Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part Two]

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 10.37.14 AM

The relationship between Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios—the two producers behind Frankenstein M.D.—makes a lot of sense to those familiar with both parties involved: both have taken their respective “projects” as creators and translated them for an online audience, taking advantage of the affordances of platforms like YouTube to create content that connects with those consuming content outside of “traditional” spaces of distribution. In this way, the idea of combining the former’s literary webseries development with the latter’s investment in creating STEM-related content on digital platforms with an adaptation of Frankenstein makes perfect sense to those following along.

At the same time, however, their inherent philosophical compatibility must nonetheless negotiate the fact those philosophies have been heading toward two different goals: whereas Pemberley Digital has been developing web franchises that can be spun off into ancillary projects like books or merchandise, PBS Digital Studios remains bounded within the logics of public television where its primary goal is serving the public interest.

And so while web content has proved a valuable tool to both producers within the contemporary web video environment, building connections with audiences from both profit and non-profit perspectives, the convergence of these two companies nonetheless requires each to adapt accordingly. Whereas unscripted YouTube content related to science and culture showcases PBS translating its interest in documentary programming into a more web-friendly format, how does one design a scripted webseries to fit into that mission? And if you’re the one designing that webseries, how do your goals for audience engagement change when views might become less important than connecting with audiences in an educational—or at least informative—way?

While the interview I posted yesterday touched on a number of these issues, and the series itself will ultimately stand as the answer to this question, I wanted to create a second part to the interview focused on this intersection of approaches to web video content. Some of these questions and answers also appear in the previous interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore, and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, but they’re presented here to isolate the relationship between the two companies and their relationship with webseries, transmedia, and the various component parts that will make up Frankenstein M.D. as it rolls out over the next few months.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

During the PBS executive session [at July’s TCA Press Tour], president and CEO Paula Kerger was talking about how PBS has audiences at a young age, and then it gets them again when they’re older, but sort of loses them in the middle. So you see this specifically serving a similar function from an educational perspective for one of those generations in between?

Graham: Absolutely. I think it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to reach these younger folks with higher-quality, educational, entertaining content. The mission’s a little different when you’re talking about very young kids: there the PBS kids team does incredible work structuring the content so that it’s age appropriate and they’re actually learning letters. Here it’s a little bit more “Sure, there is science information that the audience is consuming, but it’s a little bit more of a cultural exposure: STEM careers are cool, this is an exciting space, there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening around it.” So it’s more kind of inspiring people to think about these career directions as opposed to trying to teach them science.

From your perspective, Bernie, were your discussions with PBS always centered on Frankenstein? Were there other projects considered for this partnership?

Executive Producer Bernie Su: It was “How about Frankenstein? Let’s do that!” It was literally that. It never got past it. I don’t think we even mentioned a second project. It was like “That’s great. What would be your take on that?” And then it was the idea of the modern medical student and how we can touch upon modern science and how we’re actually close scientifically to doing stuff—bringing people back to life, what is life, all that stuff—that Frankenstein does in the novel. So it made a lot of sense given that our audience has been wanting us to push toward STEM, so this was just a great opportunity that seemed like a really good match right out of the gate and it was really easy.

In terms of STEM, what was the motivation behind engaging with STEM in adapting this novel?

Graham: One of the reasons why we got into content for YouTube is because there’s so many incredible STEM-focused creators out there doing great content. So this is a place we need to be, we need to figure this out. And the trick is always how you do that in an entertaining, fresh way, so that’s one of the reasons Frankenstein was an “A-ha” moment. We didn’t have drawn out conversations about the idea, because there’s so much STEM there, and there’s so much interesting science happening there currently, so there are a lot of opportunities to incorporate it and they’re doing a brilliant job incorporating it in the script. And then outside of the show, what other creators can contribute to this sort of ecosystem of content around this science behind the series is really exciting.

From a production perspective, “education” hasn’t necessarily been a primary goal of the Austen webseries from Pemberley Digital; were there any challenges adapting the format to incorporate the science?

