LONDON — Reality fare like “Big Brother” and “Pop Idol” have proved that if there’s one thing that appeals to today’s media savvy audiences, it’s the chance to influence a show’s outcome.
Now, U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, which trades on its hip, streetwise credentials, is taking voting in TV shows to a new level.
It is backing a gritty, six-part skein set in the world of black youth culture that stars some of the U.K.’s most fashionable rap artists, including Ms Dynamite.
If the show, initiated by an inner-city not-for-profit marketing agency, works, it could have wide implications for broadcasters and producers seeking new revenue streams.
At the end of each weekly episode of “Dubplate Drama,” viewers will be able to determine the fate of the central character, Dionne, played by U.K. rapper Shystie, by sending a text message to producers.
“We always end on a dilemma. Should she hide the gun when the police arrive — that sort of thing,” explains Sam Conniff, co-founder of Livity, the South London marketing agency specializing in socially responsible campaigns that’s overseeing the venture.
“We thought it would be great if we could put together a TV show dealing with our culture that kids can relate to and get some positive messages across without being patronizing,” he adds.
His Livity colleague, Michelle Clothier, chips in: “It is a U.K. first, and we don’t know of anyone else in the world that has produced a show in this format.
“We made it interactive because we want young people to talk about the various issues — drugs, guns and violence — raised by the weekly dilemmas.
“Young people have less loyalty to brands and programs than before so we wanted to use as many media as possible.”
“Dubplate Drama,” co-funded by Sony and mobile phone operator, 3, with support from a government-funded charity, aims to use new media to reach young, urban music fans who tend to be light users of traditional TV.
Launching Nov. 11, people will be able to download an edited version of the first episode and watch it on their Sony Play Station Portables or mobile phones before it airs on MTV Base or Channel 4 spinoff web, E4.
“We are doing it this way because we want to encourage debate among the audience via text messages and things like video blogging,” says “Dubplate” producer Louis Figgis, son of helmer Mike Figgis. “But I do think interactive TV drama could work for a more mainstream audience. It would be perfect for a soap.”
As traditional webs watch their ratings slide in a hyper-competitive market, and personal video recorders challenge traditional advertising, broadcasters and producers are desperate to find new ways of connecting with auds, especially hard-to-reach teens and twentysomethings.
The BBC, whose coverage of the 2004 Athens Olympics set a new benchmark for interactive TV, is experimenting with interactive drama.
Last month, flagship web BBC1 screened an amalgamated edition of hospital soaps “Casualty” and “Holby City” that allowed auds to vote on which of two characters should be saved.
Endemol, which has made substantial phone revenues from viewers voting contestants out of the “Big Brother” house, is developing an interactive drama under new drama topper Paul Marquis.
“We are known as a company that has always been at the forefront of interactivity across all genres,” an Endemol U.K. spokesman says. “Looking at making an interactive drama therefore makes sense for us.”
“Dubplate Drama” is a low-budget project, but shooting two endings for each episode has added to the cost and complexity of the venture.
“Post-production posed quite a few issues,” Figgis says. “Having two endings made our shoot longer than it would otherwise have been.”
While other media combos watch with interest how “Dubplate Drama” does, there is one facet they are unlikely to want to replicate.
Auds will text in their votes on cheap rate calls, and not the premium rates broadcasters usually charge for shows like “Big Brother” and “Pop Idol.”
“All our research showed that young people wanted to get involved in the show, provided it didn’t cost them a fortune,” Figgis explains.
Maybe that’s another message those keen to generate income from interactive TV need to understand.