Aiming to make Web shows that turn into TV hits

Uncommon Content has so far produced seven Web series, one of which features musician, producer and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams. Above, Uncommon Content Chief Executive Kevin Law, left, and Williams chat before a taping in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / July 17, 2013)

In the typical life of a viral video, a reality show mishap becomes a YouTube clip, which then reaches the masses online.

Uncommon Content, a New York filmmaker, is betting it can do the opposite.

Uncommon, which produces the Reserve Channel on YouTube, makes half-hour shows for the Web and tries to get them picked up by networks to turn them into mainstream programs. It has so far produced seven Web series, one of which features musician, producer and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams.

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Williams, who has recently had massive music hits with Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," is now shooting the second season of his talk show, called "Artst Tlk," in which he interviews creative types such as pop star Usher and former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins.

"Artst Tlk" may not get the same level of viewership as Jenna Marbles or "Nyan Cat," but Uncommon Content plans to start licensing deals for the show in the coming weeks.

"We are probably more so a bunch of mavericks than a bunch of methodical-minded guys who stringently live our lives based on statistics," Williams said. "With being a maverick, that means there's a high risk of things not working, but there's also a high risk of things being completely different and cool and interesting."

Some of the company's other programs have already started to gain traction. "On the Table With Eric Ripert," a cooking talk show, was licensed for NBCUniversal's Esquire network in May. The company also has reeled in an agreement with NBC Sports for the fishing show "Hooked Up With Tom Colicchio," which is set to premier this month.

Uncommon's channel was one of about 100 that scored funding from Google for YouTube's 2011 push into original content. But Uncommon was one of the only companies to focus on shows at least 30 minutes long, said Uncommon Chief Executive Kevin Law, a former executive for Universal Music Group who left the music business in 2007.

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Law said his company tries to create high-quality programming that can have life after YouTube.

"I know the difficulty of monetization on YouTube," Law said. "I wanted to make sure whatever we were creating, we could monetize in a linear way as well."

There is some precedent for content that originated online making the transition to traditional TV, especially with animated shows and comedies, said Andrew Lih, an associate professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism who studies digital media. Live-action and personality-driven shows can succeed, as long as they have production values that make them a fit for mainstream TV.

"Outdoor shows and cooking shows are low-hanging fruit," Lih said. "They're relatively cheap to do, they can be as niche or as broad as you want them to be, and there's a vast array of channels you can conceivably take them to."

"Artst Tlk" seems to have a niche following. An episode featuring artists Kaws and David Salle has generated almost 82,000 views.

Part of the Uncommon goal is to build a grass-roots audience for the programs and test new ideas before unleashing them on a mainstream audience.

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"We believe that you can incubate high-quality ideas online and then have an agnostic distribution model," Law said. "We're growing our foundation and support online and then we're taking it wherever it can go after that."

Hooking that audience means bringing in interesting guests. In June, Williams sat down with music producer and artist Daniel Lanois at his Silver Lake house to record an episode for the second season.

During the hour-and-a-half shoot, Lanois, who is best known for producing landmark 1980s albums by artists such as Peter Gabriel and U2, regaled Williams with stories about meeting legendary producer and musician Brian Eno and working with Billy Bob Thornton for the soundtrack of "Sling Blade."

At one point, Lanois — who has turned his living room into a recording space filled with antique instruments and modern equipment — played a short piece on his pedal steel guitar while Williams watched in apparent awe.

Williams, an established producer in his own right, said the conversations with fellow artists benefit him in ways that he can apply to his work in the studio and elsewhere.

"While I didn't attend college … I got the coolest version of it, because all my professors are professionals," he said.

Lest things get too serious, the producers have included a recurring risque gag. More than halfway through almost every episode, a woman walks out to fill the participants' glasses with water. Spoiler alert: She's naked.

"The point is to be shocked, but shocked in a good way," Williams said. "We want you to be alert."

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com