Sep 112006

In two days time the latest Mark Burnett show, I blogged about in April ‘Alternate Reality TV‘ , will begin. I think this programme will start to blur the line between pure reality TV and the immersion afforded by alternate reality game type quests across media. Much of this seems to be primarily designed to drive eyeballs to AOL and Mark Burnett Productions’ properties and of course the associated advertising that drives sustainability in this emerging media market – here is an article pointing out the heavy weight brands getting behind this from BigCharts. As to the show itself here, as the reality blurred blog points out, is the ‘knockout’ format of the show itself which is pretty simple.

  1. Twelve sets of 12 clues will be delivered over the 13 part series across TV (shows such as the Early Show, Survivor Cook Islands) and across online sites, presumably many on AOL, who is the shows main co-production partner.
  2. The 12 clues in total which will lead to an answer. Here is a taster: “Her kabbalah name is Esther,” and it’s easy: Madonna. The next one is trickier: “This flightless bird lives in the Ituri forest.” That’s the ancient Egyptian Ibis. The ensuing clues get ever weirder and more opaque until they eventually point to the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas — and the track length of Madonna’s “Ray of Light”, 5:21, is the clue to the final location of the gold: Room 521.”
  3. You work out the cryptic answer and then apply online. The first three (from anywhere in the world – could be you or me or a team) who get the answer, will be flown to the US to take part in the first treasure hunt for $100 000 in gold buried in the US somewhere. Cameras will follow, and vlog like 3-5 minute clips will appear regularly on AOL.
  4. Each of the 12 winners of each of the above will then be brought back to LA to compete for the big $1 million prize – again gold bullion buried somewhere in the US.

Simple really but I wonder if the mass viewer population can also take part in also working out the clues that the chosen three entities are faced with? If not then the distributed cross-media clue element is really just a greed-carrot, part of a selection process that leads to a traditional reality tv show – albeit delivered via the web. Wired also talked about Mr Burnetts foray into games via TV and web in its article Who Gets Games? This looked at the challenge now for traditional TV and Film format developers who have to think more and more at a game level, and game environment design level – making the rules easy and the challenge a lot harder than those dreadful money printing, TV/phone-in/SMS ‘joke’ questions, presumably aimed at an audience easily hoodwinked. Here is an excerpt that compares Survivor with World of Warcraft!

But this human tension wouldn’t exist without the game — the complicated and beautifully tuned rules that govern the world of Survivor. Much like the designers who crafted World of Warcraft or Monopoly, Burnett had to create a system that was hard to master, but not impossible. By interposing tests of skill and endurance with the occasional bolt of blind luck, Survivor forces its players to constantly headgame each other and engage in poker-class bluffing: Prime-time game design.
“Nobody talks about it on this level, but that’s what I do,” said Burnett, nattily dressed in a tieless pinstriped suit. I met him at Trump International Hotel when he came through town to talk about Gold Rush.
While tweaking Survivor, he closely studied John Nash’s game theory in order to better engineer the hysteria and emotional blowouts of each season’s finale.
“What Nash’s theory predicts is that whenever you have a group of people competing, they collude to squeeze one guy out, again and again, until there’s only two guys left,” Burnett notes. “Yet when there are only two of us left, we’re surprised when one of us fucks each other over. That’s the fun part. It surprised John Nash himself, but it happens every time.”

I suppose Goldrush is a step in the right direction at least, combining TV and the web in a more integrated cross-media way (rather than superficial and in-appropriate cross-referencing). Mark B must take control of the ‘game’ at some point to be able to produce a compelling narrative of sorts but I wonder how many individuals will take it upon themselves to try to get to the gold before the officially selected teams? If they do and break the constructed story arc, now that would really be reality TV.

©Gary Hayes 2006

May 062006

Great to see my old friend Jon Dakss now running the iTV roost at NBC New Media. Jon was a pioneer in interactive development when he introduced me and the BBC to Watchpoint’s Storyteller a few years ago. Storyteller was something ahead of its time (still) as apart from the basic single screen multi iTV format authoring it had unique video tracking hotspot and non-linear narrative engines built in. Jon is also a very nice chap and wonderful to see the widening of NBC’s strategy into cross-media. He was recently interviewed in depth by Tracy Swedlow for ITVT (where I quote from) and talks about something that sounds remarkably like Gold Rush 😉 (Mark Burnett’s US wide treasure hunt I posted about in Alternative Reality TV a couple of weeks ago). Here is Jon talking about “Treasure Hunt”

I think you’re going to see us be leaders in all those spaces. NBC Universal Television CEO, Jeff Zucker, recently announced that there’s going to be a large initiative within NBC, called TV360. It’s effectively a way of saying to production companies, to studios, to advertisers, that we’re no longer thinking just about what you see on your TV screen, when we think about a show. Everything is going to have a package associated with it, in which there will be a VOD component, a mobile component, and an online component. And it’s going to become truly part of the DNA of how NBC programs its shows.

