Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Tools of attraction: creating multimedia content for games and TV shows

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday June 06 2011

Audiences now expect stories to be told in new ways across different platforms, but commissioners often fail to produce compelling 'transmedia' content

The traditional processes behind TV programme–making are breaking down. Illustration: Brett Ryder

Storytelling has always been at the heart of the best media, be it a TV show, a documentary or a game, and there is no doubt that with the expanding choice of technology – from smart mobile phones and tablets to TV sets that have internet connections – we are seeing an ever–increasing convergence of storytelling on different platforms. But as this convergence develops, one of the key questions now confronting the media industry is this: who's in control of this explosion in creativity?

The answer might seem obvious. Surely, it's the commissioners who grant producers the chance to broadcast on their channels. Or maybe it's the producers and directors themselves with the ideas for the programmes or films that have the whip hand? Or perhaps it's the writers who ultimately have control?

But there is another view: The US version of the BBC hit show The Office is now six years old and has run for more than 160 episodes. But according to Frank Rose, the author of The Art of Immersion, which is based on interviews with creative and media company executives, what the show's producers found pretty early on was that they were running to keep up with the demands of their audience. Rose says audiences of television shows – be they documentaries or entertainment programmes – are increasingly demanding extra material, online chat areas, show–related games and so much more. "Greg Daniels [the producer of The Office for NBC] put it to me that people assume that if your show is any good, then there will be stuff online to do with it," says Rose.

What this means for TV programme–makers is that the traditional processes behind TV programme–making are breaking down. "We're living in the midst of a major sea change," says Rose. "It's obvious that TV shows are huge drivers for web traffic, but many TV network executives take the wrong message from that. They think that means TV is the most important thing and that everything else is just an add–on. But the right message is that TV is just one part of a much bigger eco–system that is emerging. The executives can turn this to their advantage, but [if they ignore it] they risk alienating the people that matter the most, their audiences."

On the web, social network sites such as Facebook see their audiences as fans; on television and in movie theatres, the audiences are treated like passive customers. According to Rose and many others at the forefront of the new content–making philosophies, there is a world of difference. The viewers, fans, audiences – or whatever name you choose to use for these groups – are seeking control over many of their media experiences and what they want is what programme makers and broadcasters now have to deliver. "Broadcasters are only really just starting to turn audiences into fans and they are way behind some social media services in building up fan networks as opposed to just building audiences," explains Matt Locke, a former Channel 4 executive and now owner and founder of www.storythings.com, a consultancy and production company that aims to help people tell stories in new ways.

Giving audiences more control, or at least giving them more choices over how and when they consume media, is starting to resonate with broadcasters. But a lot more work is needed, says Matt Adams, co–founder of Blast Theory, a company that creates participatory events and immersive content, mostly for mobiles and the web. "Most broadcasters are still hobbled by their commissioning and production processes, which are still linear and depend on a certain hierarchy of skills," says Adams. "There is a natural tendency to look at creating something for TV first and then add other platforms later. However much talk there is about 360-degree commissioning, these structures are still problematic."

Crossmedia production

Part of the problem is understanding what non–TV platforms offer storytellers, says Mark Atkin, director of Crossover Labs, which runs crossmedia production workshops. "I think we have just about hit the "ah–ha" moment 10 years into talking about this," he says. "But you still have to scratch around for good examples apart from Lost (in the US) and Doctor Who." Atkin says that transmedia storytelling is about "creating different stories around one central creative idea that leads to something more" and is especially attractive to "super fans".

Some broadcasters are starting to take the right steps, for instance, at Channel 4, online and TV commissioning executives have been pulled together into combined teams and the station's Embarrassing Bodies programme has won awards for its information-rich website, which surpassed 10 million visitors in March. In the Netherlands, broadcaster VPRO aired its first TV and iPad documentary in January called Money & Speed: Inside the Black Box, a programme about the crash of global financial markets on 6 May 2010 caused by computerised trading. "The talent is offering choices for the consumer without confusing them," says Nicolette Nol, executive producer for VPRO Digitaal. "TV is lean back and the web is lean forward and the tablet is both forward and backward, so it's a nice combination and it means more information is just a click away."

Of course not all TV programmes are suited for "transmedia" storytelling, but Louise Brown, head of new media and cross platform commissioning at Channel 4 is keen to find more documentary programmes that could be. She mentions Hugh's Fish Fight, both a TV show and an online petition calling for sustainable fishing that was conceived as a transmedia project. The TV programmes aired in January had over 2.4m viewers each and the petition attracted 650,000 online signatures. The campaign had 200,000 "friends" on Facebook and more than 20,000 followers on Twitter. "A broadcast TV programme has tremendous impact, but it can be relatively shallow," says Brown. "What online and other media elements provide is a way to extend that creative idea to other audiences and increase the depth as well, and that is really inspiring creatively because you take the essence of the thing and find the most appropriate platform for it."

At ITV, breakfast show This Morning has been revamped to incorporate Facebook, Skype and Twitter to let the audience participate with the programme in real–time. The programme recently introduced a 360-degree camera so online viewers can change the camera angle as they watch the programme. "We have completely re–engineered how This Morning works on air by creating The Hub, where there are on–air presenters dedicated to interacting with the audience and finding out what they want and also to continue the discussions around the topics on the show when the show is not on the air," says Robin Pembrooke, managing director of ITV.com. The audience is responding. This Morning, which was revamped last September, regularly pulls in 2 million TV viewers a day; by mid-May, it had 275,322 Facebook "likes" and more than 103,000 Twitter followers. This article was produced in association with Crossover Labs and Sheffield Doc/Fest

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