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October 15, 2006

When Transmedia Goes Wrong: Studio 60 and DeFaker

Through the work of our Convergence Culture Consortium, CMS faculty and students have been monitoring ongoing experiments in transmedia storytelling, trying to help our client companies to better understand when entertainment producers are creating something valuable for their consumers and when they are antagonizing them. In a recent newsletter, CMS student Ivan Askwith wrote about Studio 60 on Sunset Strip's failed attempt to build a fictional blog set in the world of the series -- an experiment which was shut down in only a few days time. I asked Ivan if I could share this post with the readers of my blog and thought I would cross-post it here as well.

I am reminded here of the long-standing complaint from fans that official websites are often less satisfying than fan-generated sites: for one thing, they tend to be relatively static, built once and rarely updated, even on shows that have fairly dynamic character development or elaborate and unfolding story arcs. Kurt Lancaster made some of these points contrasting the official and fan websites for Babylon 5 in his book about the series, for example. For another, those who produce official content often do not pay attention to the details which matter most to fans. Janet Murray and I wrote an essay some years ago (published in Greg Smith's On a Silver Platter) which compared the kinds of details included in the early cd-roms about Star Trek with those which cropped up most often in fanzine stories. We found that the official materials supported some kinds of fan interests (those of male technologically inclined fans) and not others (those of women fanzine writers interested in the relationships between the characters.)

Those official sites which have broken out of this trap -- such as Dawson's Desktop, which I discuss in Convergence Culture -- have been real labors of love, often created by tapping the fan community for potential collaborators in their production.

Of course, those of us who have regularly watched Aaron Sorkin's series through the year know that his characters wage a running battle against online fan communities: Josh Lyman ran into trouble with a discussion list on The West Wing and we've already heard the characters opine negatively about bloggers on Studio 60. So, the conflict Askwith describes here seems almost inevitable.

Online Content Experiments: The Fate of Defaker

By: Ivan Askwith

In May, speaking before an audience of advertisers and television executives, NBC CEO Jeff Zucker declared, "No longer is content just for the television screen!" This might as well have been the official slogan of this year's upfront week, where many network executives spent more time promoting their new online strategies than previewing their new on-air programming. In their coverage of the event, the New York Times reported that "analysts are calling this upfront week a watershed because the networks are significantly expanding their presence in the new media, whether through Webisodes, video downloads, podcasts or mini-series created for cellphones." (Elliott, 5/16/06)

Of course, the upfront announcements themselves weren't much of a watershed -- they simply articulated, for the benefit of the press, a trend that has been accelerating over the past two years: the television industry's growing awareness of the importance of compelling online content. Over the past year, almost all of the major networks have made arrangements to distribute their broadcast content online. Now that the core programming content is online, however, the more interesting (and dangerous) step begins: networks must begin to understand their audiences well enough to provide meaningful online-only content.

I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss an notable online experiment: Defaker, an "in narrative" blog that NBC launched to promote their much-anticipated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Defaker went live shortly after Studio 60's premiere on the evening of September 18. Designed to look almost identical to Defamer, a popular Hollywood gossip site, Defaker
presented itself as a source for "insider, behind-the-scenes information" for fans of Studio 60's fictional show-within-a-show.

In theory, this isn't a bad idea: a show like Studio 60, which focuses on backstage
relationships and network politics, would actually lend itself beautifully to an irreverent gossip blog. A site like Defaker could be used to generate audience investment in the show, reporting "rumors" that provide resolution on throw-away moments seen in previous episodes and foreshadow the action of future episodes. Fictional "interviews" or "news articles" could provide details and anecdotes that flesh out the show's characters, elaborate the events that led up to the show, hint at future guest stars, and more. This, in turn, could deepen a viewer's engagement with the show -- readers of Defaker would become "local experts," capable of reporting to casual viewers on the significance and implications of the (in-narrative) online rumors. Did I say Defaker wasn't a bad idea? I take it back: Defaker has the potential to be a
brilliant idea.

