A rerun? Microsoft returns to TV programming with Halo show

The software giant's new show, produced by Steven Spielberg, brings the company back to creating original content, a business where it's had some history.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
2 min read
Microsoft's Nancy Tellem at the Xbox One unveiling event at the software giant's Redmond, Wash., headquarters. James Martin/CNET

REDMOND, Wash. -- When it comes to creating original content, Microsoft has had a hard time making up its mind.

In the 1990s, Microsoft developed online programs for its MSN service, such as the soap opera "475 Madison" and the travel program "Mungo Park." In 2007, Microsoft inked a deal with Reveille to produce a number of Web programs including "Mr. Robinson's Driving School," starring Craig Robinson, who plays Darryl on "The Office" (another Reveille production).

As those efforts sputtered, Microsoft backed away, leaving original programming to the folks in Hollywood.

But the lure of controlling content, and the importance of having the kind of original programming that viewers can only find on its products, is bringing Microsoft back again. Tuesday's Xbox One unveiling included the intriguing news that Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg will produce a new live-action TV series based on Microsoft's Halo video game franchise.

Of course, Microsoft is not alone among tech companies creating original content. Amazon has launched Amazon Studios, a new model for making movies and television programs, that uses the Web to crowdsource concepts. Netflix has released an ambitious slate of original programs, most notably its critically acclaimed and hugely popular "House of Cards" franchise.

Like those companies, Microsoft is aiming to create programs that appeal to viewers, and give them a reason to buy Microsoft's devices and services.

Microsoft dove back into the original programming business last year, when it hired Nancy Tellem, who ran CBS's Television Entertainment Group, to create shows for the Xbox. (CNET is owned by CBS.) At the time, Microsoft said Tellem would help "turn Xbox into a destination where consumers can enjoy all their entertainment in one place."

At the Xbox One launch, Tellem said her group is "rethinking" dramas, sports, live events and digital shorts, as it produces programming for the console. The history of television has been one-way programming, where networks air shows that viewers watch. She believes the Xbox One creates the opportunity to change that.

"TV will be truly personalized... (and) social in ways unknown to us today," Tellem said.

Watch this: New games, Halo TV series, and NFL coming to Xbox One