Startup Aims to Let Viewers Pick the Pilots to Make Into TV Shows

I’d Watch That has backing from media veterans including William Randolph Hearst III and Barry Schuler

By Shalini Ramachandran

Nov. 4, 2015 12:39 p.m. ET

TV networks shell out a lot of money to find a popular show. Now a new startup called I’d Watch That, which is backed by a couple of big names in media and technology, wants to “crowd source” hits for TV.

Founded by serial media entrepreneur Tom Zito, the startup has created a website for any aspiring TV producer to upload short “sizzle” videos to be ranked by the site’s users. The top-ranked producers will receive $25,000 to make a short pilot of a potential television series.

The company will then pitch those pilots to TV networks, production companies and streaming services, offering up the added bonus of demographic and audience data gathered from the site about the types of people that already liked the show.

Producers have to be willing to add Big Picture, the parent company of I’d Watch That, on as a co-producer for shows that it finances, with a stake in the eventual profits. Big Picture is backed by a group of investors including William Randolph Hearst III, chairman of Hearst Corp.; former America Online Inc. Chief Executive Barry Schuler Inspiration Ventures; and John Fisher, partner at venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Some TV executives say they’re intrigued by the idea and believe it could help networks bring more data smarts to an antiquated process for picking which shows to produce.

“I think it’s a very interesting concept,” said NBCUniversal’s head of research Alan Wurtzel. He said the “failure rate” of shows on television is about 75% to 80%, including those that never meet or exceed networks’ expectations. Given that the percentage is growing due to fierce competition and more ways than ever to watch content, networks are looking for anything that will give them “even a little bit of an edge” in “a world of constant disruption,” he said.

For decades, the process of making television shows has largely been the same: ideas reach TV networks and studios through Hollywood agents and established creators, and tastemakers decide what makes the cut. While Amazon.com Inc. Prime Instant Video has tried to democratize its show-picking process by offering up pilots to its users to rate, show ideas have continued to arrive in the old-fashioned way to Amazon and other streaming disrupters.

Of late, TV executives including CBS CEO Les Moonves have worried that the explosion of original programming is causing a shortage of talent.

“If you take down the moat that currently exists around TV development, you can find really creative people that would otherwise not be discovered by either the studios or the networks,” Mr. Zito said.

I’d Watch That asks users to watch two videos at a time and pick which one they like best. It asks people to volunteer personal details including city, state, gender, ZIP Code, email address and birth month and year for the purpose of analyzing the audiences of top-ranked clips.

After each voting period—which will last about three months—creators of the top “sizzles” will receive $25,000 to make a short pilot. The pilots will again be put to the test among the site’s community for the purpose of gathering detailed audience data on each of them, and then Big Picture will shop the pilots and data to broadcast and cable networks, streaming services and production companies.

The startup’s backers concede that it won’t be able to completely bypass the ultimate tastemakers at the major outlets who will decide what to green-light. In an interview, Mr. Hearst said he views the site as a sort of Kickstarter for TV shows that will work in concert with the old model.

“You can’t do away with the pitching part of the process and the tastemaker part,” Mr. Hearst said. “I think this is just a way to get your ear to the ground of newer ideas” to “turbocharge the old model.”

Big Picture will seek to make money by getting a cut of the shows it finances, and Mr. Hearst also said the company could sell its data to TV networks. For instance, if viewers on the site are gravitating toward certain period dramas or workplace comedies, the site could offer up that information to networks scouring for shows. The company said it has raised “millions” of dollars but declined to be more specific.

Mr. Zito’s earlier startups include a similar gig in the music space, Garageband.com, which after some travails and reincarnations was sold to MySpace in 2009. He also co-founded Integrated Media Measurement Inc., a firm that sought to measure the reach of ads across television and radio and was later sold to Arbitron, a company now owned by Nielsen.

Mr. Zito said his goal is to approach the networks six months from now after having made a first round of pilots. “Either we’ll turn out to be geniuses or fools—we’ll find out,” Mr. Zito said.

Shalini Ramachandran at shalini.ramachandran@wsj.com