If you recognise these you may have a problem...
If you recognise these you may have a problem...
From the moment the second series was cut from a 22 to 13 week run, the failure of 'Friday Night Lights' to capture large audiences in the US baffled critics and fans alike. The debate continued right up to the airing of the final show earlier this year. The American football drama was well written, had a great (good looking) cast, appealed to a fairly wide demographic and was about football - a sport with a decent sized fanbase Stateside. So what happened?
There was no shortage of reasons cited for the shows failure. Amongst them were the 'lack of big stars', 'sports fans want to watch the real thing', 'the show being shifted around the schedule' and 'lack of serious backing from the network'. Whilst the first is nonsense - great shows can make big stars - I'm not sure about the second and not really in a position to comment on the others. It baffles me. I've just got my boys hooked on it. As a family we love it. Check out the opening scene from the pilot. Sets the show up brilliantly.
So what is the big Friday Night Lights 'what if'. This quote from a 2008 New York Times article on 'Art in the Age of Franchising' may help answer that.
The show, which is inspired by the 1990 book by H. G. Bissinger and Peter Berg’s 2004 movie of the same name, ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on authenticity. It shuts fans out. An author’s work can no longer exist in a vacuum, independent of hardy online extensions; indeed, a vascular system that pervades the Internet. Artists must now embrace the cultural theorists’ beloved model of the rhizome and think of their work as a horizontal stem for numberless roots and shoots — as many entry and exit points as fans can devise.
I don't necessarily believe that this is the sole reason for the show's failure, but I can't help wonder 'what if?' I can't help wonder how differently it might have looked and felt to its audience had it been more permeable. With a large cast, many of which portray troubled teens, there was no shortage of back stories to be discovered or opportunities for interesting audeince engagement to be had. Just as media companies get used to the idea of 'spreadable media' the audience begin to demand something more permable. I can't help but wonder how the show's makers might have adapted the show over the seasons based on wathcing what how the audience play, adapt and remix their content. They never got a chance though.
The show... ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on authenticity. It shuts fans out.
Dropping the boarder guards did no harm to dramas like Skins and Misfits, probably the more porous and permeable than anything Channel 4 had done before (they were both pre 'Seven Days'). Though not a prerequisit for survival it's hard to see how hermetically sealed shows, cut adrift from the digital world will will compete without packing a huge punch.
What if Friday Night Lights had attempted to engage its fans in the same way Skins and Misfits had? What if the fans could co-create elements of the show? What if they could guess the outcome of each of the show games in a fantasy league styled format? What if there were online only characters building on the back stories of the show's stars? What if the show's makers had offered fans the chance to come to Friday night football events in their owns town featuring the shows cast? That's a lot of 'what ifs'.
By guarding their border they created a huge disconnect from the fans who may, unlike the critics, be able to tell them where exactly the problem lay. There are more tools to gauge the temperature of the audience than just overnights and so not using them seems unthinkable. At the Futures of Entertainment conference in Boston Matt Locke recounted the amusing anecdote told by Richard Curtis on how he got feedback on Blackadder:
“This was before the days of ratings … I still don’t know how many people watched any episode of Blackadder. I used to wander round Shepherd’s Bush, looking in people’s windows, particularly people in basement flats, to see whether or not anyone was watching Blackadder [series] one … because I didn’t know whether or not it had been successful otherwise.”
With such opportunity for audience engagement it's hard to feel sympathy for media organisations scratching around for reasons as to why their show isn't connecting with fans, especially if they insist on building walls around their content. What they forget is that walls are difficult to penetrate both ways so when it comes to looking to the audience for answers they may as well be stood peering through the living room windows of their neighborhood.
Had a pleasant evening in the company of Hugh McLeod and Mark Earls discussing Social Objects. It came at the end of day in which I'd given my last departmental talk at the BBC. Earlier Jem Stone had done a great turn about the history of the BBC and Social Networks.
In amongst all the conversation around 'big brands not getting social objects' it occurred to me that the BBC has been in the business of social objects since its inception in 1922. If you ever need to convince a brand that social objects work tell them to take a good look at the BBC.
We originally brought people together around a wireless, then the TV and gave them something to talk about. From the first radio broadcasts to the Coronations, to the first Wimbledon and FA Cups shown on TV, Desert Island Discs, The Reith Lectures and Radio 1's Roadshows and Big Weekends, we gave people a reason to connect with others.
