The Futures of Serialized Storytelling
New means of digital circulation, audience engagement and fan activism have brought with it a variety of experiments with serialized video storytelling. What can we learn from some of the most compelling emerging ways to tell ongoing stories through online video, cross-platform features and applications and real world engagement? What models for content creation are emerging, and what are the stakes for content creators and audiences alike?
Moderator: Laurie Baird (Georgia Tech)
Panelists: Matt Locke (Storythings, UK), Steve Coulson (Campfire), Lynn Liccardo (soap opera critic), and Denise Mann (University of California-Los Angeles)
LB: wants to talk about stories, the state of the industry, how thigns are changing, how fan activation are playing in the new world. What are best practices, what needs to be done? Want to ask the panel, what is the favourite property? Mine is once Upon a time, where storybook characters come to life
ML: Love Misfits, Heros with ASBOS, chararacters on community service…the production compnay worked with team, to listen to fanbase, a ggood example of extending storyworld. Another, the opposite, a project we did, with BlastTheory, commissioned them to do an SMS drama, to create a project talking about sexual health and teens. Learnt a tlot of stuff about timing and engagement
DM: Once Upon Time, Grim, Terra Nova, intrigued Heroes, Lost, BSG, all key shows that shift entertainment model. Curious how networks are shifting back to traditional formats and experimenting on markets
SC: SHould probably say Boardwalk Empire…but SHowtime’s Homeland, great stroytelling, performances, potential to spin out, potential for expanded storytelling…Also franchses that are not fulfilling their potential, fan of comic books and comic universes. Looking at how Marvel are expanding storyworld with films. ANd how DC are destroying everything, with a series of moveis that don#t fulfil potential. And FX is looking at Powers, a new superhero series. Long for superheroes in an intelligent way
LL: watching shows that keep getting cancelled. THe one show that gives me some hope, that quiet serialised storytelling will survive, is ABC Switched at Birth, exploring family dynamics. If that works, there may be some hope for similar shows, quiet storytelling
LB: Looking at serialisation, two core demands, chunking, creating meaningful exngagement on each segment, what lessons can contmpory creators learn from earlier forms. How to you maintain audience
DM: original, build out fromn 1 platform but borrow from allother ones. THey were drawing from Charles Dickens serialisation, weekly periodicals…add new tech, new industries, with Hollywood….if you explore Hollywood development process and storytelling converntions, how they inserted all these vaudeville stars, you froze story, got the tricks done, then back to storytelling. We have done all of that, absorbing into the syste,. Each new tech has been a big shakeup, from broadcasting, week to week, dealing with ads, new changes woth cable and VHS, now internet. Tech always prompts changes, shakes things up, as they assess out what to do, and this is when opps are there for indis, outsiders etc.
SC: with profileration of different ways of absorbing story, we find that TV is great at tapping into peoples schedule, when we have released on a schedule, drives audience to expect things, lesson of tapping into a regular release is valuable to extend across platforms, for on demand ones. As a challenge, as storytellers, as we expand that storyworld, I see a question about scifi, it’s because they are a rich world. They work because they are consistent….look at Lost, BSG, the urge to take an audience fronm one to the next series is the cliffhanger. The story is on paude. That is hard for an audience that are expanding into other media. Soap operas are presentant and the story carry on
LL: But cliff hanger…with Who Shot JR…Dm was talking about predictability of story telling. THat is why networks should stop long form, they move things around, they cancel. You have people not even starting to watch, as they expect them to cancel. To speak to DM pint, about bringingin other elements of storytelling, that can be a good thing, but can be horrible, with soap operas, about 30 years ago, went from very quiet, interpersonal relationshipos to adventure, to the supernatural etc., Soaps feel inferior so they think they need somnethign else to be successful, turne dinto a discordant pastiche of storytelling, resulkting in a fragmented audience. When Sam talked about creators listening to their fans, there are so many conflicting voices.
