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The Onion Puts a Price on News From the Future

Launched in April 2007, The Onion News Network has been delivering the comedy stalwart’s skewed perspective on current events through web video, making it possibly, in Chris Albrecht’s words, “the funniest video programming on the web.”

While ONN content is typically free to viewers, this month the network is experimenting with a premium offering available for $1.99. The justification for charging is this: The Onion’s latest news broadcast comes from the future.

Future News From The Year 2137 – Coming Summer 2010

Future: News From the Year 2137 is a 12-minute compilation of news broadcasts from the future date of July 23, 2137, captured via “wormhole satellite” and distributed through iTunes. The world it depicts is both different and similar to today (Miami is now an island, but people are still fighting over gay marriage) and while funny, the short somehow manages to be darker and bleaker than the Mike Judge film Idiocracy (if you’re frightened by that thought, you’re on the right track).

According to ONN director Judy Adler and lead graphics designer Chris Ervine, with whom I spoke via phone, Future: News was produced by a very small part of the Onion team — mostly Ervine — and was in production off and on for about a year. While technically this is the Onion’s first for-sale video offering, Adler likened it to what the paper edition does with its book compilations. “We were originally were going to release it like our other video content,” Adler said, “But as it grew and became more complex, we felt that it needed to be made into its own special project.”

Future: News‘s budget was higher than typical Onion video offerings, but Adler joked that it wasn’t that big a deal, because, “We’re a multi-billion-dollar network.”

Billions of dollars or not, money still has to be earned. Via phone, VP of Business Development Marc Lieberman said the $1.99 price point for iTunes came from looking at other TV content for sale at $2.99. “Because it’s shorter, we went with $1.99.”

Thanks to The Onion’s prior relationship with iTunes (ONN is currently the top podcast listed in their comedy section), Future: News was promoted very heavily in its initial launch week, climbing to the Number 2 slot in the comedy store.

However, Lieberman didn’t speculate on whether the experiment with a pay model counted yet as a major success. “We view this as a six-months-to-a-year-long process, and we’re not even a month in, so it’s too early to tell,” he said.

Future: News is currently available to U.S. and Canadian iTunes users, and will be available in the U.K. by late August. Beyond iTunes, portions of Future: News may appear on the Onion site on an ad-supported basis for two weeks at a time, and it’ll launch on other unspecified platforms this fall. As for iTunes, “It will be for sale for as long as it sells,” Adler said.

For ONN fans worried how Future: News‘s pay-to-view success might affect other episodes, Lieberman says have no fear: “We’ve heard that if this does well, we’re going to make it all for pay, and that’s not the case. We’ll never charge for [our main content].”

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): A Guide To Online Video Monetization Options