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Xbox Dives Into Original Content With a ‘Bastion of Bro-Fueled Debauchery’

When three roommates try to build a “bastion of bro-fueled debauchery” in a house on top of a magical portal to another world (yes, you heard right), is it a recipe for disaster? Hilarity? Branded content bliss? Xbox Entertainment Studies thinks it might just be comedy gold. The series, East of Exurbia, is just one piece of Microsoft’s planned adventures into the competitive, and potentially lucrative, world of streaming television.

Starting this month, Xbox will roll out the first of its Xbox Originals, exclusive to subscribers of the Xbox Live network. The initial offerings include not only East of Exurbia, but also a Steven Spielberg-produced live-action Halo series, and a documentary about the rise and fall of Atari. They’re also reportedly working on a comedy about four ex-skaters who live together.

But most intriguing is East of Exurbia, which was inspired by a story posted on BroBible.com (an actual website, I assure you) and written by Ian Wolterstorff and Nick Kreiss. Microsoft is betting the “supernatural bro comedy” will help Microsoft join the ranks of streaming giants like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video that have successfully launched their own original programming.

This past weekend Netflix released the second season of the Jenji Kohan-helmed Orange Is the New Black to rave reviews, and director David Fincher won an Emmy last September for his Netflix original House of Cards. Amazon dipped its foot into the water with Alpha House, starring John Goodman, and both it and Hulu have plans for various dramas, comedies, and children’s shows.

Xbox Originals also marks another step in Xbox’s quest to become become the king of household media. Leave your computer in the other room, sell your Apple TV, and cancel your cable subscription—Xbox One can replace them all.

Microsoft’s media master plan

The strategy makes leagues of sense. If people want to watch, say, the new fourth season of Arrested Development, they have to buy a Netflix subscription to do so. Now, nobody is going to buy an entire Xbox One—which will set you back $400—to watch a single television show. But an Xbox owner might see original shows and expanded online apps as incentive to spend the $43 per year for Xbox Live Gold, which offers free games and online multiplayer, if they aren’t already among the 46 million who have it already. (Microsoft also offers an Xbox Live Free network, which now includes Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming, so whether Xbox Originals will be available only to paid subscribers is unclear.)

More and more, what consumers want from their gaming systems is changing. NPD Group’s 2013 Online Gaming Study found that 24 percent of Xbox 360 users utilized their console for watching YouTube and 23% for watching DVDs. Xbox Originals have the potential to keep users on the same device for hours at a time, switching from gaming to videos without ever having to log out, log in, or move off the couch. They can also appeal to non-gaming members of the family, drawing them into the expansive Xbox ecosystem.

A missed opportunity?

Even if the Xbox’s expanded functions suggest an attempt to appeal to a broader market, however, the content itself quashes such hope. The shows slated for development are firmly targeting the “bro” audience: action-games-turned-live-action shows, shows about pro skaters and the life of a hip-hop artist, and now East of Exurbia. In short, their television is aimed at the people who they think are already playing Xbox games.

“The new programming is primarily targeted at young male consumers who might buy video game consoles from rivals Sony or Nintendo if Microsoft can’t draw them in with a variety of games and entertainment,” writes David Ewalt at Forbes. By mainly courting their reliable 18–34 male audience with East of Exurbia and the Halo series, Xbox Originals plays it safe.

Women will still watch those programs, of course, and the amount of women these shows eventually attracts depends on both their overall quality and their depiction of women, which are yet to be seen. But programming without women viewers in mind is a missed opportunity right from the start. Women bolster the audience for online television and are a core audience for premium original programming. According to a 2012 Nielsen study, women account for 64 percent of total viewing time on Netflix and Hulu. And they’re playing Xbox, too: A report last June from the Entertainment Software Association found that 45 percent of gamers of female and 46 percent of the most frequent game purchasers are female, and of Xbox 360 users, 38 percent are women.

Shooting for status

Microsoft still has time to unveil more shows, and when—if—these first experiments prove successful, there’s no doubt they will expand their offerings to target more niches. Their Xbox Live programming will kick off with an exclusive stream of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 13, and its Every Street United documentary series will be released in June as well.

Original content is a way for Microsoft to set itself apart not only from other gaming platforms, but also other media companies. Microsoft can see the media landscape changing, with people’s time and attention quickly becoming a scarce and much-fought-over commodity, and they want their name in the game.

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