The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

May 2005

by Terry Borst

filed 31 March 05 Copyright ©2005 alt.screenwriters

For years, discussion of “interactive TV” (iTV) would inevitably head towards the example of being able to click on Jennifer Aniston’s sweater on Friends and instantly purchase it. QVC meets internet browsing in the living room, in other words. Pretty soon we’d be clicking away at pizzas and prescription drugs and pre-owned vehicles, and our front porches would be piling up with merchandise.

Friends is gone, of course (except in re-runs). Someday it’ll look as dated as Leave it to Beaver, and I don’t think we want to be forever clicking on Mr. or Mrs. Cleaver’s wardrobe, trying to order it.

The American Film Institute has long had a different vision of the future of television. In fact, since the late ’90s, AFI’s Enhanced Television (eTV) Workshop has been serving as a research-and-development lab for TV networks and producers exploring eTV and iTV. And while the Jennifer Aniston scenario never seemed to have much to do with working screenwriters, AFI is now putting out the call to WGA members — and they’ve responded.

Marcia Zellers serves as director of the Workshop, which has just changed its name to the Digital Content Lab. Why has AFI taken such an interest in the future of TV? According to Zellers, “AFI has always encouraged media arts professionals to embrace technological advancements that will aid or alter their craft. In addition, AFI has always interpreted the term ‘film’ in broad terms, understanding that screened entertainment is perhaps a more accurate reflection of our purview.” She also points out that “a huge percentage of the graduates of the AFI Conservatory go on to work in TV”, further compelling AFI’s interests in this arena.

Definitions in this realm are often difficult. Says Zellers: “[Enhanced TV] describes a range of [viewer] experiences that may or may not be interactive. Enhanced TV tends to be program-specific, and adds to or encourages you to interact with the storyline or creative flow of that specific program. Interactive TV tends to offer services and ancillary information rather than content-specific enhancements.”

However, even these phrases are now coming up short, hence the name change to the Digital Content Lab. eTV is “simply too narrow a definition. In our quest to innovate in the TV space, we found ourselves extending TV properties to a host of promising platforms, like cell phones, game consoles, or broadband. If you can watch a ‘TV’ program on your cell phone, is it still TV? The traditional producers of TV –- networks and production companies –- aren’t the only content creators in this new world order. For example, if a broadband shop provides video content delivered via telephony to the home, it’s still TV. Basically, the convergence we’ve been talking about for a decade is beginning to happen. It’s really about digital content to screens.”

Each year, the Digital Content Lab assembles production teams to create eTV prototypes, usually starting with an existing television property that is looking to explore how its programming might look utilizing new digital devices. These can include iTV set-top boxes, Tivo-like devices (known as Digital Video Recorders or Personal Video Recorders — DVRs or PVRs), cellphones, game consoles, and in-home networked media devices.

As you might guess, numerous technology hurdles exist in creating a deployable prototype. Thus, the production teams will typically require involvement of middleware (software that enables the TV and the enhancements to co-exist) developers, programmers, interface designers, and cable TV or satellite TV delivery consultants.

But the starting point is the content. And while many of the first TV properties to create prototypes have been so-called reality TV shows, shows such as Disney’s Kim Possible, PBS’s An American Family, HBO’s Arli$$ and Showtime’s The L Word have waded into these new, uncharted waters, with the blessing of their creators — who realize that, as artists, we need to explore new ways of reaching out to ever-changing and more demanding audiences.

Brenna Hajek, an associate member of the freshly minted WGA New Media Caucus, worked on “interactivizing” The L Word. Why The L Word? “Showtime discovered that The L Word’s unique and extremely devoted fan base is also very tech savvy.” Consequently, the property seemed a natural for prototyping an eTV application. “The L Word‘s Executive Producer, Ilene Chaiken, was very excited about the idea and fully supported our efforts,” says Hajek, who is bullish about the value of Enhanced TV, even for story-driven dramas and comedies.

“Interactivity and enhancements can serve to deepen the connection between an audience and a story. Shows can be enhanced in a number of ways, from little extras like providing trivia and additional facts, all the way up to full-blown alternate storylines, imaginative new characters, and exciting community-building features.”

Because of the The L Word audience’s passion for and identification with the characters, Hajek’s team “made it our mission to create an application that strengthened this feeling of show identity”.

The episode itself would remain unchanged, respecting viewers’ desire for a completely linear experience. “But viewers opting in for enhancements receive additional content without distracting from the storyline,” says Hajek. “During certain key decision points, the show is paused (using DVR technology) and a question is raised about the action taken by the character in response to a scene. The viewer is then shown a 90-second video clip of the character in question doing sort of a modern-day soliloquy explaining … why she reacted the way she did.”

According to Hajek, “once the viewer experiences this additional insight, it’s her turn. Using her remote, she chooses what she would do in that same situation… After answering several of these personality questions, we are able to loosely match the person with the personality type of one of the characters on the show [and] at the end of the episode, the viewers are treated to another piece of exclusive video in which the character to whom they’re matched addresses them directly, giving a little personality profile.”

Hajek had to come up with several versions of the vignettes because of production schedules, and “had to know the show and the characters inside and out. It was usually me keeping everyone [on the prototype team] faithful to the show.”

WGA screenwriters Doug Stark and Carolyn Miller (as well as the writer of this column) have helped develop eTV prototypes for other television properties. Some of these prototypes are now being further developed, while others, like The L Word, have not yet received a green light towards full deployment.

After her experience, Hajek observes that “it is ideal to build in interactivity from the start of a show, rather than trying to slap it on after the fact. Interactivity can be retrofitted — and right now that’s still pretty much the standard — but I look forward to a day when spec scripts are submitted with interactive components built in.”

Hajek thinks that all screenwriters should begin thinking more about new technologies. “Writers are storytellers. Interactivity should be considered another storytelling tool in a writer’s repertoire… I’ve often felt when I’ve seen certain films or watched some TV programs, that they ‘wanted’ to be in another medium that just didn’t exist yet. In other words, sometimes a story feels constrained by its own format. That’s when interactivity via Web site, set top box, DVD or other media can help a story to realize its full potential.”

The exact future of iTV/eTV is still to be defined. AFI’s Zellers cautions, “I don’t believe [viewers] will be asked to feed the dialogue to Tony Soprano that will keep him from getting busted, or choose the punchline Ray Romano ends the show on. But again, all content will have the potential for interactivity. Some of that may be in the narrative: in a DVR world, it might be interesting to pause Deadwood while you explore what was really stocked at the bar in a turn-of-the-century saloon, or get a better sense of the layout of the camp.”

A new development cycle at AFI will begin this summer, heralded by the Digital Content Festival (open to the public for a fee) taking place July 20. The Lab is now actively seeking showrunners and network execs who want to take the plunge into this brave new world, and help define 21st century digital entertainment. “Come talk to us at the Lab and we can help them create or realize their concepts!” says Zellers. The Lab can be contacted at (323)856-7816.

WGA members who would like to work on a prototype production team can get an application form at the Digital Content Lab website. Qualifications? “Screenwriters will be working with a team of people expert in interactive thinking, and sometimes that team needs a strong dose of grounding in good, old-fashioned storytelling… But at the very least, in addition to writing ability, [screenwriters] need to have a facility to think differently and understand the unique complexities presented by the addition of the interactive dimension.”

Written by tborst

March 31, 2005 at 5:15 am

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