Well it's Tuesday, and in addition to being a historic election day (and hopefully the day we re-commit to being responsible world leaders),it's also Back on Topps episode day. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the current season, Randy and Jason "The Sklar Brothers" and the team at Eisner's Tornante bring great writing and rapid fire dialogue to another episode of "Back on Topps."
I originally learned about the Back on Topps webiseries via the Wall Street Journal article on the world of web-shorts content. B o T is a fictitious tale that follows Leyland and Leif Topps ( the Sklars ) as they struggle to find their way after their uncle Marvin sells the family company, Topps Inc-- to Michael Eisner. With art imitating life-- Eisner did in fact buy Topps-- the B o T team, including Eisner's Tornante production company, puts forth a funny, healthy self-satire to say the least. As Leland and Leif try to get on with their Michael Scott-esque boss, Galen, the plots feature office and sports parody including a mix of sports figure cameos and references-- everyone from Rodman to a 'roided out Carrot Top make the scene.
The episodes mostly center around Leyland and Leif's wacky product development ideas (60 Seconds interview show, the Paul Mitchell Scandal) with character twists (a black Eisner, a stalker with a baby) and great dialogue ( "Are you guys trying out for Hezbollah?"). In addition to being entertainment, there's an obvious point that B o T has bills to pay, and they manage to pull off genuine promotion of their sponsor, Skype, in every episode without looking silly or canned. In fact, some storylines put Skype front and center as more than product placement. In a recent episode, basketball player Greg Odin delivers a tutorial on Skype video conferencing, and he does a convincing job of it. At other points, paying bills seems to be out the window as products such as Red Bull are worked extensively into the script in spite of not having a product placement deal. I know the Sklars are committed to funny first (it's working), but I would get those placements too (from the edgier brands). It's ok to be good, entertaining, and profitable as long as you support authentic brands (a subsequent post to follow).
The business angle is working-- the word I hear is that B o T will renew for a second season (Tuesdays and Thursdays keep rolling). Although Tornante does not share numbers on viewership, syndication through sites like Fox Sports and the bi-weekly email campaign appear to be driving enough traffic to support continued investment. What's not known is whether B o T is helping sell more baseball/sports cards. I would be very interested to know how far discussions with Topps have gone on this. Clearly there is a bright line between fiction and reality, as the Topps Company does not have any reference to the series on their website. Further, in a recent episode Leland and Leif committed to publishing a "bottom 5" (as opposed to a top 10) plays on the Topps website, yet a visit to Topps.com yielded no signs that Leyland and Leif had been there with their ahem, bottom(s).
This is a paradox that should be resolved in the next season. The Sklars and Tornante have produced a great series around a real brand. But the lack of real world benefit from a connection to Topps leaves them saddled with a creative limitation. As an artist, i would want this resolved so I would know how far I can go with the writing and dialogue-- is anything off limits? For example, having a fictitious Dunder Miflin Co in the series "The Office," means the gloves are off for writers, and they lampoon the company, it's management, etc. to the hilt. Were Back on Topps to become "Back on Acme," (dumb name, I know), the Sklars could really skewer the world of this fictitious company (including no more reverence to Mr Eisner in the treatments).
I for one like the commitment to support a real brand, and I don't think it has sacrificed content and funny writing. But, I would like to see them go all the way-- make Back on Topps live in the context of the actual the Topps company brand. I have seen great examples of this recently, such as with Eqal (Lonely Girl 15, Kate Modern) and their very creative integration of Neutrogena into the content of the show. The Topps Company seems like an older sports marketing brand in need of a fresher, updated image and presence within the internet community (I wonder how they have failed to dominate sports media given their huge head start; must be the commitment to shipping gum). In any case, Back on Topps to me seems like one of the best vehicles they could embrace to update their image and business.
I will talk more in a subsequent post about Eqal, LG15 and other interesting forms of marketing-integrated Infotainment on the web right now. Can you say "ShamWow?!"