The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

December 1998-January 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 30 November 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

As Y2K approaches (the year, not the catastrophe), we see the shape of entertainment changing, flexing, distorting, and redefining itself in ways that ten years ago — hell, two years ago — nobody could have imagined: most notably in the field of broadcast television. Doubt it? Check out the latest jargon. HDTV, datacasting, multicasting, enhanced TV – these are the hottest new topics in the entertainment arena, and they’re ripe for the entrepreneurial digital entertainment company to harvest and whip up into a multimillion-dollar business. You gotta wonder: who’s leading the way into this bold new entertainment paradigm of the future? The oldline networks? The WBs and UPNs? Surprise! It’s the FCC…

In our trek about town, we’ve discovered that Hollywood isn’t exactly hip about these latest developments. Or rather, they know about them, but they’re so involved with the business of getting today’s shows on air that they’re not thinking much about the future of entertainment. The comments we hear are always the same. “We know about digital broadcast, but nobody’s doing it yet.” The future — who the heck lives there?

Funny thing about the future: it always seems to sneak up on you and before you know it, it’s here. Sort of like deadlines. So, when the FCC mandates that the future of television broadcast is digital, the masses seem to think that they have awhile before they have to start dealing with it. But where digital broadcast is concerned, the future is now.

The FCC mandate goes something like this: by 1999 the stations in the top 30 markets will be broadcasting digitally. By 2002, a mere three years from now, all commercial stations will be digital, and by 2003, even your local PBS will be sending out digital fare. So, how do you get the audience to, frankly, give a damn?

It all starts with HDTV. Yeah, buzzword. But that buzzword gives the populace a television that can blow their socks off. High Definition TV delivers CD-quality soundand pictures that are meant to be viewed the way filmmakers intended: on a wide screen with high resolution. HDTV is so much more than a change in box design. These sets receive and process digital transmissions, expanding the content, linking to more material, taking the limitations off of the traditional viewing experience for those who want to go multilinear. HDTV — available Christmas, 1998, at a store near you (for a pretty penny, of course).

Okay, so once you have your digital signal, what can you do with it? Plenty. On the least creative but perhaps most lucrative side, you can check out the stock market from the Internet while you’re watching TV without having to leave the comfort of your lazy-boy. If you’re more inclined to stay in tune with what you’re watching, you could bring up a site from the ‘net that compliments the show. Just punch in the right URL, and you’ll be well on your way to connecting to places online that expand your interests from the show. That’s Datacasting for you.

But maybe the most exciting prospects from the new era of digital broadcast lie in Enhanced Television. In this land, writers could rule, especially if they understand interactivity. (Let us be the first to say we told you this was going to happen.)

Similar to Datacasting, Enhanced TV lets you access the Internet on your HDTV while you’re watching a show. But beyond that, the possibilities are nearly endless. The signal includes gobs of extra bandwidth (for you techie types, about 2000 kilobits per second — your current modem probably gives you 28-56). Bandwidth has been as precious as gold; soon it’ll be as common as sand. Think it won’t be used?

The content creators can provide a hot link directly to their site via, say, an icon embedded on screen, or a hotspot that’s part of the show. lick the little logo on the bottom right corner of the screen, and you could be instantly connected to The Web, where you’ll encounter additional information on the show, the stars, the making-of, the whatever. Want more? Okay, then click the icon and instead it could take you to an online environment where you can meet with others who are watching the same show and discuss the content with them. Still not enough? Maybe the show’s creators are really savvy. You click the logo when they announce an interactive segment during the show, and you immediately link to a place where you’re competing with others online, and on TV at the same time, in a game that is integrated as part of the storyline of the show.

Writers, start your computers.

In the best of all possible worlds, writing enhanced entertainment will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It will take collaboration with a team that designs the characters, the show and the interactivity all at once, keeping the other components in mind throughout the creative process. Yes, it will also require technology. But if writers take the bull by the horns, some very fresh and creative content will be born out of that technology.

Writers — the future heavy players of enhanced entertainment? It could be. And we all know how close the future is…

Written by tborst

November 30, 1998 at 2:55 am

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