This is what I mean when I urge storytellers to think of unfurling their stories “outside the box.” Only Stephen Spielberg calls it “the square.”
“I believe we need to get rid of the proscenium,” Spielberg said. “We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether it’s a computer screen. We’ve got to get rid of that and we’ve got to put the player [viewer] inside the experience. That’s the future.” (Steven Spielberg, June 2013. Variety)
Amen. This is necessary.
Right now, a lot of TV people don’t think Spielberg’s prescription for a strategic storytelling evolution is necessary. They’re looking at ad rates that are mostly holding fine, and cord-cutting numbers that are almost fine. They’re hoping the digital revolution won’t affect them. They’re hoping they’re magically invincible.
In other words, they haven’t hit rock bottom yet. But the Millennial generation is going to change all that. That’s what they do. That’s who they are. As an audience, they are antsy and they are pirates.
What can TV do? First, learn from newspapers and music industries: if your product is as sharable as html text, music mp3s… or video streams, you have to adjust your distribution / monetization model.
Which monetization models work in the 21st century?
Either the “walled garden” of the video game sector, “the platform” model of Amazon, or “the hyper-distribution” model of content providers like Buzzfeed.
The last option is easiest. Some TV/Film content is already becoming sponsored content or bespoke advertising. You can see this Buzzfeed-style sponsored content showing up in reality shows – you see it a lot on the Food Network. I was pitching a show like this a while ago.
For scripted, I can see the sponsored-content model working well with very strong organic tie-ins… like that cybercrime TV show with the Norton Antivirus technician hero, or maybe even a classic western reboot of “Tales of Wells Fargo.”
But for the rest? How can a video stream provider, whether it’s a cable network or a production company, behave like the profitable sectors of todays media landscape? The “platform” and/or the “environment”?
That’s my whole thing. It takes much more creative strategy work when developing the project. First, ask yourself:
Q: What is your core commodity?
A: If you’re a storyteller, I’d suggest that maybe it’s your storyworld.
Q: Is the only way to experience this story via broadcast onto a square?
A: The answer MUST be no.
Now you can start thinking of your core commodity as an environment, and start building APIs into it as if it were a platform. Online applications like Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram should be able to plug in and help portray your character’s lives.
I have no doubt that someone inside TV is going to take Steven Spielberg’s advice and evolve storytelling from the flat media of the TV square into a multidimensional experience that can’t be pirated by cut-and-paste.
I’ve cheered for some notable experiments – where the storyworld unfurls around you in whatever ways best suit the given medium. Serialized, interconnected setups-and-payoffs that connect all the medias. That is impossible to pirate. That is best experienced when it’s first aired.
The off-TV peripheries will extend the reach and pull of the story across online services, communities, platforms. They can get tied into the long-arcs of the show’s story, all plotted from inception, timed to land for maximum dramatic or comedic effect. They can be wired as linkbait for new fans.
All the peripheries may each communicate a perfectly fine story independently of each other, but taken together, they add an unmistakable dimension of depth that “puts the viewer inside the experience.” As Spielberg said, “That’s the future.”
Spielberg’s own successful series “Falling Skies” has notable examples of good transmedia storytelling. “Terra Nova” didn’t. I hope his upcoming series “Extant” thinks outside the box.