For anyone who’s been reading my columns lately, I’ve been pretty critical of the state of original, episodic content online. So when I sat down to check out the new animated series, The LeBrons, my expectations weren’t exactly sky high. After all, an ego vehicle by King James about King James — and packed with product placement? I was pleasantly surprised.
Branded entertainment is a tricky business. For all the talk of the Web giving rebirth to the original genre of brand-underwritten soap operas, there have been far more duds than hits. In fact, it’s hard to think of many hits. That’s because the mixture of brand and entertainment can be quite messy. I expected The LeBrons to be more brand and less entertainment. Instead, the YouTube-hosted animated series that’s a combination of LeBron’s well-recieved 2005 Nike commercials that show his different sides and Fat Albert, the Bill Cosby vehicle from the 1970s and 1980s that most kids targeted by The LeBrons probably never knew.
The opening episode doesn’t start off promisingly. The real Lebron sits in a director’s chair and stiffly introduces the program. Things get better once the animation starts. The LeBrons endeavors to teach the lesson that “two wrongs don’t make a right” by showing Kid LeBron nearly get eaten by a dog. That’s when smooth-talking Business LeBron — the only character James voices — takes over and hires a lion to remedy the situation. At the end, Kid LeBron is forced to face the idea of the lion killing the dog. The LeBrons intervene to save the dog.
The LeBrons lists James and his childhood friend and manager Maverick Carter as executive producers of the series. The team at Believe Entertainment, led by Dan Goodman and Bill Masterson, were behind making it. The duo boast plenty of success creating animated content, including The Ricky Gervais Show, The Life and Times of Tim (both for HBO), Seth MacFarland’s Cavalcade of Comedy, as well the Shaquille O’Neal vehicle, Shaq Vs., so I was cautiously optimistic.
For LeBron fans and Nike commercial connoisseurs, we’ve met most of the characters in previous commercials, including the Nike Pool commercial, Two on Two, and the Phone Calling commercial. Business, Wise, Kid, and Athlete are the four Lebrons in the animated series. This is all about LeBron and his personas — and will probably do little to alleviate those who think James is an egomaniac after The Decision, another Maverick Carter production. But they’ve done a solid job on not making the episode feel like an extension of a Nike commercial. Or any commercial, for that matter.
The show has a host of sponsors. One gets to introduce each episode with a custom 15-second pre-roll with the show’s animated characters. This is very smart. Brands are sprinkled inside the episodes. I caught the HP logo on the TV in the living room, which only struck me as odd because HP discontinued their line of televisions about two years ago. In one of the other promo spots, the HP logo is featured on the back of Kid’s laptop, a very natural brand integration. Beats Audio, which has been co-marketing its brand of headphones with HP and Dr. Dre, gets the most screen time with Kid LeBron constantly sporting the headphones. It comes across as fairly natural. The producers resisted the urge to make the headphones somehow integral to the story, which surely would have come across as forced. Most of the characters were sporting Nike athletic gear. No surprise there. The one brand integration that stood out is Bing. It’s featured in a scene at a dog pound. Who uses a search engine to keep track of inventory at a dog pound?
As a branding vehicle, the big winner is certainly King James himself. For a guy trying to repair his own image after a disastrous departure from Cleveland, the timing couldn’t be better. The many different LeBrons will certainly not appease those who think he’s an egomaniac after jettisoning Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach. But this a series for kids who idolize James, not adults who have problems with his choices.
I’m curious to see how Team LeBron (aka Spring Hill Production) and Believe Entertainment continue the series, and how many of LeBron’s loyal fans start passing the cartoon around. It’s too soon to say if there’s a hit brewing, but it’s off to a slower start than the producers had probably hoped for. Given the size of LeBron’s fan base — he tweeted about it two days ago to his 1.6 million followers — breaking 119,000 views in three days doesn’t foretell a blockbuster but it is promising. The LeBrons has plenty of potential. As additional episodes come out, the soundtrack is released, and we roll into the NBA playoffs, I expect the episodes to gain in popularity.
Overall, I was significantly more impressed than I expected to be. The LeBrons strikes a healthy balance between entertainment and branding. I wouldn’t call it a high water mark for branded entertainment, but it’s definitely one of the better efforts I’ve seen.