Su: The challenge was making sure we were correct on our science, but we had an advisor [It’s Okay To Be Smart’s Joe Hanson] for that. Lizzie and Emma are both educational in the sense that they inspire reading, and I’m sure this will do that in a similar way. I think it’s already inspired the fans anticipating the series, who are already picking up the books and reading it. With this we hope to add to that: because we’re putting real science into this as if they’re science personalities online just like many that work with PBS today (except ours are fictional and doing crazier things), it should also inspire education in that sense. Like, we’re talking about synthetic blood, and what’s it is today and what it can be in the future. We’re talking about cloning, we’re talking about 3-D printing, we’re talking about replacement organs and stuff like that. These are things that are part of what we’ve identified as “If you were going to build the Frankenstein monster today, these are actual things you would do.” This is the actual science you would put in, so we can just highlight them in an educational way as well as a narrative way.

During your recent Reddit AMA, you noted that you found a female Dr. Frankenstein was “far more interesting and intriguing than a male one.” What drew you to this conclusion?

Su: When we were developing internally, the first development slate was Victor as Victor. And I had talked to Lon [Harris] and Brent [Register] who are the other creatives on the team, and I’m like “I bet, we’re going to be asked [by PBS] if it can be Victoria. Like, I know it’s coming. Is that okay with you guys?” And they said “Yeah, it sounds great.” Then, after I thought about it, I was like “That is like way better. Every version of that is better!” And then, sure enough, PBS brought it up. And I was like “I was right!” [Laughter]

And that was an easy switch, and we just did it. In the AMA I said that regardless of the PBS side or the Pemberley Digital side, a Victoria version of Frankenstein is infinitely more interesting in today’s context than a Victor is because we’re seen him so many times, it’s been done so many ways—modern, young, the Karloff movie, etc. All these have just been the straight way of doing it, and to bend the gender was very intriguing.

During the aforementioned AMA, you mentioned that Frankenstein M.D. might or might not exist in the same universe as your previous series, but this show obviously has to delve into science fiction in a way that could make this difficult. Is there a line in terms of going “too sci-fi” in order to be grounded enough for crossovers (or to serve the goals of PBS, for instance)?

Su: The directive that we got from PBS when we asked “How Sci-fi?” [PBS] was “We want it to feel as real as possible knowing that science fiction eventually comes.” And that’s what we did. And so connecting universes, which we’ve done in the past – sure, we’re open to it. But we’re working on this show on its own—they don’t need to connect. Right now, we’re trying to make a good Frankenstein.

How was this development process compared to your previous work with DECA (the multi-channel network [MCN] that has partnered with Pemberley Digital on its previous projects)? While PBS Digital Studios functions similarly to an MCN, it has a distinct network structure, and a clearer brand with the general public.

Su: So far—we kind of just started—both have been really good about kind of just letting us go, staying out of the way. We don’t want to just run and not be checked at all, but when we started Lizzie on DECA it was kind of like “Is this okay? Do you want to see anything?” And they were like “No, you’re good! Go crazy!” And with PBS we’re doing the same thing: “Is this okay? Is this okay?” And so far everything’s been great.

I’m trying to think what’s actually different: I’d guess that because DECA’s an MCN, they’re much more into looking at views per video. I mean, views matter across all videos, but they value that metric far greater than PBS would.

From a PBS perspective, given that—as Bernie notes—the metrics are a bit different from a traditional MCN, what are the metrics for continuing the series—or the relationship—moving forward?

Graham: We want people to love it and show their love. We want to see engagement, comments, people having sophisticated conversations with each other, and we anticipate all of these things happening. We want to see new audiences discovering PBS Digital Studios and our other shows, we want to see the audiences from those shows delighting in Frankenstein M.D. So, I think that sure, we’ll look at the viewership, but we’ll look at subscriptions, we’ll look at comments, we’ll look at social media activity. It’s sort of art and science to figure out how people respond to it.

But one of the most critical elements to this venture is that it is a work-in-progress, and that requires a ton of trust and we have a ton of trust in Bernie and the Pemberley team. So I think it’s going to be really exciting to see people react. Some people will love everything—some people will have great suggestions on how to do different things, and we’ll sort of adjust course. I think it’s going to be a great adventure to see how people respond to it and what the end product ends up looking like. You can’t predict exactly where it’s going to go, but that’s going to be very exciting.

