By Lisa Richwine and Ronald Grover
(Reuters) - "Desperate Housewives" alum Eva Longoria's new project won't bring her back to ABC, or any traditional U.S. television network. The actress will produce and lend her voice to "Mother Up!," a 13-episode adult animated comedy available in the U.S. this fall only on the online video site Hulu.
Longoria, Kevin Spacey, John Goodman and other top Hollywood actors are being wooed by the growing number of Silicon Valley companies rushing to get a foothold in consumers' living rooms with exclusive shows that feature big names and hefty budgets.
As video streaming technology makes watching videos on laptops and mobile devices as easy as flicking on a TV set, Amazon.com Inc (NSQ:AMZN), Google Inc's (NSQ:GOOG) YouTube, Yahoo and Microsoft Corp (NSQ:MSFT) are setting up shop in Hollywood to produce or license their own series.
Their models are pay TV channels like HBO and Showtime that built their subscriber rolls by creating shows like HBO's "Sopranos" or Showtime's "Homeland" that a TV viewer couldn't get anywhere else.
"Content creators think they've hit the lottery," said Bernard Gershon, head of digital consultancy Gershon Media and a former Walt Disney Co (NYS:DIS) executive. "Those companies are throwing a lot of dollars for content they can use to create a following."
With 33 million global subscribers to its streaming service, Netflix (NSQ:NFLX) can afford to plunk down what analysts estimate was up to $100 million for the rights to "House of Cards," a slickly produced political drama starring two-time Oscar winner Spacey and produced by "The Social Network" film director David Fincher.
Upcoming only-on-Netflix series include the revival of one-time Fox comedy "Arrested Development" starring Will Arnett, and murder mystery "Hemlock Grove," directed by horror movie producer Eli Roth.
On Tuesday, the Los Gatos, California-based company announced the December release of its first original children's series, a show based on DreamWorks Animation's (NSQ:DWA) coming summer movie "Turbo" about a fast-moving snail.
The companies have different business models -- Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft have subscription services, YouTube sells advertising, while Intel Corp (NSQ:INTC) and Apple Inc (NSQ:AAPL) may introduce cable-like services that offer channels online.
But they all sense an opening as consumers increasingly chafe at their mounting cable and satellite TV bills. A small, but increasing, number are starting to "cut the cord," or drop their service, say analysts.
"We may be sowing the seeds of our own destruction," Charlie Ergen, chairman of satellite operator Dish Network Corp (NSQ:DISH), said at the AllThingsD "Dive into Media" conference on February 12. "A lot of people can live with Netflix and be perfectly happy."
Netflix has won fans in Hollywood by giving writers and directors a "high level of autonomy as well as an increasingly global distribution platform," Morgan Stanley analyst Scott Devitt said in a note to clients.
"There is plenty of room for multiple producers and licensors of original content," Devitt added.
Amazon.com's Prime subscription, which combines a video streaming service with free shipping for products it sells online, stepped up its Hollywood dealmaking in the last month with pacts to be the exclusive online home for popular PBS drama "Downton Abbey" and upcoming CBS show "Under the Dome," a series based on a Stephen King novel.
The Seattle-based company, seen by some analysts as Netflix's biggest threat, said last month it plans to air 11 original pilot episodes before deciding which to produce as ongoing series.
One of the pilots, "Alpha House," follows four senators who live together in a rented house. "Roseanne" and "Argo" actor John Goodman will star, according to a person close to the situation.
Overall, Amazon Studios has 48 movie and TV shows in development, an Amazon spokeswoman said.
Hulu, owned by media giants Disney, News Corp (NSQ:NWSA) and Comcast Corp's (NSQ:CMCSA) NBCUniversal, is beefing up its own original and exclusive content for its free, ad-supported service and its monthly subscription plan. Hulu already has distributed than two dozen exclusive or original shows, including Morgan Spurlock documentary series "A Day in the Life."
Upcoming Hulu programs include Longoria's "Mother Up!" about a former music executive navigating life as a suburban mom.
Microsoft, which offers services such as Netflix on its XBox video game console, intends to produce its own content later this year for its 40 million subscribers, said Nancy Tellem, a former CBS entertainment president who joined Microsoft last year to run its fledging Hollywood production studio.
"We're not as constrained as other content creators," Tellem said at the AllThingsD conference. "We can produce something that's 10 minutes or an hour."
The XBox's benefit, Tellem said, is its interactivity. To generate added revenue, the service can sell tickets to concerts by stars of its comedies, or copies of the clothes worn by stars on red carpet events.
Deep-pocketed Apple Inc (NSQ:AAPL) could also step into the entertainment production game. Industry insiders continue to believe that Apple intends to unveil a TV-based device that has the potential to shake up the television content and distribution industry the way the iPod and iPhone disrupted music and mobile content.
Sources say Apple, which already sells a $99 set top box called Apple TV that streams Netflix and other content, has opened discussions with providers, though its progress with the cozy club of Hollywood producers and distributors is unknown.
Chip maker Intel (NSQ:INTC) plans to launch an Internet television service this year with live and on-demand content, said Erik Huggers, vice president and general manager of Intel Media, who said he is negotiating with content providers.
The Silicon Valley newcomers may be taking aim at siphoning off cable subscribers, but executives at Time Warner's (NYS:TWX) HBO premium service, don't seem particularly worried.
"Hulu and Amazon will be just another 200 hours on top of the 145,000 hours that are already available to the consumer," said HBO president Eric Kessler. "What matters is that our content is exclusive. If you want 'Game of Thrones,' there is only one place you can get it."
(Reporting By Ronald Grover and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Alistair Barr in San Francisco; Editing by M.D. Golan)
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