Tag Archives: Transmedia

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

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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.

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At the Knick: A Transmedia Invitation to an Uninviting World

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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.

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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. Continue reading

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Transmedia Legitimation: Dark Score Stories and the A&E Brand

Transmedia Legitimation: Dark Score Stories and the A&E Brand

November 21st, 2011

When I was alerted to the existence of Dark Score Stories, the transmedia marketing initiative that serves as a prequel to A&E’s upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, I was interested for two reasons.

The first is that Bag of Bones, a two-part miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George (among others) was actually filmed in my home province of Nova Scotia, which resulted in a large number of Brosnan sightings for friends and family and which meant that the photographs that comprise much of Dark Score Stories were in many ways a trip “home.”

The second, meanwhile, is that the campaign is being handled by the good folks at Campfire, who were kind enough to send along their work for their campaign for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and who have been equally kind in assisting me with further research in that area since that point. As a result, I was curious what their next major television project would entail, and how some of the transmedia lessons on display there have been transferred over to this initiative.

However, as effective as I think the campaign might be, I’m somewhat more interested in exploring the existence of the campaign than the campaign itself, although the two plainly go hand-in-hand. Looking through the book of photographs that A&E has sent out for the project, and the Dark Score Stories website, it is clear that Campfire has offered a vivid entry point into King’s fictional community, capturing the author’s trademark style while simultaneously introducing characters that will become more important in the film itself (which I have yet to see, but which I am interested to check out in December).

What intrigues me most, though, is the idea of how these kinds of transmedia experiences function in relation to channel brands, and in particular how those functions might differ with a television movie as opposed to an actual series. Obviously, there is an element of promotion to any initiative like this one, and the wide range of media coverage around the site was likely in many cases people’s first exposure to the film’s existence. However, while the momentum gained from Game of Thrones‘ campaign will carry into fans’ long-term engagement with the series over a number of years, Bag of Bones is an example of “event” programming, which to me creates a different set of expectations both for potential viewers and, perhaps more importantly, for the cable channel in question.

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FOE4 Musings: FOX’s Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative

Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative

November 21st, 2009

Following along with this weekend’s Futures of Entertainment 4 Conference at MIT (through the Twitter Hashtag #foe4) has been a really unique experience in many ways, engaging with an academic community I’ve only seen from afar in the past, but there are times when the topics being discussed feel almost too familiar.

By nature of the number of reviews I write about particular shows, I usually end up attacking them from nearly every conceivable angle, but there’s something about Glee that seems to inspire more angles than seem physically possible. The show has created a lot of controversy with its struggle to find a clear sense of its identity from the narratological point of view, which is the angle we television critics have been considering most carefully, but as discussed both yesterday (in the context of its use of music/iTunes to create transmedia engagement) and today (in its engagement with culture) during the conference its brand strategy has never had the same identity crisis.

I want to pick up on something that Ivan Askwith said during the discussion of the series’ engagement with culture, as he argued the following:

I am going to investigate this further, as it implicitly argues that the series’ narrative struggles are the result of an attempt to engage with a manufactured narrative structure (that will in the Spring be the show’s lead-in), a fact which is both understandable (network synergy and business logic) and complicated by the needs of serialized drama over reality programming from a narrative point of view.

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