What was behind the decision to launch the first three episodes at once? Is this something that came from PBS or Pemberley Digital specifically, or was it just so you can do the finale on Halloween? [Laughter]

Graham: It is pretty cool. We want people to have enough there. We’ve talked about this a bunch, and Bernie’s the lead on this—when people show up to discover it, we wan to make it so they can get into it a bit. They’re relatively short episodes, and you want people to get a feel for “Okay, this is what I can expect twice a week,” and have that ready for them from the get-go. It seemed like a pretty sensible place to start.

Su: We’re totally lined up on launching with three—one of the things we’ve learned from the properties is that we’ve always launched with one. And it doesn’t matter how much fanfare we have going into one, you’re going to lose people going into the second one because they’re going to have to come back. And you’re inherently being judged on the one, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on a single episode of a long series. This will have 24 at a minimum, and Emma is going to have 72, and Lizzie had 100—you’re going to judge a book based on one-half of a chapter? So we’re trying to combat that a little bit. It’s nothing new: the Netflix model is that, right? But we grew up in a world where all the marketing drove to the launch of the series, the one pilot, but there’s a season, so does that marketing still work for the rest?

Given how transmedia storytelling has been central to Pemberley Digital’s series to date, how is the relationship with PBS shifting your approach to using other platforms in addition to YouTube for the series?

Su: When we look at our properties, we look at it as the transmedia built around the properties as genuine to the property. We don’t cut and paste our M.O. each time: as Lizzie was very Twitter focused, Emma was actually not. Emma was very brand-focused in terms of her personality. Frankenstein is very science-focused, so all of our transmedia is going to be based on the science element and what’s there. And so Victoria Frankenstein’s science blog and what she writes on this blog are going to be relevant to this show, but also to her as a medical student and what she thinks is cool science. So that’s our natural M.O., and our directive with this. And everything is built around that. So would she have a Pinterest? Well… [Laughter] Tumblr makes sense. Website makes sense. Twitter for promotion and conversation makes sense. Facebook for promotion makes sense. So that’s what we’re looking at right now.

Bernie, you’ve had the experience of being part of these interactive communities before, but PBS is at least somewhat new to this type of transmedia storytelling. How are you approaching this?

Graham: We’re also thrilled when people criticize us, and give us constructive, thoughtful criticism. We love interacting with people, and we’re really all about building a relationship between PBS and our audience. We’ve got fantastic social media teams at PBS—both PBS broadly and Digital Studios—so I think the preparation is all in those folks working closely with the Pemberley team so they all understand how all these different pieces fit together and what the overall comprehensive communication through these channels with the viewers is. It’s collaboration and teamwork.

1 Comment

Filed under Frankenstein M.D.

Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One]

FrankensteinMD

On the one hand, Frankenstein M.D. is very familiar: the third full series from Pemberley Digital following the Emmy-winning The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and followup Emma Approved, the series is a webseries adaptation of a classic novel featuring a female protagonist (in this case reimagining Victor Frankenstein as Victoria). Fans of their previous series will find both a similar sense of humor and a similar sense of purpose when the series debuts its first three episodes tomorrow, with the series settling into a familiar Tuesday-Friday pattern until its finale on Halloween.

On the other hand, though, Frankenstein M.D. is a departure in two keys ways. The first is that, by departing from Austen and arriving at Mary Shelley, Pemberley is heading into new generic territory, balancing its direct address vlog style with the well-known results of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. However, the second—and I would argue more substantial—difference is that they’re working with a traditional “network,” partnering with PBS Digital Studios in launching the series. In the first part of this wide-ranging interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein), and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, they discuss the development of a series that one might classify as an experiment for all parties. Part Two of the interview explores the industrial side of the series’ debut in greater detail.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

From your perspective, Bernie, were your discussions with PBS always centered on Frankenstein? Were there other projects considered for this partnership?

Executive Producer Bernie Su: It was “How about Frankenstein? Let’s do that!” It was literally that. It never got past it. I don’t think we even mentioned a second project. It was like “That’s great. What would be your take on that?” And then it was the idea of the modern medical student and how we can touch upon modern science and how we’re actually close scientifically to doing stuff—bringing people back to life, what is life, all that stuff—that Frankenstein does in the novel. So it made a lot of sense given that our audience has been wanting us to push toward STEM, so this was just a great opportunity that seemed like a really good match right out of the gate and it was really easy.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Frankenstein M.D.

Come and Stream Your Songs?: The Jukebox Soundtrack in the YouTube/Spotify Era

GuardiansAlbum

When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.