Around the watercooler, down the pub, in the playground people would share, debate or bond over content that challenged, provoked and stimulated intelligent minds. Then came the internet and social media which made talking and sharing a hell of a lot easier - but we know that the tools are never interesting, it's the social later that sits upon them that is. Thankfully our ROI is not measured in the number of followers we have on Twitter and Facebook - and never will - we measure our success in engagement.
Because we focus on people and not profit the idea of social objects comes easy to us. We have always placed a high value on the conversation that brings audiences together rather than being obsessed with the brand to customer schtik that other 'dinosaur' organisations continue to invest their energies in.
With an eye on the future, things are looking good too. As our archive grows and we continue chop all our content into easily found shareable chunks people with find new friends and conversations around the objects we throw out there. And like the Kula Ring these objects they share will continue to come second to the ceremony that surrounds the act of giving and receiving.
The future of social TV was the focus of this panel on day 2 of SXSW. Panelists, which ranged from the likes of Chloe Sladden of Twitter to Gavin Purcell from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, discussed ways in which they incorporate social media into their show.
Traditionally innovation in the media has been driven by commerce. NBC was devised to sell radios. The rise of social viewing has been driven by audiences, though the concept of the appreciation of communal viewing is nothing new to the broadcaster - the reason they put laughter tracks on TV was to make you feel you were laughing along with other people.
Jeffery Cole suggested that the Killer App would be a person DVR that would record a show that you and all your friends could watch appart at one time whilst conversing on social media. Graham Lineham messed with this idea a few years ago with Bad Movie Club:
I’m organising a Bad Film Club event online for Friday night (13th Feb). At exactly 9.00pm, myself and some like-minded Twitterers will be pressing ‘play’ on M Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’, and blogging our responses to the magic as it unfolds.
I pulled together some of the conversation and links mentioned using Storify.
After seeing this on Russell's blog I felt compelled to share it. I suggest you watch it in full screen, it really deserves it.
As he suggests it makes a decent analogy for what the future of TV advertising could be.
'A few craft practitioners, in a few markets, making highly visible but ambient stuff for a decent, realistic wage'.
There is something wonderful about watching stuffing being made. It's always fascinated me. I remember sitting cross legged on the carpet at Bishop Billsborrow, my eyes fixated on the TV as Derek Griffiths introduced a film about glass blowing via the Play School round window. I was five years old. Why would that be interesting to a five year old? For me it suggested a future of possibility; perhaps one day I would blow glass, make pottery or put the letters in Blackpool rock. These were new things I was discovering about the world I was living in. It was enlightening and very exciting.
We shouldn't question why that was interesting to a five year old though. The question we should be asking is at what point did we stop making interesting children's TV featuring craftsmen at work and start making terrible TV shows for adults about airlines/driving instructors/traffic cops/cleaners/ambulance drivers/bailiffs at work?
Since turning into a grumpy old man I've found myself turning off the TV and tutting loudly more and more. I no longer subscribe to Sky and have recently been using my cognitive surplus to do more interesting things. I really am beginning to dislike the stuff being shoved before my eyes by the people who have the power of the push. All I can say is 'Thank God for the off button'.
My consumption method of we used to call TV is rapidly changing. What used to be pushed at me is now being pulled by me. My viewing is no longer exclusively chosen by Sky, BBC or Chanel 4 (ITV never had a look in) but curated for me by people who I trust like Russell, Maria, Iain, Graham and Zefrank, not forgetting the most excellent Bill and Ted, plus home of a different kind of witty banter Dave who does the DO. And that is to name just a few. There are many more finding me brilliant stuff that I can watch, rate, comment on, review, share, remix and blog about.
As Clay Shirky points out in his excellent new book when someone buys a TV the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers remains the same. However, when someone purchases a computer the number of consumers goes up by one and the number of producers goes up by one too. We are all co-producing together. We too are making 'stuff'. Kinda 'TV stuff'. It might only be a comment or a blog post, it could be a remix or homage of some sort, but it's 'stuff' and we are making because we are interested and engaged. And thankfully it's taking eyeballs away from TV shows about airlines.
