How to tell engaging TV stories for the XXI century´s audiences? Dr. Aleks Krotoski, presenter of the BBC 2 series Virtual Revolution (2010), explains why the convergence between the online and the offline has changed the way people consume media and how content creators and web developers can work together to transform the “linear-story-telling” television into a holistic, interconnected and interpretative experience.
Carolina Roncarolo (TV Observatory, School of Communication, Universidad Austral)
- How has the convergence of social and technological networks changed the way people consume TV content?
The convergence between the online and the offline is a really interesting and new development. Primarily, because so many people are using companion screens, whether they are using a mobile phone, or a laptop, a desktop or even an I pad or another type of tablet. They are engaging with television content in a way that tends to be distractive, so they are half looking at it or they are engaged in a different way, by actually following Twitter streams, or getting involved in the direction of a storyline if it is a drama. For example, in the UK there is a program called The million pound drop, and that is very much online environment which is a quiz show that has a very strong Internet element, but is broadcasted on TV.
I think, primarily, the key part of this is the evolution of the audience member, and his or her belief in their role in the participation of television content. No longer are they necessarily be happy to simply consume in a very linear way when somebody else is managing the direction or how the content is going forward, how the content is laid out for consumption. They actually want to engage, want to participate, want to be involved in the storyline, the news idem…They want to feel that they are actually participating and taking part in the story. Part of this has to do with this phenomenon that I like to call “the cult of me”, in which the individual is the centre of his or her network. The individual is the hero of his or her journey, and this is facilitated because of the participatory elements of television and the participatory elements of the online, and they are now the centre of the story, and, therefore, they want to feel they are part of the story.
- What are the new possibilities that multi-platform television presents for audiences and producers?
I´m interested in a very holistic, interconnected and interpretative schema, in which web developers content, interactive content developers and television “linear-story-telling” producers can actually work together, and can actually create something that´s completely new, completely different.
There are a couple of good examples. One of them is the BBC TV series Lost. It was fantastic and very clever how it tried to keep the audiences engaged and also give them a deeper experience of what they are demanding…Along with the linear television offering (that was produced by JJ Abrahams and other writers) there was also a parallel storyline, but online.
They created something that is called “the Lost experience”; and “the Lost experience” was something that falls into an interactive offering that is called the Alternate Reality Gaming environment: they literally created a completely different storyline that used the same characters within the universe, and extended that in a really interesting way that challenged the audience members to engage more deeply in the storyline that was happening on screen, whether it was because it forced to watch the ads in between each of the episodes on the television by dropping in clues, or dropping in hints about what was happening in the online version, or by asking the audience members to look at print advertising.
- What is the audience researcher to do in the age of the Internet? Can we still talk about “audiences” and “content producers” as separated units?
I think that there is definitely an argument to suggest that content developers and audiences are starting to blur, but there is still a real and important role for content developers and story tellers to have their own interpretation. I will use an example of The Virtual Revolution. It was a hilarious moment at which point I was walking around Ghana or New York, or everywhere taking photographs, tweeting, sending Facebook updates, and that was intended for the online audience, that was intended for the people that I was hoping to engage in that particular area. But there was a cameraman on the program who literally thought I was wasting my time…So why are you doing this? We are making and creating a story that is total from our point of view. There is a narrative that we worked together to create a single linear story, as content developers and as people who were trained in this (whether is journalists, directors of photography, directors of program or producers).
Where the blur happened? How that linear story was reinterpretated by the audience member? We allowed people to download all of the raw material that we shot (whether it was a beautiful scenery, whether it was interviews with Bill Gates or Tim Berners Lee), and then to tell their story using the material that we had shot, using the interview questions that I have asked, using the incredible general views that we took with the director of photography. Now we have created that through our training in many ways, so we set the standard, we created the benchmark and said we are telling you a story. But then we asked the people to say we recognized that ours wasn´t the last word in the story. We asked people to say: “OK, fine, what´s your interpretation of this?”
So in many ways the original content as a linear story was important to be a single view interpretation. But we thought but it was very important that the audience, who were also the content creators, took that, remixed, mashed up and told their own stories, recognizing of course that everybody can be a story teller, if he or she has the skills.
- How do the user generated content and the Long Tail model influence the TV business and the copyright?
Most people in television feel in some way as if were impervious. They are thinking that the issues which affect the music industry and the film industry are not necessarily relevant to them because they have a different business model. They are more concerned about how to retain audiences as supposed to, how to protect their own copyright and their IP…
At the moment there are very many models that are dealing with this issue, and I think more than anything else that it´s the small distributors and it´s the small developers that are having greater trouble. Because it´s the small production companies that, for example, have one film that they create every year, and then rely on foreign sales to support them. And if somebody pirates and downloads it across the world, that makes this content less valuable when the distributor seeks to sell to a territory.