This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.

Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Movies, Music

At the Knick: A Transmedia Invitation to an Uninviting World

IMG_7920

One of the most striking elements of Cinemax’s The Knick—which debuts tonight at 10/9c—is its electronic score from Cliff Martinez. It’s purposefully anachronistic, and crucial to the series’ disorientation. It never wants you to feel entirely comfortable in this early 20th century world, which sits on the cusp of scientific progress without being able to fully embrace it. The score, working alongside Steven Soderbergh’s cinematography, works to disrupt the viewer’s sense of immersion while simultaneously drawing the viewer in on more complicated terms: it’s a great score, and a beautiful show, but The Knick is not something one luxuriates in.

This creates a somewhat complex set of parameters for the marketing around the series, one that has been translated into a campaign by Campfire Media, whose work for Cinemax, HBO, and A&E I’ve written about on the blog in the past. The “At The Knick” campaign mirrors elements of those previous campaigns, particularly the Game of Thrones Westeros Revealed scent box; ahead of The Knick’s premiere, Cinemax has delivered customized medical kits meant to transport the recipient back to a different era of medicine. Meticulously crafted, it’s a beautiful and compelling piece of transmedia worldbuilding, although one that works best as an introduction to rather than representation of the world in the series.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under The Knick

Cultural Interview: Quick Draw’s John Lehr on Being Renewed at Hulu

quickdraw-season-2-key-art-huluDuring Hulu’s presentations during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, there was something new for the streaming service: shows going into their second seasons. After their first original scripted series Battleground came and went without even an official cancellation, the Hulu development process was something of a mystery, with most of their multi-season exclusive content coming through international licensing deals. And so 2013 was a big year for the company, as they debuted and renewed their first three series: animated series The Awesomes, Latino-focused teen soap opera East Los High, and improv comedy western Quick Draw, created by John Lehr and Nancy Hower, which debuts its second season on Hulu today.


The rise in streaming services has complicated the traditional way we measure television success, requiring new logics for why a show earns a second season given that we’re dealing with new data sets and lack the traditional data set—Nielsen ratings—that we consider more heavily in such analysis. As a result, I spoke with Lehr regarding the experience of “getting renewed” at Hulu, and the way the experience both does and does not reflect the traditional process with a broadcast network or cable channel, in addition to his experience as the creator of a show that lives in this still-emergent televisual space online.

Cultural Learnings: So when did you know you were getting a second season?

John Lehr: It was crazy. It was unlike any pickup I’ve ever experienced. We literally turned in the final hard drive for the first season, and the next day got the pickup for season two, which was just like—psychologically—“Yay! We’re employed!” Because usually it’s nailbiting, and that’s just horrible when you’re waiting. But on the creative side too, we dove right in that day and started thinking about season two. So I think it really helps in terms of the quality as well, because it gives us more time, and more time is always a good thing—well, not always, but in our case it is.

Given that you aren’t seeing traditional ratings, and Hulu had never renewed a series until after you premiered, did you have any idea going into the process what it would take to get a season two?

[Laughs] You know, that is an intriguing question. We didn’t know. I mean, we knew that no matter what, it’s about viewers—whether you’re on network, cable, or broadband, it’s all the same. It’s just “Do people want to watch this show, and how many of them are watching, and who are they, and what is their age, and what kind of things do they buy?” That doesn’t change. You don’t have the Nielsens, but somewhere there’s a counter going on, or some sort of understanding of how many people are watching this thing. And from the get-go, we were shocked at the response we were getting from Hulu and from people online about how many people liked the show, so almost out of the gate our Facebook blew up, there were tumblr pages. The response from fans was really, really good.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Quick Draw

Self-Gatekeeping: The Shifting Demographics of the 10/90

houseofpayne-1600x900-800x450_070720140403

Today at The A.V. Club, I have a piece reflecting on the state of what has become known as the 10/90 model, specifically focused on its fate at FX given the failure of George Lopez’s Saint George earlier this year and the unlikelihood of Partners—which debuts on Thursday night—setting the world on fire.