LB: Matt has done work on design, aroubdn storytelling
ML: picking up on scheduling, mnost of audiences were using tech to watch shows. TV is facing what radio faced in 50s, where there are competing opps for attention, TV has to work out what it does next. That is liveness, live synchronous entertainment. Seen the rise of entertainment show, plus living genres that would not normally be live. SO Million Pound Drop, it is expensive to make a live game show. That has a bif issue for serialised drama, it’s about timeshifting, binging, saving themselves. If you need adveritsing to make money, if timeshifting, it is diff to make the investment story. Time shifting makes investment in big shows difficult. How can you feal with timeshifing, how can a cliffhanger be used. There is small timshifting, and big one., 6-12 months after show
LL: timeshifting had big iompact on economics of show, they watch at many times, web, SoapNEt rebraodcast. Problem thorugh soaps, not just commercials butforward through sections of story they don’t like. Soaps goign to web and fast forward goes away, so how do they structure stories so you don’t go through 80% of the show to watch the bits you want
LB: so Steve, how have you worked at getting people back to the show?
SC: interesting when create materials, are you talking to existing, or new audiences. One of the things we work on is different levels of engagement..the skimmers, dippers and Divers. Divers do everything, follow rabbit holes, play ARGS. Dippers will spend 30 mins at launch, watch the stuff etc, Skimmers will look at lots of things, but briefly, they ar ethe majority. We look to create different levels of complexity for those different audiences. YOu can grab a skimmer and pull them in. You spend a lot of time, working on the deepest level, It’s a small amount of people but it’s a lot of time. But they are the most vocal part of the group,t hat is an important driver for WOM, for recommendation, that becomes a self-fulfilling circle, providing them evangelism tools to share about. Sometimes they lack tools or language to make it accessible so make tools to allow them to share in a somewhat curated format
LL: Soap fans have done this through YouTube in an uncurated format..if someone comes in with 40yrs of backstory, there are links to videos of the history, the long term. As they go digital this can’t happen, so the companies will have to do that. This will change relationship between fans and material. When doing well, very integrated. A rela process of getting new viewers abour what soap form is about
ML: hard to overestimate how cut off form the audience, TV producers are. Watched documentary abiut making of Blackadder, conversation between Curtis and Elton, in those days it was before ratings drive, he still does not know how many people watched the show. HE used to walk the streets looking in windows to see if watching show. Over the last 5 years, TV producers are back in the crowd, having to relearn the call and response, being in the crowd. About listening, about getting pacing right. Steve say about going deep for core fans,,,how to do that without losing the story. Looking at Heroes, they misjdged the demand for content, far more than expected. Drama was produced standalone, now hard for peopel to enage, now learning what the skills are, how much to listen, how much to respond, how to manage core and casual fans. A lot of call and response skills.
LL: so Steve, how do you satisfy long term fans without alienating others?
SC: is distracting., A lot of showrunienrs say they do not go and read about fans saying, it would be distracting. Same story about Blackadder, also about Seargeant Pepper. We have that now, it’#s called the hashtag, you can see realtime interactions and reactions. Showrunners are taking note and adpating to it. It is easier to watch it.
ML: that’s what I mean by learnign the skills. As late as 2007 most of them were not using that skills. i moved because the education budget moved to online. I was on the TV floor..the team was about 20 people, i was asking about social media and they were negative. When I left, they all knew how to do things. Mainstream are just getting the hang of it, some are reacting with anger…why are they talking about me! others are going to far and losing control as an author.
DM: talking about the X-files, he did not want to know what fans thought, attention torating only. Now looking at online everyday, with network markets etc, seting up comicon, args etc. The WGA strike was driven from the extra stuff, to get online stuff wanting to use Guild people..the lag time of the guilds repsonding to the need to extra labour, as fast as they can, but it keeps changing faster than they can cope with. Complex question engaging with fans, is it content or is it marketing. talking to WGA, not concerned, only of writers in oneof the marketing compnaies etc..that is not dealing with change!
ML: When you respond to crowd, so what is feasible in the length of feedback loop. There is an assumption that you need to be there NOW, but a long loop may also work. For Misfits 1, we did extra stuff, with characters that did not appear on show, we looked at what worked. We introduced a fave online character into the main show…not feasible to always change immediately, so you have to step back and understand what the cycle is and how can you really respond
LL: out of the writers strike, an online network, strikeTV, started creating small series. Created new content. Like Anyone But Me, created 25 10min episodes, over 3 years, did very well, but could not raise ness capital to become self-sustaining., The move of ABC spaps to web is interesting step to see if that helps
SC: Yesterday, we talked about benevolant dictatorships…fans can contribute and they need to contribute to it as that gives them the incentive to engage. We talked about the mixtape, to spread, a pure example of curation. the order and selection said something about me, and my relationship with you. Curation drives spreadability, as you share, you comment, it’s social capital, a strong engine for WOM. Fans, have a role to play in annotation, curation, commentary ertc. YOu can rol that into the larger metacontext..
