Monument Valley - Gary Hayes 2005I line produced a very exciting project at the American Film Institute Digital Content Labs last year. The L Word was and still is a massively popular drama in the US and our challenge was not really ‘how’ to make it interactive, but how to increase viewer loyalty and engagement – more on that in a moment. The first thing we jettisoned in our early discussions from a range of suggestions was the ‘choose-what-happens-next’ thing ‘ very failed 70’s early iTV and quite disenfranchising for viewers.

So it is both bold and questionable of UK’s Channel 4 to offer what it calls TV’s first interactive drama. Dubplate Drama, reported in last weeks Media Guardian has the predictable point at the end in which viewers can be ‘interactive’ ‘ at a cliff-hanger, dilemma moment they select the ‘what do you think should happen’ multi choice? Paying the obligatory sms fee for the privilege ala Big Brother ‘vote offs’.

Each episode of Dubplate Drama will end with a dilemma for the central character, Dionne, played by the critically lauded female MC Shystie. Viewers will be invited to text in their decision, with their choice influencing the action in the next episode.

I must tip my hat off to them for the work that must go into turning around script write and production so quickly (the same as some close contacts here in Australia running ‘Forget the Rules‘ ) but in this case it does seem as expected to be a rather empty experience for the audience. Even the cross-platform element is rather cynical. Just throwing up the same version of something on multiple devices just doesn’t cut it. My friend Christy seems to agree, ‘a project that falls on the extreme left side of my cross-media continuum

“In an effort to reflect rapidly changing media habits, the interactive series will also air on the digital channels MTV Base and E4, and will be made available to watch on Sony’s new PSP device and in a cut-down version on the mobile phone network 3.”

Anyway back to the reason the interactivity is empty – From my experience audiences are far more engaged in interactive pursuit when it has some personal relevance. They are not engaged by a simple oh look ‘my choice is being acted out!’.

“True interactivity should require users to give something of themselves and for the ‘system’ to resonate with that. If all you ask them to put in is selecting a series of vacuous pre-built options, their engagement is minimal and all they will truly get out is a series of vacuous outcomes.” Gary Hayes 2005

I was involved as development producer for 8 years in a whole bunch of BBC services that engaged the viewer because it drew their opinion, questioned their own belief system or simply tested them ‘ observational, intelligence, knowledge. So it was great fun to work for six months in the US as line producer with Chris Lucas from Showtime and a great writer, Brenna Hajek to devise a prototype for the enhanced L Word.

‘Production Goal: Viewers of Showtime’s enhanced THE L WORD opt into a personalized experience where the payoff for tackling questions about their own romantic habits and preferences unlocks additional scenes with the show’s characters, and ultimately presents the viewer with an analysis of the characters (or personality types) they most resemble. As the broadcast progresses, the enhanced application pauses automatically at several points to present multiple-choice questions. At the conclusion of the episode, each viewer is presented with intimate thoughts from their “Sister” in a personal video vignette.’

The vision behind this was to meet the need of the personalized audience. We analysed the L Word audiences and discussed the need for viewers to step inside the fourth wall ‘ to feel what it is like to be the characters, be part of their world – or at least the ones they really identify with. Although it didn’t turn out technically as fluid as I would have hoped (we were developing on early OCAP DVR tools) it kept true to our original spirit. The extra insights into the characters had depth, did not break the narrative and provided real value-add for loyal watchers. It wasn’t too far from the style of DVD’s ‘Point of View‘ and it’s earlier slightly less compelling sibling ‘Tender Loving Care‘ – in that ‘suggestive’ profiling was occurring as you interacted around the drama. The key difference here though was that rather than just steering the narrative (on the DVD’s) the L Word opened up more narrative depth and insight.

It is interesting now that both the L Word and the Channel 4 offering have something very similar. They both exploit dramatic tension, those critical points on the story arc where dilemmas occur. In the Channel 4 drama you are offered a couple of roads to explore ‘ in the L Word you were able to explore yourself. Not “what should they do?” BUT “what would YOU do?”. And that is a world of difference. The UK may be quite a few years ahead in its ability to deliver interactive video services to the masses. But I now realise, on the other side of the planet, how far away certain UK broadcasters are from understanding the true nature of deeper, personalized interaction. Oh and by the way what about “Spooks!” – first interactive drama indeed 😉

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2005