The uncertain fate of TV’s most radical get-rich-quick scheme – The A.V. Club

What’s become clear since 2012 is that the 10/90 is a form of television development fundamentally incompatible with the FX brand, and with the brand of any channel fostering a creativity-driven environment. In a business that has always been a negotiation between economic imperatives and creative potential, the 10/90 model makes no effort to have that negotiation. It’s the television-production equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, and it shows in every pained, unfunny minute of Partners’ first two episodes, as well as in the creative struggles of both Anger Management and Saint George.

What struck me in doing research for the piece was how there was an untold story of the TBS 10/90, a marginalized narrative in the broader discourse. FX’s Anger Management was the first 10/90 to draw significant mainstream attention, despite the fact it only barely edged out the record-setting ratings of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne on TBS in 2006. But that show was on a less reputable channel, starring largely unknown actors, and—most tellingly—is primarily aimed at an African-American audience. And yet it also ran for over 250 episodes between 2006 and 2012, and spawned two other African-American led 10/90 sitcoms at the channel: Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns ran for 140 episodes between 2009 and 2011, and Are We There Yet?—based on the Ice Cube film—produced 100 episodes between 2010 and 2012.

This story became more of a stepping stone for considering the more timely discussion of FX’s relationship with this development model in the final draft of the piece, but in earlier—overlong—drafts I had a line of discussion regarding the demographic implications of the evolution of the 10/90 that I wanted to explore here. Specifically, I want to consider how we can understand the 10/90 as an important space for serving underserved audiences, and how the evolution of the form has drifted away from what seemed like a key appeal of the model early on.

Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under Television

The Court of Popular Discouse: The Authorship of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

GuardiansImage

There’s a scene in Starz’s forthcoming documentary series The Chair—which debuts September 6, and which I previewed here—where director Shane Dawson and his producing partner Lauren Schnipper are discussing the rewriting of the script with their producer-at-large, Josh Shader, one of the only people in touch with both of the two productions being made from the same script by Dan Schoffer. It’s as tense a confrontation as you see in the first two episodes of the series, as Schnipper works to break down the writing credits of the still in-progress script that was heavily rewritten and noted by Dawson before being shipped back to Schoffer to take a final pass. Without saying it directly, her question is predicated on the likely results of a WGA arbitration hearing for the film, and Shader’s answer is—paraphrasing—that because they gave the option back to Schoffer to write the final version of the script, Dawson’s contributions will just be considered notes that happen when a director gets involved with a project, with Schoffer therefore retaining final, sole credit on the film.

It’s a moment of some tension. Schoffer gives a talking head discussing how Dawson’s claim to credit is an overreach, but as relative first-timers in the context of film production Schnipper and Dawson are mainly just looking for clarification on what to expect moving forward, which seems reasonable. Credit is complicated, as Schnipper notes when she contrasts Dawson’s process (rewriting/notes and then sending the script back to the writer) and fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci’s greater control over the script to her film. Whereas Dawson effectively rehired Schoffer to rewrite his own script, Martemucci took the job herself, with the documentary following her completion of the script heading into production. And in a tweet preview of something that will likely appear in a later episode of The Chair (that has since been deleted from Martemucci’s Twitter account, but I swear was there in the past few days), earlier this week she appears to have attended a WGA pre-arbitration hearing, the result of which will determine the writing credits for her film Hollidaysburg when it debuts in theaters and on Starz this fall.

It will be a rare case where we’ll potentially have a lot of very clear information about the arguments made before an arbitration hearing, beyond simply knowing the result (A “Story by” credit for the original writer, a shared writing credit, etc.). In most cases, there isn’t a documentary film crew following every stage of the production, and there aren’t two concurrent projects that let you draw a direct comparison between the two. There’s just an end result and bits of pieces of production history, as is the case with this weekend’s Guardians of the Galaxy (which I “reviewed” on Letterboxd if you’re looking for more thoughts on the film). The film’s script is credited to James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, although the two never worked together on the film. In a lengthy—and fascinating—Buzzfeed profile on Perlman, as well as in numerous Q&As and features she’s done in the past week, it’s revealed she worked as part of the Marvel Writing Program, an incubator in which writers were brought in to help develop Marvel properties into potential franchises. Over a two-year period, she worked on adapting the Guardians of the Galaxy series into a workable film franchise, including choosing the roster, plotting out the story, and then completing further writing work during a six-month freelance period once it was clear Marvel was serious about that project.

Continue reading

9 Comments

Filed under Cinema