November 15, 2007
A Precursor to FoE2: NBC's Heroes: Jesse Alexander and Mark Warshaw Speak to MIT Community (2 of 2)

This is the second part of my recap of the MIT Communications Forum event with Jesse Alexander and Mark Warshaw from Heroes earlier this evening. For some other interesting takes on this, see this piece on TheoLib, and C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell's piece.

Adapting to the Audience

Both Jesse and Mark spoke about the realities that exist with their Internet enabled audience and how they are trying to adapt to the realities that exist with how their audience views the show. They understand that experiencing shows at one's own pace is a much more enjoyable experience then live may be. Week-to-week, there is a lot to remember, and the online space is a great way to add narrative and help fill in the blanks. Having to remember specific narratives from specific episodes is difficult because it means viewers have to be keeping close track. From a creative side, they are trying to help people catch up and keep viewers who have been watching live be engaged week to week.

Writers Strike

Mark gave a great example for why he and Jesse are on strike, saying that writers only get four cents of the Heroes DVD set, while the guy that makes the cardboard box gets 50 cents. Those four cents aren't even for each writer. Instead, the four cents is divided amongst numerous writers for the show. Mark posed a great rhetorical question, "Is it fair that Sting gets money every time his song is played on the radio?" Mark also pointed out that 10,000 pages on NBC sites featured Heroes content.

Both discussed how the writers should get paid every time someone reads their online content, saying this is especially critical at a time when networks are really encouraging writers and "transmedia creators" to make various other content pieces around the show. They said the industry knew the strike was coming, but they couldn't come to an agreement. Writers and these "transmedia creators" want to be compensated for media that was once seen as ancillary properties for shows but now treated as true storyline extensions.

An interesting topic discussed later was that NBC has taken great notice of these "transmedia creators," causing networks to apply the same production standards to transmedia properties that it does to pre-existing shows. Having to meet these standards is a problem when things are going at the speed of the Internet and the network is going at the speed of TV. It's too slow. At the same time, NBC is now allocating more funds and resources to the "transmedia department."

Both Mark and Jesse striked home the point that they believe that the Guild members want to be compensated for the things they create. They said that, while the networks will try to call it something else, we all know its content, and the writers want to get paid for the content they create and are willing to strike for that.

They both also pointed out how exportable the show is globally. One of the original goals was to create a brand that could attract viewers from around the world.

Narrative, Serial, Story Arc

Networks are uncomfortable with serialization. Networks are still in an episodic model of television so that people continue to watch week-to-week. They discussed how networks face tough questions: How much serialized narrative can an audience sustain? How much episodic content within a show should writers keep? Jesse and Mark said that it is always challenging to figure out the appropriate time to give a flashback episode, for instance. When the fans are connected enough to the show, those flashbacks may be important emotional moments for fans.

Mark: We set up the structure of the back-story online. You can find out about Matt Parkman and Sylar through our site before the show is live. We've always tried to build up the online immersive environment to get you ready for the live show.

Jesse: We have to serve the live audience first. But we want to serve the fans online too. We struggle with what we reveal online vs. the live show. It is an interesting challenge to have because we've created such rich transmedia outlets.

In terms of the overall story, Jesse mentioned that the first year the writing was more like rock n' roll. It was writing in a more collaborative way week-to-week, without really knowing where the story was going. This second season, he said there is more of a planned-out narrative. See an interesting article with comments from series creator Tim Kring in Entertainment Weekly, which echoes some of these statements.

There were a wealth of other features of Heroes discussed at the Forum, which will be available by audio and video podcast in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, we will provide further information and live blogging on the FOE2 conference here at the C3 blog over the next couple of days.