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Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Road Back to NYC - What I Learned at MIT

Let's face facts - I'm not an academic. I went to film school in New York City - I studied screenplays and film theory... and while I could probably still tell you in great detail how Die Hard is a prime example of perfect three-act structure, I didn't have a clue on Thursday night how in the hell I was going to dissect the theory behind transmedia properties and their metrics.

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Because mine sure were.

But something wondrous happened on Friday morning. I got over whatever was holding me back - whatever those demons of insecurity were infesting me with - and just threw myself into an experience like none I've ever had.

I listened to film producers, screenwriters, primetime showrunners, agents, sports marketers, scholars, founders of online social media sites, and online game organizers - all of whom had so much to teach me about where all of these businesses are going in the next year. Daytime is struggling, but it doesn't have to be. The way all of these industries treat their superfans, the way they've thought outside the box and allowed them to be part of the creative process, part of the storytelling, is monumental. And no, I'm not talking about I Wanna Be a Soap Star or InTurn or Shop the Soaps.

I'm talking about Web-series shot to give niche fanbases what they're begging for from the main show, but cannot receive due to advertisers concerns. (I can't imagine Nuke fans would complain about a twelve-part Nuke series on their very own official show website where they can kiss whenever they want, until the rest of America catches up with the times) I'm talking about interactive games where you followed the Salem Serial Killer... and just as you're about to click on the mask to remove, YOUR PHONE RINGS IN YOUR HOME, and a masked voice tells you that you could be next. And when you try and close the window on your computer screen? Your cell phone rings, and a voice says "Where are you going? I'm not done with you yet..." WOW! That's creepy! Or how about helping Lucky follow the clues to solve a crime simultaneous to airing said crime on General Hospital, on (That's IF they ever allowed Lucky to solve a crime on GH)

There's such a world of possibilities in our future that every other genre is already leaping on. And guess who they're aiming at? Young people. Women. Men. Established long-term viewers. New audience members. EVERYBODY soaps claim they want. And yet - all they seem to getting online are behind-the-scenes gossip and celebrity news.

Soap opera is the greatest form of immersive storytelling I've ever seen. Hardcore fans can throw themselves as deep into the fictional lives of these characters as much as they want. And whereas every other genre is trying build up their worlds, make these stories as immersive as possible... daytime is firing its favorite actors, pulling back on long-term storytelling, and SHRINKING their fictional worlds. At a time when soaps should be offering a UNIVERSE of an online community, it's nothing but a little hamlet of behind-the-scenes actors basically reading off press releases... while fan message boards are expanding the known soap universe new galaxies - what's going on at Oakdale High, Llanview Memorial, Downtown Salem, Pine Valley University. The fans are building these worlds because nobody else is doing it for them.

Now imagine if they were.

Imagine if these shows took the time to build cross-platform medias that weren't just "See what Thorsten Kaye's dressing room looks like". Not that there aren't fans who appreciate that - hell, I appreciate it once in a while. But imagine if the fictional towns you spent five hours a week in didn't go away when the show ended. What if they kept going, albeit in ways that weren't required to enjoy the show (i.e. NuAlison and Amber's drug and porn adventures in Los Angeles for Y&R and ATWT), but rather were optional - but still focused and creative and bold nevertheless. Not online diaries written by interns and writer's assistants, but more immersible branches of storytelling written by teams of WRITERS, working closely with the head writer to create a larger world, a realm of infinite possibilities where Port Charles becomes a working, growing mechanism. Fans can create avatars and travel around Genoa City themselves, interact with characters WHILE THE SHOW IS ON THEIR TELEVISION SETS. Where these shows become organisms that cross all kinds of media.

Can you tell how fired up I am? But let's get this back down to Earth for a second before my head explodes. Let's face facts - only a very small percentage of the audience would take advantage of this. It's true. They say only three percent of the YouTube users actually upload videos, and only seven percent are actually responding to them. So we're not talking about revolutionizing the soap viewing audience.

But what it does do is create buzz. One hardcore fan throws themselves one hundred percent into this, and then they post on a message board how awesome it was to try and escape from the MetroCourt crisis in an online game. Instead of bitching about rapemances, they're competing to see who can sell more papers online - The Llanview Banner or the Sun. And some people won't want to take part in it, and that's fine. But the people that do... they're the ones who will bring in new viewers to your show. People that maybe thought of soaps like fluff that didn't cater to them... and then discover it through another avenue. People like the MILLIONS of Nuke YouTube users who follow their storyline without watching the actual aired show. Maybe if you give them a reason to check out your site, they'll then find a reason to check out your air show. You generate positive buzz, as opposed to the negativity soaps have been saddled with since the strike ended.

