The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

December 2005

by Terry Borst

filed 1 November 05 Copyright ©2005 alt.screenwriters

Many’s the writer who has looked enviously at the musician, the dancer, and the stage actor, all of whom earn immediate gratification and feedback upon the execution of their creative endeavors. Historically, the screenwriter does his or her work all alone — and audience feedback, if it ever occurs, is garnered many weeks, months, or years later.

Nobody ever cheers when you conclude writing a terrific scene.

But interactive television is beginning to change this dynamic, and in the future, we may redefine screenwriting as something more immediate– far more of a real-time performance, akin to what an orchestra conductor does.

Staff writers for Goldpocket Interactive programming — several of whom are associate members of the Writers Guild — already offer us a glimpse into this evolution of the craft of screenwriting.

Goldpocket collaborates with networks and production companies to create interactive or “enhanced” television (eTV) programming. The programming runs the gamut of television genres, although the bulk of it currently falls in the arenas of game shows, live events, documentaries, and so-called “reality TV” broadcasts. Distribution of the eTV programming happens in several ways. Some eTV programs are dual-screen, involving the use of the TV with either a PC or a cellphone. Other programs are one-screen, assuming the audience has a Tivo or satellite or cable set-top device that can enable two-way interactivity solely through the TV. Some eTV programming is designed for both, of which, more about later.

Keep in mind that for a generation born since Pong, nothing could be more natural than having a controlling device in hand while watching a TV monitor: in other words, the laptop PC or cellphone are viewed as natural extensions of the viewing experience, rather than clunky distractions.

Though much of the interactivity Goldpocket creates is grafted onto pre-existing linear programming, an ever increasing amount of it is designed from the ground up in the conceptualization of a program or broadcast. And just as a screenplay is looked upon as a blueprint for production, we may increasingly view a linear program as a mere blueprint or skeleton for the complete work, which only becomes fully realized when experienced on an interactive platform (whether one-screen or two-screen).

Some of Goldpocket’s programming has included The Real Gilligan’s Island and Outback Jack on TBS; WWE RAW; Star Trek: The Next Generation for Spike TV; Iron Chef America for the Food Network; CSI: Miami Interactive and Survivor: Palau Interactive for CBS; and hundreds of hours of programming for the Game Show Network, including Celebrity Blackjack, Poker Royale, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Interactive and Average Joe Interactive.

On the most basic level, much of the “interactivizing” that the Goldpocket writers undertake involves the addition of polls, contests, factoids, trivia, imaginary dialogue pop-ups, commentary, behind-the-scenes information, live chat, and simple games. And maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, or sound like screenwriting. But WGA member Jason Leung, Director of Content, would argue otherwise.

“We create a story arc for the viewer from the beginning of the show… [Sometimes] we play off an existing story. You have these different parts of interactivity, and it’s a matter of coming up with a thread that ties everything together.”

Leung cites the Goldpocket writing staff’s work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where they were “mining the whole universe and creating further layering” to create a substantially different and rewarding experience out ofthe original linear broadcast.

WGA member Brian Obermiller points proudly to the writing staff’s contribution on the wrestling broadcast WWE RAW: a totally live production “creating content on the fly” and responding to incoming viewer chat and voting to create a unique, never-to-be-repeated experience with continuity and emotional dynamics.

The creation of real-time interactive content fits squarely in the continuum of screenwriters writing for late night live TV, live event news shows, awards shows, holiday parades, and even beauty pageants. Producer Sanjit Das refers to much of what Goldpocket does as “storytelling on the fly,” with the viewer interactivity adding a new dimension to story narrative. As an example, Das cites Real Gilligan’s Island, where a viewer could don the role of a castaway while watching the show, and then try to get off the island.

Joe Donatelli, senior editor, holds up the Game Show Network’s Kenny vs. Spenny as a superior example of storytelling interactivity, where the Goldpocket writers created a VH-1 “Behind the Music” parody overlay to the original linear episode, using all the interactive tools at their disposal.

“It’s all in how you integrate the interactivity,” Das says, stressing that with today’s software and broadcast tools, anyone can throw in a few trivia questions or polls — but only a screenwriter can look at the big picture and see how enhanced viewer involvement can enrich and expand the storyline of a program. Leung cites the importance of “finding the hook” in order to create compelling interactivity that becomes a seamless extension of the storytelling.

Television interactivity remains in its infancy: something akin to the first generation of videogames in the late ’70s — exciting for their time, but still primitive in look, functionality and experience. Where will interactive TV go from here?

Obermiller and Leung hypothesize rich DVD-like functionality in any broadcast at any time, with viewers able to hop in and out of narratives to look at special features, alternate or deleted scenes, websites devoted to theories about the backstory, and more. (Imagine, for a moment, a fully interactive Lost.) Leung also points to the power of rich 2-way interactivity in educational programming.

“You’re not going to be limited by a 22- or 44-minute format any more,” Das says, “and this opens up great avenues for storytelling.” He envisions the “deep worlds” that state-of-the-art games like Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto create(imagine being able to explore the overlapping windows and split screens of 24, or being able to saunter about the Bada-Bing), and further involving the audience as characters in a broadcast narrative, perhaps via a webcam and microphone.

Donatelli foresees entirely new storylines created in real-time during sports broadcasts — something way beyond the “up close and personal” featurettes that are a staple of Olympics coverage and ESPN College Gameday.

There can be little doubt that the resurgent interest behind dramatic, scripted programming (Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and others) is due in part to the ease in which viewers can now interact with each other on the Web, quickly creating show loyalty and spreading the word to others. As that interactivity ports completely over to a one-screen television format, the chance to further extend and expand the world of a show increases even further. Forget the watercooler conversation the morning after: the goal is to have people discussing and arguing about the show all week — and throughout the hiatus.

But to become an eTV writer, you’ll need to learn programming languages like perl and XML, right?

Fortunately, no. Final Draft has already created an interactive-TV template, and Goldpocket’s writing staff composes much of its content and interactive features directly within a Final Draft script. Once the script is locked or in a late-stage draft, the software then automates an export to XML — and the resulting XML code can then be imported into Goldpocket’s “Content Producer” authoring tool.

“We can teach this to any writer in a day,” Donatelli says. Content Producer allows the writer to work directly with a show’s timecode — and using a drag-and-drop interface, refine and revise the interactivity available through the broadcast. Think of this as an interactive music score — and returning to our orchestra conductor metaphor, the software allows the writer to make changes and additions as the broadcast happens.

It’s not just screenwriting anymore: it’s live screenwriting.

The Goldpocket writing staff is hopeful that more showrunners will begin working with them while a show is still in the script pilot stage, as building in interactive enhancements from the ground up can only lead to more innovative and imaginative programming.

The emerging deployment of ever richer eTV is bound to place new demands on screenwriters. But then, technology has been doing that since the first scenarists were writing one-reelers. Right now, eTV is still striving to find its Milton Berle Show: breakout programming that calls attention to itself and becomes “must see” TV. But what a long journey it’s been from The Milton Berle Show to shows like Lost, The Sopranos and 24. What new worlds might eTV open up?

Written by tborst

November 1, 2005 at 4:13 pm

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