Just to give you one example of how the TV360 strategy is going to work: this summer, we’re going to be launching a show called “Treasure Hunters,” which is unparalleled in scope, compared to anything that’s been on television, before. Picture it basically as “National Treasure” and the “Da Vinci Code” and the “Amazing Race” all rolled into one. The show basically follows teams that are searching for a treasure that’s worth millions of dollars. They’ll use historical secrets and codes and things like that, plus compete in all sorts of physical, strenuous challenges across all different types of terrain and landscapes, in order to find a hidden treasure. The show’s going to have its own treasure hunt online and via mobile that will be integrated into the linear part of the show. Viewers at home will be able to participate: they’ll have clues they’ll need to find and puzzles they’ll need to solve. There’s never been anything like it before on television.”

Seems ‘360’ is back in fashion, the BBC have been using it for many years but I wonder if mobile, online and TV is truly 360. Here is a slide from a BBC presentation I did back in 2000 that attempted to illustrate 360 thinking, in a very simple way…

CM ©Gary Hayes 2006

In those days narrowband was still significant but I included print, games, dvd, personal TV, PDA and the catch-all non-existant platforms. There will never be a truly 360 service (although Da Vinci is getting close!) – some services gradually get to 360 degree by degree – but surely linear TV, websites and mobile phone are what…140 degrees or something? Add the physical world into the mix and we are getting somewhere but more importantly add in user content. The definition of cross-media is often aimed at producers pushing content through multiple platforms rather than ‘receiving’ content through multiple platforms. That back channel is a critical part of truly rounding the circle that many producers miss.

Back to Jonathan who is now Director of Interactive TV Product Development at NBC Universal – it looks like a cool gig and the Technology Growth Center sounds like a real step in the right direction, helping NBC develop truly unique services

“I think that, in many ways, speaks to that TV360 concept that I mentioned earlier. You’ll be seeing an interactive component, an online component, a VOD component, a mobile component and so on offered in conjunction with all major programming–not just with unscripted programming, but with dramas and comedies. Those things will just become part of the fabric of a show. I think our senior management understands the power that adding interactive and multiplatform components to a show can have, both in terms of ratings and in terms of appeal to sponsors.

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

Apr 082006

Cannes ©Gary HayesFirstly there should have been a big award to Brian Seth Hurst for being a major part of making the International Interactive Emmy Awards happen – there have been far too many parochial, slightly sycophantic national interactive awards over the past 8 years or so. These awards, regardless of the quality of the projects, the general isolation of the ceremony (read: not integrated yet into mainstream media awards) or the relatively small scale of the event – are truly a step change. The international perspective, judges and nominees, combined with the broad scope – from individual interactive formats, pioneer awards, interactive services and channels.

The event was well organised and joyously and irreverently hosted by Desperate HousewivesÂ’ Roger Bart, who knew a thing or two about interactive services – it seemed. Mark Burnett also strutted his stuff as a presenter. I was sat next to a great ambassador of interactive futures, Dr. Simone Emmelius – manager of ZDF Vision, one of GermanyÂ’s two public service broadcasters and it was great catching up with her. Also an old BBC colleague Nic Cohen (BBCÂ’s 24/7 commissioner) and soon to be LAMP mentor and all round web 2.0 pioneer David Jensen shared our table – which we quickly found out to be the Interactive Programme Judges table. Without giving too much away 😉 my scores were well placed and the user driven, organic ‘CultÂ’ show took the premier award. Their table was next to ours and it exploded in true jubilant French fashion at the announcement. Both Sky and BBC were placed in a couple of categories but we, the judges were I believe looking for services more forward looking and audience embracing – both Sky and BBC entries have been pushing similar formats for a good three or four years. The other two awards went to Hello D (S. Korea) for interactive service and the granddaddy of Broadband TV, Video Networks (London) for Interactive Channel – well done to Roger Lynch for that.

I do not think it is who wins the first few years of a new International Award, but that it becomes recognised as the one to get and it keeps going from strength to strength. Again thanks to the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences – there are many minor awards around the world for so-called innovative services, but as progressive media becomes mass audience and mainstream the enormous effort in reaching tens of millions rather than hundreds should be congratulated. I am sure the BBC and others will win with more innovative services in the coming years, a Jamie Kane with major TV component for instance would have gone down well. Perhaps Gold Rush will be there next year – Mark Burnett was here as I said presenting the Pioneer Prize to his mate Jonathan Millar (CEO of AOL), well deserved because as we know (and were told on at least 20 occasions) that Live8 has changed the landscape of TV, the internet and mass entertainment.

