Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

How will you end it?

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday July 7, 2003

A video for Robbie Williams's new song could finish in three different ways. It all depends on TV viewers voting with their fingers. Kate Bulkley explains

Robbie Williams's new single opens with the line "You can't manufacture a miracle." Well, he might be right about that, but he and his record company EMI are trying to manufacture something miraculous for their industry - the world's first interactive music video where the TV audience votes for their favourite ending.

Something Beautiful, the third single from Williams's Escapology album, will be released on July 28. However, fans (who first started seeing the music video over the weekend) can decide how the story of the video will end.

A few months ago, Williams and EMI faced a dilemma - they wanted to create a video for the song, but the star was heavily into his latest tour. It was then that two ideas collided.

Williams had long wanted to produce a video making fun of Pop Idol and the reality TV craze he considers "mass entertainment humiliation". Meanwhile, EMI had seen the positive effects of interactivity on the music video format. It was decided to make a music video about Williams wannabes going through a Pop Idol process to choose the best. It films the story of hundreds of hopefuls auditioning in front of a panel of judges with the field being whittled down to 30 semi-finalists. The final three - Rebecca, Bjorn and Peter - are treated like superstars and the climax is their performances before a studio audience. The interactive part comes at the end when the video invites the TV audience at home to vote, via telephone text message, for their favourite.

After 10 days of voting, a winner will be announced and the video's original cliffhanger ending will be altered to show the lucky wannabe meeting the real thing. What that revised ending will look like, and what Williams might do or say, are heavily guarded secrets as EMI wants to build up the suspense. But, suffice to say, the real Williams is promising to deliver a typically cheeky opinion on the subject of how modern pop stars are made, something he feels passionate about.

"I know Take That were a manufactured band but I think it's all gone too far nowadays," he says. "These shows - you know which ones I mean - promise fame and fortune but they just chew people up and spit them out. People don't realise how fleeting their moment of fame can be. In the end they are being humiliated for mass entertainment."

Eric Winbolt, New Media manager for EMI records, says the i-video is a way of making the artist and the content of a video more involving and exciting for the audience. "We're used to doing that on the web, but this experience is now something for people who were previously just passively watching TV."

EMI first experimented with an i-music video at the start of the year when heavy metal band Hell Is For Heroes re-released a single called You Drove Me To It. On its first release in 2002, the single achieved a best chart position of just No 63. But the second release in January was promoted by an enhanced video featuring "the man in red" - actually someone in a red tracksuit - who appeared on screen and triggered much red button-pushing. This interactive action took fans behind the video to additional content, including extra exclusive material, but with a main focus of directing them to the band's website. This enhanced video put the single on to the A-list rotation of MTV2 and pushed it to 28 in the charts.

If this i-video experiment works, it could help spark a revival in the UK singles market which has been depressed for years. Whereas singles in the 1970s had to sell more than a million copies to top the charts, the dance act Tomcraft only needed to sell 36,000 to go straight to No 1 in May. The chairman of EMI UK & Ireland, Tony Wadsworth, says the singles format is "in decline. It's definitely undergoing radical surgery."

So, while music downloading from the web continues to increase, the UK music industry still believes that buying singles is the main way to keep traditional album sales alive.

"If you create more profile and engage people with the artist, that's more likely to fuel singles sales, which is still the bulk of the record company's marketing activity," says Winbolt. "Hit singles lead to album sales." He says that the record label is not trying to make money from the telephone text voting itself, which is why fans in the UK can't use the red button to vote; they must make a (cheaper) telephone text call.

The big difference with William's cliffhanger i-video is that its content will change as a result of fan voting. All three possible endings have already been filmed and different markets may vote in a different winner - for example, German Bjorn is probably a certain winner there.

In the UK, MTV has decided to pull out all the stops. The channel is dedicating MTV Peep - its four-screen interactive service - to the new song. Fans can see Something Beautiful 24 hours a day plus video out-takes and short documentaries about the lookalikes. There will also be a phone voting number for Robbie Rebecca, Robbie Bjorn or Robbie Peter.

The head-spinning part of this concept is that despite real Robbie trying to poke fun at manufactured pop stars, EMI actually did operate real Pop Idol-style auditions to find their three wannabe finalists.

Video producer Gillian Nisbet says: "We treated them like rock stars for a week, driving them around in limousines and giving them dancing lessons with Robbie's choreographer, but we also briefed them that this is not going to change their lives."

How will you end it?

That might turn out to be a debatable point for the trio. All three were picked because they "embodied the essence of Robbie" rather than just looking like him. Rebecca was the very first in line for the auditions in London in May that attracted hundreds of hopefuls. Bjorn flew in from Germany, while Peter was one of the wannabes who impressed the judges (who included William's father) as looking most like the star.

Unlike Pop Idol or Fame Academy, no one has promised them a record contract and they only mimed to Williams's song. But the gift of celebrity might still be theirs. Maybe Williams has got it wrong and even he may end up manufacturing a miracle for one of his own music video stars.


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