alt.screenwriters

The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

September 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 17 August 01 Copyright ©2001 alt.screenwriters

You might not expect a daytime serial to be on the cutting edge of storytelling. But if that’s the case, you should take a closer look at the ABC drama Days Of Our Lives  (DOOL).

The long-running serial — which debuted when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House — has become one of the pioneers in enhancing and enlarging story content online, and gives us an exciting preview of what Convergence (the marriage of media platforms) might mean to screenwriters and content creators.

Spearheading this endeavor is veteran TV screenwriter Rick Draughon. Draughon, whose past credits include daytime dramas Sunset Beach, Another World and Loving, now serves as the producer of daysofourlives.com. And Draughon is quite excited by the possibilities that the serial’s official website affords him as a storyteller.

“A website has the potential to extend a show’s story,” says Draughon. “I think marketing/promotion is important but I believe it’s more important to give the viewer something extra, something they can’t get on TV.”

One of the ways Draughon has been doing this is to give viewers online access to objects, experiences and creations that are part of the show’s storylines.

“Recently DOOL featured the coronation of Princess Greta. The character of Nicole (who happens to be the Director of Imaging for the show’s fictitious Bella Magazine) attended the coronation. She was covering the event for Bella … and we published that very edition of Bella online.”

In a second example, a doctor “gave his patient, Hattie, a book to read that would help prepare her for her [procedure]. Hattie would constantly be seen reading this book on-air. Of course, the television audience had no way of knowing what she was reading, so we built the bogus book online! … Besides reading the book, you can even see Hattie’s doodles and notes within the margins.”

In yet another storyline extension, an on-air website used by two teen characters to defame and humiliate another teen character was actually created on the Internet: DOOL took out the domain name (operagirl.net), and created and updated the website to mirror what was happening during the unspooling of this particular subplot.

“It’s important that we consistently refresh and update our content,” Draughon says. But keeping up with the daily developments of a serial is no easy task. “A prime time show has a full week to ride their wave and take advantage of their previous episode. But something new happens each day on a soap opera and it’s my job to make sure it’s covered somewhere on the site.” He notes with both wonder and pride that “our website is a living, breathing organism.”

Veteran daytime serials often skew towards an older demographic, but DOOL’s online component provides a way for the show to reach out to (and even add) younger viewers, who are usually the most Web-savvy. “We’ve expanded our site to offer a character driven teen area called .COM. This is based on the popular teen cyber-cafe hangout that is featured on-air. Within this site you can hang with the DOOL teens via e-mail, listen to a Sony Music sponsored listening station, and enjoy other interactive features such as screensavers.”

One of the summer’s subplots involved kids embarking on an Outward Bound program. On the website, the character of Mimi chronicles the trip in an online journal. The .COM “subsite” also includes a “Teen Rant” area, where on-air characters discuss (or diss) ongoing pop culture developments.

This summer also saw the debut of Flash animations revolving around peripheral on-air characters. Here, these characters take center stage in mini-episodes that only deepen the texture of the DOOL world.

Though Draughon enjoys great autonomy in extending the on-air storyworld online, he describes a very loose collaboration that he has with the TV staff. “I read episode outlines and scripts, attend NBC publicity meetings with Sheraton Kalouria (Senior VP of Daytime Programs for NBC) and talk to the Head Writer, Tom Langan. Usually I kind of go with my gut [in developing online content] but sometimes if I’m doing something heavy I’ll run it by Tom or Sheraton and they’ll say play this angle or try this.”

He envisions closer collaboration between on-air and online staffs as time goes on, but he also sees advantages in the separate operations: “I try to mirror our Head Writer and the stories he’s telling on-air — but sometimes I might see a nuance that I think viewers might find interesting. Sometimes it’s a perspective about something entirely different than they might see on-air. I think this is an important key. I want to give viewers something different to latch on to.”

Cable and satellite providers are increasingly intrigued with the possibilities of 2-screen and 1-screen interactivity in entertainment programming. Already, a measurable segment of television audiences watches shows while simultaneously interacting with show websites and chat rooms (an example of 2-screen programming). And as the new generation of set-top devices and digital TVs penetrates households, expect to see interactive features and pop-up windows become available. Draughon can certainly see one application:

“Recently Hope (played by Kristian Alfonso) remarried Bo. I cannot tell you how much e-mail I got about her dress. All these fans wanted to know how they could buy it. Just imagine if you could point and click while you’re watching the show. As the credits roll, proceed to checkout!”

Because we work in a commercial medium as well as an artistic medium, such applications are probably inevitable. However, the DOOL website, and other cutting-edge show sites like dawsonscreek.com, offer the promise of something more tantalizing. In some ways, the mixture of online and on-air content hints at a novelistic breadth and depth to filmic storytelling that has only been dreamed about before.

And as screenwriters, perhaps we should be recalibrating our own imaginations, and picturing what new stories can be told on this new, sprawling canvas of convergence.

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Written by tborst

August 17, 2001 at 10:27 pm

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