The three categories strongly suggest that it should snugly fit into the larger TV EmmyÂ’s. I also think that there could be several other categories – for example Interactive Programme could cover everything from participatory and user generated TV through to game, documentary, news and sport genre – but there is always next year!
Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

Apr 052006

The conference presentations have from my perspective, been the usual mix of ‘heard-it-all-before’, occassional cool bit of a service demo, global convergence and very entertaining philosophical gazes into the future – emerging media.

The Internet and the future of TV plus The New Reality

Mark Burnett, Jonathan MillerThe last presentation I was at at the end of Tuesday, was the keynote from Mark Burnett and Jonathan Miller (CEO of AOL). The Esterel hall was jammed with around 900 people in a 800 seater I reckon. Jonathan gave an OK look at the future punctuated by a look at the success of Live8 and a sneek preview of In2TV (the latest archive on-demand offering). He came across as still immersed in technology (showing off the latest ‘q’ codec that showed DVD type quality live over the internet – rather than content or services and not as inspirational as Mark Burnett who followed.

Mark struck me as one of the lads down the local pub in the east end of London. Very practical, bit of a del-boy, all about reaching audiences through engaging stories that they care about, making money and getting to the audience wherever they are – peppered with his primary driver in all he does in terms of really integrating advertising and driving ad dollar. The most interesting aspect of his talk though was his cross-media approach and his delving into the broad area of alternate reality games. I asked him about that in the q&a session and he agreed that his new “Gold Rush” (see below) proposition is in that domain but also that producers need to really make stuff the viewer cares about otherwise they will turn away. Specifically when I asked about the differences between play (game/tv/reality combinations) and tightly scripted content he replied:

“It’s a free for all. It is not anyone or the other, its a bunch of different stuff, what the internet really stands for. Its like America, its a free market economy, a global free market economy, not a country anymore, its the internet. All things to all people, only those who will make it are those who will create content that you care about, that moves you”

The Gold Rush service to be released in Sept is a “massive undertaking” from Mark’s perspective when talking about the production tensions between his 1000 strong TV team with the AOL internet operation. Here is a transcript about the cross-over production from my audio notes:

” Goldrush which is an online treasure hunt created and produced solely for the internet. But to make it really work you still need to have the giant scale and razzamataz of the way you launch the big television special. So just to take it into story this is how gold rush starts. The sun is going down. Were at Fort Knox, the greatest bastion of where gold is stored in the USA. The music goes upbeat, a Jerry Brockheimer movie. Trucks start to leave Fort Knox, helicopters excort them, the military, police blocking off roads. 13 trucks are leaving Fort Knox as the sun is going down. Inside each of these trucks solid gold. 12 of these trucks contain $100 000 in gold and the 13th (they are not numbered) contains $1 million in solid gold. They head out under the cover of darkness to be buried in plain sight all over the continental united states. Here is a reality show that not just 16 people can play and win, everybody, and not only in America. The world can come and go to america online, decipher the clues that are very pop culture, and find out and dig up the gold. We are creating content that is in 3 minute to 5 minute segments on AOL. The content will be clues, the content will be when someone digs up the first set of gold, we will interview them and unravel how they worked the clues out. Also funny content a little old lady from Arkansas who is up in Wisconsin digging holes all over a national park, 3000 miles in the wrong direction. The guy from england who left his fiance, left his job, got on a plane to america, to find the gold in gold rush. The reality show that anybody can play and is created for AOL but we are not turning our back in this endeavour on mainstream TV networks or on publishing empires, we will use magazines and televison to support and work together to create cross-platform media. That is the latest thing I have been working on.”

He was very tight lipped when Ferhan (sat next to me) asked about how cross-media was going to be used to promote gold rush – hinting that it was going to be very viral and probably already begun – nuff said mate! The key thing in this presentation was that Mark came across as passionate about what he did. He wasn’t an interloper at these type of events – like many who shall remain nameless. His transmedia approach like many producers is simple – you deliver in the most entertaining way to where the people are, while keeping a strong eye on advertising dollar.

“We are not there making TV shows for pleasure, we are making TV shows so that the big networks and the giant portals can sell ads…” –

On demand tvhe later said that ad growth on TV networks will flatten and drop over the next year, so that leaves the portals as the next big thing then. I suspect Gold Rush may be the first global participatory TV event, although heavily borrowing from alternate reality games (this is ART, alternate reality tv, of course) it blends interactive tv, with gameshow, with puzzles, with reality tv, with location based programming. This will indeed break the mould finally – shame in retrospect it may all be about greed, but that and porn is how most break-throughs begin in media of course 😉

Further sessions I attended, conference blogs to follow when I get a few moments: Mobile video on demand, mobile Tv content showcase 1, internet tv comes of age, on-demand tv super panel, Gary Carter keynote and tv without frontiers. May do quick single paras of those to catch-up as there is some good 360 stuff on the way.
Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006