Saturday, February 02, 2008


American networks like buzzwords. "Appointment Television", "Water Cooler Moments", "Content is King". All, at one time or another, helped them to define their needs or ambitions as broadcasters. This year, there's another -- "The Audience is the Entertainment".

No one is more aware of the flight of viewers from traditional television than the people who work in television. No one is more understanding of the plethora of viewing options, be they online, mobile or via downloadable podcast. And all deal daily with the apparently insatiable appetite for "Reality" programming or niche offerings that feed a particular segment of the audience their particular fix 24/7.

In addition to Oprah getting her own channel this year, we've already seen the debut of Retirement Living TV, Ski-TV and the Fast Company network, with many, many more to come.

With Slingbox and SonyTV able to send your home channels anywhere you travel on the planet and Apple TV and others now serving HD content from the internet directly into your home theatre, it's possible to watch virtually anything anywhere at anytime. Once painfully plotted network schedules mean nothing anymore. As one Ad Exec remarked at NATPE, "I have yet to watch my favorite show on a television let alone at a time dictated by a network."

Because ad revenue pays for all of the content, no matter how or where its consumed, it's become imperative for television shows to use all of these media formats to not only engage their audience but to encourage them to stay tuned through offerings unique to each. Offerings that, it is hoped, will drive them back to the main program, or at least ensure that they don't go somewhere else.

And that is the immediate future of television.

We've always known that fans can become rabid consumers of a TV series, hungry for information on the stars and the behind the scenes stories. Now, Fan magazines that used to speculate on the outcomes of soaps or the directions of Sci-Fi series have been replaced by fan fiction and homemade homages on Youtube. By the end of its debut season, "Lost" had spawned more than 200 fan sites. God knows how many there are now.

What's clear in all this is that those sites can be left to the fans, or they can be served and developed by the series creators themselves as a way of keeping the loyal close, testing new ideas and reaping additional revenue.

Last Fall, "Heroes" launched an online offering of weekly graphic novels and adventures that resulted in a character conceived online eventually joining the show.

"The Office" thought it would be fun to create a few branch offices online where fans could go to work for Dunder Mifflin Inc. They hoped they might attract a few thousand hard-core fanatics. At last count, more than 200,000 have joined, expanding the firm worldwide as they engage in the Office Olympics games and barter for "Schrutebucks" to purchase items that personalize their online cubicles. Indeed, the site has become so successful that contest winners in branches are now bumped up to "corporate" playoffs before the winners can be determined and Schrutebucks are traded for real currency on ebay.

But the unquestioned champion in exploring these new models is the Canadian series "Regensis" whose award winning online platform, designed by Toronto's Xenophile Media is revolutionizing the entire concept of writing for television.

Initially fans could sign on as field investigators with the fictional NorBAC team fighting bio-terrorism and disease. They could take a quick course that gave them a grounding in DNA research and were contacted by email to be provided with programming updates disguised as requests for help with investigations.

That has evolved to the point where these "investigators" now participate in the program. In addition to creating the TV world of the show, Xenophile replicates dozens of online webpages that appear to be the real companies or groups under investigation. Fans are fed clues in personalized emails and even phonecalls from series characters. They go online to track down clues through a dizzying maze of interlinked sites. Back on the production side, gaps are left in the roughcuts to insert their email replies or the clues they discover. Series characters react to their real world accomplishments in the body of the show and even refer to them by name.

And whether you're 14 or 40, just how cool is that!

This online fantasy has been expanded to the point where real world locations are participating in the fictional world. You can actually drop by the working autobody shop where a bio-terrorist may be hiding undercover -- and the guys actually employed there will play along.

When you think about it, Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" was the first interactive entertainment. As the radio broadcast created panic in the radio audience, several people converged on the fictional Martian landing site of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. In one case, a group of men opened fire on a farmer's water tower, thinking it was a Martian tripod.

In our own time, "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" proved that viewers want to see people like themselves experience the thrills and dramatic situations that used to be the purvue of actors and fictional stories. Now, as the options to involve them increase, it's clear they're eager to play along with whatever we throw at them and get as much satisfaction from interacting with their peers as with the characters we've created.

The story-telling possibilities are staggering. This is no time for people uncomfortable with ambiguity or complexity. Television will never be the same again. The Audience is the Entertainment.

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