In practice, however, Defaker turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Rather than delivering on its claim to offer an "insider's" perspective on the show, the site's first entry was nothing more than a mediocre recap of the events that took place on the show, and a series of HD screen captures presented as "behind-the- scenes photos." (As several visitors pointed out, the recap got some details wrong.) The writers also seeded the entry with a handful of meaningless, enthusiastic "in character" comments, from fictional fans, to set the tone. The design logic behind the site was clear: Defaker didn't need to offer any new content to viewers, because the gimmick of presenting the old content in character was so clever. Fans of the show would love it, right?

Wrong. The attacks began within minutes.

A sample of the feedback:


"This is lame, you can't even get stills from the set? You had to use screengrabs?"
- "Whoever they hired to write this horrible blog didn't even understand the show."
- "This site is awful. An ounce of effort could have made it all right."
- "You must be kidding. This is the worst fake I've ever read.
- "The show is OK but this writing is a mess and the whole thing's a turn-off! BOO!"
- "This blog is sh*t."

Some visitors went so far as to declare that they had enjoyed the show, but shared the sentiments of one commenter who declared that "out of protest against this ridiculous, lazy and unoriginal marketing attempt, I'm going to boycott the show."

So, where did Defaker go wrong?

Well, as one of the most astute commenters pointed out, Defaker "is a laughably bad attempt at viral marketing. Not since the Flinstones rappin' about Fruity Pebbles has a major corporation so completely misunderstood the phenomenon they're trying to cash in on." Despite the apparent assumptions of the show's promoters, a show cannot simply go online and expect fans to be impressed -- it has to offer visitors something new, and create opportunities for engagement that the show alone can't offer.

Many of the posts were proactive, offering clear advice to help improve the project.

One viewer wrote:

"if you want to make a fake blog like this, don't just give us a summary of a show we already saw, with lame screen shots right from the show... give us stuff NOT on the show we just got finished watching, and make it worth our while to come back."

Another was even more articulate, pointing out that:

"this blog isn't giving us any new perspective on the show. It's just rehashing everything we already saw on the show. Take a page from HBO, their blog for Big Love wasn't much to write home about but they posted a blog from one of their character's point of view. It gave some insight on her character which wasn't portrayed in the show. You could do a blog from [a PA's] point of view. Now that would be something worth reading."

So what lessons are we supposed to take away from this?

1) Know who you're developing online content for, and design it accordingly.

In the case of Defaker, NBC failed to recognize that the most likely audience for the blog would be the viewers who were most invested in the show -- and as such, the viewers who would be the most knowledgeable and critical.

2) Online content should add something new to the experience.
Successful online content -- as so many commenters pointed out -- has to offer the audience something new. It's tempting to see this as a hassle, since it requires additional time, effort and thought. Instead, I think we need to understand it as an opportunity: online content gives us the ability to expand and deepen the narrative world depicted on television, which in turn allows viewers to immerse themselves far more completely in the show and the characters. Online content extensions should help transform a show from passive viewing into an immersive experience.

3) Listen to what your audience is telling you.
The comments posted to Defaker, harsh as they were, offered direct, articulate advice that the blog's author(s) could have followed to improve the site. Instead, however, they chose to post a second (and final) entry, which included this tragically misguided response:

"To my detractors... who think that this is 'viral marketing bull' for NBS, viral marketing (I just looked up what this means on Wikipedia!) only works if people with nothing better to do jabber on about the thing in question, so apparently, the more you talk, the more I grow stronger.... insert evil laughter here."

...which leads us to a fourth important lesson...

4) Don't ever insult your audience or try to tell them they're wrong.

The response posted above simply blows my mind: the writer is not only dismissing the(admittedly harsh) criticism from the site's visitors, but insinuating that the show's most invested viewers have "nothing better to do [than] jabber" about the show. This response all but dares the viewer to stop watching the show. If someone didn't lose their job for posting = this, I'd be surprised; in any event, the blog was taken offline the day after this entry was posted.


One final detail worth noting: while Defaker illustrates precisely what not to do when developing online television extensions, Studio 60 has had more success with a second blog, launched at the same time.

On this "official" non-fiction behind-the-scenes blog, writer- director duo Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme have been posting interesting (if short) responses to viewer-submitted questions, as well as occasional entries hinting at their own thoughts on the evolution of the show. Eschewing the half-baked gimmick of Defaker, the official Studio 60 blog re-affirms that the best online offerings don't need to be clever; they simply need to add something new, and help transform television watching into an engaging experience.

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