Easy to Assemble was often hailed as a success story in the star-crossed world of original Web content. The show featured Hollywood actress Illeana Douglas and a seemingly perfect fit with sponsor Ikea as an integral part of the programming without it coming across as heavyhanded. In a sea of one-off amateurish shows and forgettable projects from the TV world, Assemble attracted big-name actors like Jeff Goldblum, Jane Lynch, Tom Arnold, Ed Begley Jr. and others. Its first season, in 2008, attracted a million viewers. Ad executives often cited it as one of the best examples of branded entertainment online — the show takes place in an Ikea, where a fictional version of Douglas has supposedly given up acting and taken a job.
So why was Easy to Assemble missing for two years before inking a deal with My Damn Channel to return this fall?
In a way, it was a victim of its own success. Easy to Assemble had performed so well that a second season premiered in the fall of 2009, generating over 5 million views. A pair of spinoffs soon found their way to the Web: Sparhusen and 40 and Bitter. An order for a third season soon followed, but according to sources, it sat on the shelf for at least six months. According to the show’s YouTube channel, season 3 was set to debut in November of 2010.
That success appears to have led Ikea to think much bigger. It sought out big-name distributors, including some of the top portals, per sources. MyDamnChannel.com, which attracts about 700,000 U.S. visitors per month, per Quantcast
, hosted the shows first two seasons. But Ikea was looking for a deal with a portal, according to sources. (Ikea reps did not return calls.)
Ikea expected more than a marquee distributor. It was also demanding payment for rights to stream Easy to Assemble, an unusual request for a program that’s essentially branded entertainment. (It is not clear whether MyDamnChannel ever paid for the show. MyDamnChannel executives declined to comment.) Ikea was said to be putting another heavy demand on any potential distributors: the company didn’t want to have any other advertisers running ads alongside the show, according to sources. That was particularly hard to swallow for big sites expected to hand out licenscing fees. Ikea’s position was essentially, “We don’t want you to monetize our show, since we already did.”
Ikea appears to have backed off those demands. But its position raises an interesting question for the still-fledgling medium. Should branded entertainment Web shows carry advertising? Or is that asking too much of users, to endure pre-roll ads while sitting through a show featuring product placement and the like?
Easy to Assemble’s hiatus also speaks to a problem with Web originals overall. Not even one of the fledgling medium’s biggest early hits — with the backing of Hollywood talent — had enough clout to demand big distribution fees from the top digital media companies. And now the show needs to overcome a long layoff to reconnect with viewers.