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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Filed under Frankenstein M.D.

3 responses to “Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part Two]

  1. Pingback: Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One] | Cultural Learnings

  2. Pingback: Geek Gender Reader, August 2014 | The Lobster Dance

  3. Pingback: Adapting Skam: From Public Service to Private Interest [Part One] | Cultural Learnings

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