ML: we saw that around Skins, the nubmer of YT vidoes of characters ot music a good indicator of engagement. Looking at Moffat, Doctor Who, introducing a meme about the word Doctor, someone found a post Moffat he made in the 90s about that idea.
DM: comments about the archival nature of what fans do..studios are about maintaining libraries, re-using properties., Fans start to do this, want to preserve and save…we have seen with prequels, sequels, reboots etc, this speaks to the fact that we want to research, to look things up. So todfays student has this encyclopedic knowledge of a franchise.
ML: Someone asks about web stories, we did that with HOllyoaks, a web series. It is difficult to bifurcate storylines like that, how do you bring it back to the main show. Make sure casual audience can engage on main show if don’t watch the online show
LL: one challenge is not to get spoilt, of finding out storylines
SC: I hate the word spinoff…how if ‘offstage’ it won’t affect the main. If you want to extend, then extensions are more than spinoffs.
ML: so look at sandbox games, Red Dead Redemptions etc, so maybe use sandbox
LB: so lets talk about realworld stuff..
SC: as we become more online, there is a liek to do offline stuff as well. For Game of Thrones, we did a sense box, with scent boxes, you can mix spells etc, In the same way we put food trucks out on the street. There are problems with distribution of physical objects, to get the reach, to get them to people who will talk about them. If you can create phycial moments, a powerful way to get people engaged
ML: for SKins, before 1st series, they did a way to get people involved, they did Skins parties. The music booker and stylist were as important as the writers. THe trailer for 1st series was a wild party..the people in it were the early fans. Skins had a cult around it, about parties, gigs etc
DM: like the ARG world, if you love something, there is a core that will do it. an urgency about capturing that visceral moment..at Transmedia Hollywood, we looked at themeparks, there was competiion about how to get the experience from the book/film to the world.
[Missed a whole chunk as stupid Windows machine decided to reboot, about twitter, synchronous tweeting, second screen viewing etc. How live game shows etc have huge twitter peaks during the show, dramas its more spread, with peak just after the show, discussing the show, interactive games etc, asynchronous experiences]
ML: there is something about level of intimacy, with SMS, that is difficult to cross. Same devices but different feeling. Did an art project, really interested in SMS, work with Tim Etchells, gave him a brief. So with every platform we design to, we have some idea of context, how they are engaging with it. But with SMS, we do not know the context, where they are, when they will read the SMS. How do you create a theatrical moment when you don’t know things. We launched Surrender Control…you got instructions sent to you, getting people to think about things and then move into actions, knocking things over, writing Sorry on the hand etc. We did a trial, and asked people what they did.Most people stopped doing things when it became physical. Mobile can be creepy, that visceral intimacy, very hard to do well and in a responsible way.
SC: i think about audiences interacting, are we distracting attention away from storytelling But in reality we are getting back to how stories were told…interation. The last part of the 20th century will be a blip, when we told people toi shut up and watch. We are getting back to the re-engaging on a social level
LL: so what about the people who just want to engage in the shut up and listen way, is there room for that to exist. I want to watch, listen then think about it and then engage in writing about it
ML: we see that about drama. Organise Story(conference), Asked Mary Hamilton organises LARPS to talk about this, about zombies…used the term of frothing..inthe pub after the LARP experience, how they talk about the stuff, discuss what they have done. That’s what happens in soap opera behaviouir etc and more interested in that then the inthe moment, you are the hero stuff
DM: you see people filming themselves watching scary stuff, then talking about it. Yesterday’s conversation, about privacy, if you are plugged into SNS that send info to advertisers…I have 2 research assistants, one signs up to everything, the other is very careful on what she puts on. Look at Asylum, which means that you had to scan a bag of Doritos to get more stuff, to conenct sponsor with content. look at Take My Lollypop…about privacy and information
SC: I used that, to show parents about what could happen. It acts as a great PSA.
