microsoft is trying to offer things that you can only get on Xbox, but their method is scatterbrained and unfocused, which is not something that you want to be when you’re offering up so much money for production costs of these shows.
Xbox Originals TV could be Microsoft’s ace in the hole for video programming for their system, but right now, I’m going to stick to Netflix. There’s just not too much to get excited about yet.