Alone in a Dark Place: Building Byzantium for Cinemax’s Hunted

When you complete each stage of the process involved in ByzantiumTests.com, an immersive website experience for Cinemax’s new series Hunted (which debuts tomorrow night at 10/9c) that positions the user as a test subject for diegetic organization Byzantium Security International, it asks you whether you want to share your process with any number of social networks.

When I was completing the tests, however, they struck me as intensely personal. Even though the data being collected is far from the precise scientific personality test that Melissa George suggests in the video material accompanying the site, it nonetheless asks us to reflect on ourselves more than anything else, and I’m not sure that’s something I’d want to share with the world at large. One portion of the site asks you to connect the site to your Facebook account, drawing images from profiles—including your own—to probe further into your thought process. The results of the test are rigged in the sense that everyone can make it to the end, but the personalized nature of the test ensures that it’s evocation of the exclusive “1% that matters” highlights the individual nature of the accomplishment (which is part of why I wasn’t interested in sharing my results).

In the previous two campaigns—for Game of Thrones and Bag of Bones—that I’ve discussed from Campfire, who also developed the Byzantium campaign, the goal has been to engage fans and potential viewers in a shared experience of interpreting and participating in a broader activity. We can see a similar strategy in their campaign for USA’s Political Animals this summer—which I didn’t write about given my busy schedule at the time—wherein the community-forming potential for a newspaper’s audience is used to create immersive weekly experiences that nonetheless allow for different people to experience the same basic content. Whether it’s gathering Maester’s for the cause, or working with others to spot the various secrets in the dark stories being told, or sharing fictional political editorials the same way you’d share real ones, the notion of “shareable” speaks not only to the capacity for the pages to be posted to social media, but also the ability for the “experience” to be shared with others like you.

While the Byzantium campaign relies on word of mouth, which is why a wooden puzzle with a flash drive hidden inside arrived at my doorstep late last month, it also relies on potential viewers finding the time to visit the site, take part in the test, and engage with the world-building on display.

Which describes the experience of watching television, in a way.

In truth, I’m not really in a position to evaluate Hunted as a television show given that I’ve yet to see the series in any capacity. However, that’s sort of the point of this exercise: to convince us that the show in question is valuable to watch. Whereas the previous campaigns I analyzed were both serving existing fan bases, such that there were built-in fans of George R.R. Martin and Stephen King that were being activated by the material, this one is largely starting from scratch (although the wooden puzzle reminded me of Alias, which is now streaming on Netflix and is required viewers in its first two seasons [or until, coincidentally, Melissa George arrives]). This is perhaps why the campaign focuses on the individual: with no pre-established group to appeal to, the goal shifts toward making unique impressions with people who will then share the link—if not the experience—with their social networks.

It’s also how we tend to learn about and engage with television in general. While we may watch as part of a group, and “connected viewing” is becoming more common for those tied to social networks, watching television is nonetheless often a solitary activity driven by personal choices. We may read reviews, or hear about a show from friends, but the trick for television channels is to then get you to, when the time comes, turn on your television or set your DVR to record the show in question. The transition from “word of mouth” to viewers—or in Cinemax’s case subscribers—is the great test of any promotional campaign surrounding a series, and there’s no clear answer for what drives any one person to make that decision, as it very much depends on the individual.

Which is perhaps why involving, and engaging, the potential viewer directly is so effective when taking these tests. Even if the results aren’t as scientific as the site suggests, the presence of direct address narration—from George herself—and the immersive nature of its Facebook integration—which is not mandatory, but is prominent and easy enough to be standard—in particular create a relationship between the virtual and the real that makes the experience feel distinctive. Although we’re often asked by different sites or apps to connect with Facebook in some way, it’s rarely done in a way that feels meaningful instead of shady, and the stylistic flair with which our own lives are used against us was easily the highlight of the Byzantium testing process.

The site does have certain barriers, fitting for a test designed to weed out those who aren’t part of the privileged 1% who matters. I had some tech issues with the webcam my first time through that led me to give up on the site, as well as some browser issues when I went through the second time (although everything eventually got settled). There’s also the fact that the site demands immersion within an environment where you are often sharing space with others: it would be hard to complete these tests when I’m in a shared office space, for example, meaning that some may have to bookmark the site and return to it later, which always creates the risk that they won’t bother.

But if they do come back, that’s the kind of behavior that campaigns like this want to create. The idea of carving out time for something, to immerse yourself in an experience, is how channels want you to experience their content. They might also want you to be tweeting about it, yes, but first they need to get you in front of the television, which remains a distinct task. And although Cinemax hopes to bring in the action series crowd that have been watching Strike Back on Friday nights in recent weeks, the Byzantium Tests sold me on the idea of Hunted as a show driven by a logic that goes beyond explosions and instead engages with exceptionalism. While I doubt the show will reach the outright class ramifications suggested by the “We are the 1%” ads which directly evoke the Occupy movement, it nonetheless places the show’s generic signature—and me, as the subject—within a particular kind of world that gives me more likely to carve out that time.

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