Did you know that forty percent of thirty year olds are actively online while they watch their TV shows? Think about that for a second...

Soaps can move into the 21st century, older viewers get to see their vets every day on television, and younger viewers are engaged in deeper aspects of the soap viewing experience by being a part of the Springfield Social Networking Site. You don't need new camera techniques, green screens, or ratings stunts. These viewers are craving SERIALIZED STORYTELLING, and a CREATIVE EXPERIENCE. They want their favorite characters, in gripping storylines. They don't care how good your CGI is, or whether or not you're jumping forward or back in time. They want to see good old-fashioned human drama, and you can offer it in real-time, on both the Web and their television sets. And get some GOOD press (for a change) in the process.

Every other genre is on board with this. And as I head back to New York City, I worry daytime is heading so far down the wrong path, it'll be too late to turn back.

I encourage anybody in a network position to check out the panels at MIT's Future of Entertainment website. There's an entire online community that wants to be part of the STORY. You want them to be part of the SALE. Both can have their way - but not without making it organic to the story, making sure the audience is included without being manipulated, and you start looking at your Superfans like they're the ones who are going to work FOR you to create buzz, instead of scoffing at them and looking down your nose at them.

A new world is coming - in fact, it's already here, and no matter how many times you say it doesn't affect daytime... the truth is, you're going to be saying that right onto the unemployment line.


n69n said...

so exciting yet so frustrating!

...the thought of being part of an interactive LLANVIEW made my heart leap!

Anonymous said...

Tom you are talking about an internet strategy something that anyone who paid attention to the Obama campaign would seriously start paying attention to. I just don't think the old guard that produces soaps gets it. Witness Ken Corday's failure to go to the internet to explain the firing of his two biggest stars. You should pitch your ideas to a soap. No risk, no glory.

n69n said...

If there was an interactive LLANVIEW, it mught as well be connected to a PINE VALLY & PORT CHARLES...with not only the freedom to move between the communities, but incentive!

MarkH said...

I personally need no selling. Hell, I'd be a superfan tomorrow.

But here's the thing: building these immersive side projects takes investment. Just like any kind of promotion takes investment. Even if the superfan does most of the work, the owner of the creative property has to build the platform on which the superfan builds.

With regard to soaps, in general, property owners seem to have taken the poster of the owner of a 45 year old house or a twelve year old car..."I'm gonna use it till it drops; I'm not sinking any more cash into this thing".

The analogy implies that the property owners of daytime soaps have come to believe that there is no long-term value to their properties.

That is why we see few banner ads, TV ads...and certainly not the kind of exciting, creative things you imply.

I have some hope here: ABC invested a lot in the tornado for AMC, and in guest stars for OLTL. Sony/Bell is sinking a ton into Y&R at every level...from keeping and luring back veterans, big guest stars, more sumptuous sets than ever, location shots. These hints of investment make me hope that if someone like you proselytizes enough about new media, and others of us get in line with you, the new work you describe could happen.

Anyway, your enthusiasm is infectious. I'm giddy just reading what you wrote!

Anonymous said...

These are mouth-watering ideas. I think the soaps have wet their feet in it with the blogs and such (although as you said these are usually written by assistants or interns). I would just die if there was a virtual Port Charles!


Patrick Erwin said...

A-freakin-men, Tom.

The Scrubs Hub said...

Considering how many resources it takes to just write the 5 episodes a week, would weaving an online story in and out of the canvas even be feasible?

I think a weekly show, like Night Shift 2, would be the ideal template for that kind of thing. I would allow the writers time to create and adjust the story, as needed. They had a paired web series with Night Shift 2 revolving around two new characters Kyle and Claire. I thought it was a great way to build more of a connection for these characters to the show, although I think they should have incorporated one established character in the series more often to create more of a buy in.

If they were to do the same for Night Shift next season, I think it would be ideal to build it around Robert Scorpio and an intrigue/adventure. I think if it's done on a multi-tier level (onscreen and online), perhaps similar to some of the viral movies or like Heroes/Lost, it could create a repeat and interested interactive audience.