If there was a TV channel totally dedicated to watching films about 'things being made' I might be drawn back to the big black box in the corner. Even if the shows were paid for and were about 'products'. So what? If they're as good as this then great. Giving us a hashtag to tweet about shows is useless if the shows being made aren't worthy of commenting on. That's not pregress. Neither is making a console for us to tweet in that is glued to your destination site. I think that might be called 'taking progress backwards'. Becoming interesting again would be progress and we know what that takes - 'new balls please'.
Whilst I'm waiting for that to happen I'll keep looking through my laptop shaped window at stuff being made by my co-creators, as happy as a cross-legged five year old. Perhaps if the pushers of what we used to call TV looked out through their round window they too might discover some new things in the world they're living in. They may not know it but these are exciting times to be enlightened by if they just looked a little closer at what is being made.
I must say I've been loving Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and now it's gone I feel there is a hole in my life normally only felt when either the football season has ended or when the doors on the Big Brother house have closed one last time. In a week that sees the media hype for The Dark Knight hijack every pixel of screen space and every second of TV time put before us, it has been an absolute joy to watch this 3 act relatively low-budget 'made for the internet' superhero sing-along.
Dr Horrible is 'the story of a low-rent super-villain, the hero who keeps beating him up, and the cute girl from the laundromat he's too shy to talk to'. Though it's called a blog, it's not. It's simply 3 acts in which the main character played by Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser/How I Met Your Mother) occasionally talks to the camera in a video blog kinda way. Act 1 went live last Monday and was down in hours due to the demand on the servers. Over the week acts 2 and 3 went up and are due to be taken down at midnight tonight (July 20th).
The whole thing came from the mind of Joss Whedon, a Hollywood writer and director who has previously written Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story, and Alien: Resurrection. He's also done quite a bit of comedy on TV including Roseanne and The Office (US). Apart from the great script, good songs and some decent one-lines what I really like about the project is that it came about as a result of the writers strike. I'll let Joss explain further...
"Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest Kings and declared a work-stoppage. The forest creatures were all sad; the mushrooms did not dance, the elderberries gave no juice for the festival wines, and the Teamsters were kinda pissed. (They were very polite about it, though.) During this work-stoppage, many writers tried to form partnerships for outside funding to create new work that circumvented the Forest King system.
"Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.
"The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first."
If you're the kinda person that lives by the rule of always turning a negative into a positive then the success of this story will not come as a surprise. I've often found that my best work has come through such circumstances, or through being restricted in what I can do. Though it's been well documented that restrictions on cigarette advertising produced some of the most memorable print ads of the 70's and 80's, and Dr Horrible is excellent, I'll hold back judgment on the forthcoming StrikeTV (online channel filled with content written during the strike) having watched the trailer below...
Then you've got to check Upl8 by Poke NY. I stumbled across this courtesy of Russell Davies' great post on Watching The Internet. As a 2-laptop-per-producer kinda guy I'm a shocker for having YouTube running on my mac as I work away on my PC. It's music player of choice these days. As a video player the ambient glance-able nature of Upl8 is what makes it so wonderful. I sent the link around to the team and many emailed my back saying they wished they could twist the knobs or push the buttons. I was shocked. If you want to push buttons try this or this. The real beauty of Upl8 for me is that you can't push the buttons... you just type in the url and let it flow - ambient nonsense till the cows come home. There is some functionality but you'll have to go to Iain Tait's Crackunit.com to find out how to load it with clips of kittens.
As anyone working in radio will tell you glance-able content will play a massive part in the future of radio, but there have been 2 occasions in the last few years that hammered home how important it is already, and has been for sometime. The first occurrence was in 2006 when I asked my teen son to cast an eye over the Radio 1 website and tell me what liked most. Expecting him to talk about the wealth of video, incredible event coverage or superb music content I was stunned when he pointed to the 'track now playing' feed at the top of the homepage. When I asked why he replied 'Because if a tune comes on I like I can switch off the music I'm playing and turn on the radio'. I assumed nobody would choose to listen to radio this way and put it down to him being a lovable crank.
I totally forgot about it until I did a 'meeting the public' session early 2007 where I talked to a couple of Radio 1 lovers about listening to radio via their TV. I was pretty pleased to find out that it was their favourite way of 'listening' to Radio 1 until they explained that listening via TV allowed them to turn off their own music and turn up the radio when they see a track they like appear on the 'track now playing feed' on screen.
I always thought the real value of tracklistings was aligned to music discovery or compiling your own playlists, something that would augment the experience of listening to the radio rather than a reminder to switch the radio on for the next 3 minutes.