LB: shifting gears, how will mainstream media get this, what is the business case, the biz model
ML: at Ch4, went from beingthe new media person to a completely integrated team. It was restructured, to prepare broadcast org about what was happening. with ad spend moving from pure display to a data driven model., It will depend on adoption of connected TV etc. Even if 10% of spend shifts, then it changes everything. There is now a commissioning division..the multiplatform team sits with the TV ones, no new media dept. The TV sales head understands digital, then really important one was Audience Tech and Research, to turn CH4 from broadcaster to a service, it becomes a core business need, not an experiment. Broadcasters have ignored audience, did not know what they are doing, Ch4 is leading that work in the UK, to place audience data at heart of busines. If you can prove to ad buyers what the audience is doing, prove the value of the fan, understanding that shift, is crisis that braodcaster are in. The expanded storyworld stuff will be key, to get deeper data relationships with audience
DM: agree., The 30sec ad, upfronts etc, is ironically is what is killing network TV industry..Google has the opposite, leading the drive for marketers and advertisers to take a lead in the future of media. Targeting people in immediate ways, Facebook apps, casual gaming etc,. Interesting that Hollywood still holding out, as analogue still driving revenue. Small experiments in US, but not like the UK…you see the small groups becming experts on the behalf of network and cable shows.
Q: you haven’t talked about how stories are told, eg episodes per season, Different models in different networks, diff countries
LL: Huge issue. Friday Night Light, started off on NBC, peopel loved it, but ratings low. 2 years in they did deal with DirectTV…first year was 22 episodes, then cutting back to 13 per year. There was so much disastisfaction about not seeing enough of the storytelling, they wanted the blanks filled in. Daytime, is every day but that model not working anymore…and the soaps going to the erb. My hope, we can split the difference, keep the long form, but fewer days. SO Prospect Park experiment, may show things.
Q: we treat one media as the primary story, but what if multiple mediums are used to drive the primary story?
ML: sort of last question, what is the right shape for content. YOu can build engagement over a long period of time, can use existing channels to punch through, you can create a huge event. If you are telling stories, you should not think like that but if you need attention, then think about that, you need to use another channel, eg talent. There are talent that have a much larger reach than the digital channels. Primary channel is about attention,
Q: What about the consumption of second screen extended content, for drama etc. People use it for chatting, but about enhanced experience?
SC: Traditionally, programme makers repsonsible for what was on he screen, and everything else was marketing. As we see storyworld expand to opther devices, that is not marketing, that is an extensions, the line blurs. Working on a project where makers have all the ideas about extensions and they are working it in to the script…when it comes to the second screen, who pays for it. how do we get that to work. It is not so much the idea, but the financial reasons
ML: when you do 2 screen events, the production team have to allow a looseness in storytelling, to send it back to the show. Million Pound Drop was hard to organise, synchronise elements. Also editorial, how do you cope with shift in attention., Reality, you can cope, drama is more difficult.
DM: It can be a 24/7 committment, keeping responding, logistical nightmare
Q: Comics are an expensive hobby to have…so the DC reboot, not just for new people, but for those who used to follow it, as it was too confusing. THe reboot lets the lapsed fans come back in. So with soaps, is there an option to do that, new entry points.
SC: with Game of Thrones, there were 2 worlds. The books and the show. We had to balance this, to make sure the work worked with the new stroy world and the existing one. With Dc comics, you know everything will come back…BSG was a great example of rebooting. If you can do this, allow different ways, then you get different involvements
LL: All My Children is on hold due to Prospect Park financial issues; another is on hold until next year, when it goes online. It will not be a complete reboot, fans may not stand for that. The production have been very selective in what they are doing, it looks as though they are going to change, pull story telling tighter
SC: as we use tech to tell stories in new ways, you have to respect ongoing contunity, but can still show in new ways. Star Trek reboot is a good one
Q: The feedback loops, with games it can be quickly, how does serialised content stand a chance?
ML: all patterns can work, Misfits was just one option. You have to ask yourself about what is your feedback loop, and can you sustain that. There are plenty of opportunities to change how you broadcast, lots of new shapes. As commissioner, need to assess what shape are you going for
SC: gaming companies are teaching us a lot, building worlds and telling stories in the world. This is immersion. LA NOire closest to an interactive movie. YThose who tell linear stories can learn.
Q: A few years ago, content was king, distribution was god? still true
ML: talent and audience attention patterns are challenging both. Talent as networks is driving more change than many others, Talent is realising it can reach audience without broadcasters
DM: Talent have option of experimenting of trying new things. Leaviyt Hit Record is a good example, Arcade Fire Google project,
LL: It starts with the story