One of the solutions that have been proposed is the creation of content that happens around the linear television production. Like “the Lost experience” and some other things that are happening out there: to create a unique experience around the television experience, so that when people are on their laptops or their Ipads, they will watch at the same time as everybody else is watching on the linear television channel, but then also engage in their own way by the technology. But everybody is doing it at the same time.
In terms of the distribution angle (the middle section), they are now thinking about different windows for releasing content, whether is on DVD, whether is on play again types of scenario. In the UK we have the BBC iPlayer, in the US increasingly people are downloading content via Hulu, so we are starting to see the shift of the window of consumption. And so distributors are starting to think about how they change the release window strategy, to make sure that everybody around the world gets the content at the same time.
I´ve spoken with content creators, often comedy writers or even drama writers, and they are simply very keen to get their content out to as many people as possible. If the distributor or the channel doesn´t decide to sell it to a particular territory or that particular territory has decided that it doesn´t want to buy that television program, then content developers may not feel so bad if individuals in that territory download that content, because ultimately they are benefiting from the fact that more people are watching the program. And there have been cases in which the audience who has downloaded the content then demands or creates a demand such that the television company in that territory purchases the content in the end.
- How has Social Media changed the relationship between audiences, content producers and TV programs?
What is really exciting about the role of Social Media in television development (and, in fact, any media development) is the role of the fan. And not just the role of the fan communities, but the super fan communities, this people who are very invested, who perhaps would be the first people who download a track, or watch a television program, or want actually to get deeply involved in the production and participate in it. Super fans are incredibly powerful, and a fascinating community; we saw it very much before the Social Media revolution with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that was a very big pre Social Media fan community. We saw something like this with Star Trek as well.
Since we have started to see writers working with superfans via Social Media making this connection, we have started to see Social Media been actually used as a platform to tell some of the stories that are happenning or to test out some of the stories. So not only does Social Media allows super fan communities to form, but it also allows the creators of the television programs that actually reach into those communities and connect with their fans directly.
- Why participation in Social Media has empowered the audiences?
Certainly, web participation has empowered audiences, and I think it is most obvious when you see how they are demanding, not just Twitter hashtags, but Facebook pages, and certainly participation in the creation of media. And just web participation in general I think is created by this “cult of me”, this sense of the individual should have a rol in what is the third consuming.
And that is starting to shift the balance; it is starting to create a tension between successfull program makers and unsuccessfull program makers, and specially we are starting to see more Social Media and web investment and involvement from content creators in order to facilitate and encourage people back to television.
- Can people participation contribute to improve the quality of TV contents?
There are a couple of arguments about whether or not the participation of audiences would improve or reduce the quality of TV contents. The contra argument would be that you are creating a kind of lowest common denominator television: too many cooks for the soup. And, again, this goes back to the idea that you can help to shape, but perhaps in the end this is still the responsibility of an individual or a small group of individuals to take an idea to broadcast. And that´s a very exciting aspect of this interpretation of the linear story as it goes out, in many ways as a kind of firebrand, as an inspiration tool technique. But, on the other hand, of course the more cooks that you have you are adding ingredients in the soup, then more interesting a product may become.
- To sum up, in the following years, will be possible to continue talking about TV as a mass media, or will it be “absorbed” by the web?
I don´t think it´s a zero sum equation. Each particular media has its own affordances; television it´s a great media for story telling, and the Internet is a great media for interactivity. And so, therefore, we can´t neccesarilly say that is the end of television as a mass media, simply because there are different affordances of that particular media, as there are different affordances of the web, radio, of books, of cinema, of any kind of mass media.
- What will be the new definition for the TV of the future?
I imagine that the television of the future will be di facto interactive, or certainly it will have a di facto interactive element. The story telling will continue in the same way I think it now, but perhaps with the extra elements that happen around the television story. And certainly there will be engagement and participation on multiple screens. For example, it was fascinating to watch the Olympic that happened in London, because you could literally watch what was happening on the linear television, and then you could watch another stream on your laptop, and another thing on your Ipad. So, I was able to watch four or five different streams of content that were happening from the same television channel. I think there will be more customer or audience consumption through different streams. Perhaps in different camera angles, as we have seen already in football matches. Or perhaps, like the Olympics, it is different contents that are happening at the same time.
About Aleks Krotoski