HBO Nabs Online Talent for Web Series

Lonelygirl15 star Jessica Rose
Jessica Rose, star of “lonelygirl15” at the 11th annual Webby Awards last year. Source: Reuters

HBOlab, an experimental offshoot of cable powerhouse HBO focused on online programming, is launching a Web video series featuring a cast of the Internet’s most popular entertainers.

Jessica Rose, star of the Web sensation “lonelygirl15,” will be joined with top YouTube talent, including videobloggers known as “sxePhil” and “KevJumba”, for the scripted comedy “Hooking Up.” Set to premiere October 1, the 10-episode series will be distributed on top video portals including YouTube and MySpace as well as a destination site,

“Hooking” could prove groundbreaking for the nascent “Webisode” genre by amassing a sizable viewership, given its aggregation of Internet personalities who can promote the production to their devoted audiences of millions of young viewers.

For HBOlab, “Hooking” is an opportunity to take to the next level the knowledge the unit has gleaned regarding Internet video distribution.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more hits than had we cast a bunch of funny people you didn’t know,” said Fran Shea, head of HBOlab, a unit of HBO, itself owned by Time Warner (NYSE: TWX).

YouTube content partnerships manager George Strompolos likened the genesis of “Hooking” to an organic strategy employed occasionally by his site’s stars, who pop up in one another’s videos to cross-pollinate their audiences.

“It has happened before, but there hasn’t been a real production company with this level of support orchestrating everything,” he said. “That will be the extra push it will need to get out there in a smart, fun way.”

“Hooking” puts its Internet all-stars to work acting as students at a fictional university where the populace spends most of its time e-mailing, instant messaging and Twittering, but always seems to be miscommunicating. will be supplemented with social-networking capabilities, and the series’ characters will have their own Facebook pages. No advertising will be a part of the first season, though HBO could elect to bring sponsors on board should the series continue.

To date, HBOlab has concentrated on creating the online hub Runaway Box, a collection of comedy videos that will continue to operate. One Runaway player, Mike Polk, recently signed a script-development deal with HBO.

Registering among the 10 most subscribed channels on Google-owned YouTube, Kevin Wu, AKA KevJumba, and Philip DeFranco, AKA sxePhil, are well-known as videobloggers but have not worked on a scripted production.

“It was a big risk to take two non-actors and put them in lead roles,” Shea said.

Another top 10 YouTube star, Michael Buckley of the “What the Buck Show,” not only appears in “Hooking” but also has signed a development deal with HBOlab that will put him in other projects created by the unit. Other Web stars with roles in “Hooking” include Kevin Nalts, Charles Trippy and Cory Williams.

“Hooking” is written and directed by Woody Tondorf, a HBOlab staffer who also has a part in the series.

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