In this time of peak TV, content providers are trying to capture — and keep — the audience’s attention not only by allowing them to choose what they watch when they want, but also, to a degree, what happens within those stories.
Interactive television may not be a new idea — the 1950s show “Winky Dink and You” allowed children to complete pictures from the program by sticking a piece of vinyl plastic over the television screen and drawing on it — but newer technology allows for greater impact on the storytelling and gives executives the ability to track user engagement.
More than 90% of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” viewers engaged with the “choose your own adventure” story from the very first option (selecting a breakfast cereal), Netflix says, and that level of participation was the signal the streaming giant needed to “launch a whole new slate” of adult interactive content, according to the platform’s vice president of product, Todd Yellin.
“‘Bandersnatch’ is just one example, one data point,” says Yellin. “And the data point showed us some basic things to make us enthusiastic enough to go bigger in the investment. Not huge, but go bigger.”
Thus far, that slate includes “Battle Kitty,” an animated children’s program, and “You vs. Wild,” a live-action family show following survival expert Bear Grylls through the wilderness. In the latter, the audience decides if Grylls “succeeds or fails” when his survival skills are tested, said Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president of original content, at Lab Days earlier this spring. And upcoming is an interactive comedy special for Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which will allow the audience to not only choose jokes but also story paths for characters, putting the completion of the series in the fans’ hands.
But Netflix had been experimenting with interactive programming in the children’s space before “Bandersnatch” launched. “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale,” for example, relied on the fairy tale IP, but asked its young viewers to chart the fearless feline’s path. At Lab Days, Yellin said children are the most receptive audience to trying new things.
Netflix is far from the only content provider testing the interactive TV waters. Last year, Steven Soderbergh’s HBO series “Mosaic” also allowed viewers change the course of its murder mystery via a mobile app; Sony and Eko took a more comedic approach with “That Moment When,” in which watchers used their laptops to help a woman navigate her awkward young adult life; and Legendary’s streaming network Alpha had “Orbital Redux,” a live sci-fi series that allowed its viewers to make plot and dialogue decisions in real-time.
“If you offer your audience a live choice-based narrative, then the decisions they make become as important as real-life decisions because those choices will become a permanent part of the narrative,” says “Orbital Redux” creator Steven Calcote. “The audience gets the benefit of saying, ‘I was one of the people who created that story.’”
Higher stakes for viewers also means higher stakes for the cast, who, in this case, had to execute costume changes in real time, as well as alter their performances on a dime based on the selections viewers made. To make each spaceship meltdown and mission control dispatch seamless, writers prepared multiple branching versions of choice-based scenes — many of which never made it to screens.
“It may bring you to tears as an actor,” Calcote says, “but if the audience doesn’t make that choice, it will not be seen.”
Going forward, CBS All Access and Facebook Watch are also getting into the interactive TV conversation: the former is developing “Interrogation,” a non-linear true crime series that will allow viewers to watch its first nine episodes in any order, requiring them to piece evidence together as real detectives do.
“Fans of [the] crime drama are accustomed to pre-determined twists and turns built into the storytelling, so much so that it can be hard to surprise them anymore,” says Julie McNamara, executive vice president of original content for CBS All Access. “We think it will be interesting for them to follow their own unique path of inquiry based on which characters they feel will provide important information, who they trust to tell them the truth, and what next step they think will illuminate how and why this murder took place.”
“The Real World” originally aired on MTV, with the at-home audience relegated to the spectator position as strangers lived in a house together, but with Facebook Watch’s reboot, the audience has been voting to select the incoming cast members. In addition, the platform plans to harness Facebook Premieres, Watch Party, Messenger, Stories and Groups to foster maximum interaction between fans and cast members.
Mina Lefevre, Facebook Watch’s head of development and programming, doesn’t feel that interactivity should be solely focused on pressing a button to make a choice. “We have a lot of other tools that allow audiences to have a much deeper engagement that makes us feel much more holistic,” she says. “Content should be a catalyst for people to either have a conversation or share or do some action on it, and so the idea of content starting a conversation is key to our content theory.”
For all of the interactive players, an increase in viewers who prefer a dual-screen experience (checking text messages, for example, while watching TV) must be taken into consideration when demanding someone’s undivided attention. But for those who can’t get enough immersion, executives and creatives alike have grand plans.
“How many times have you been with your friends at a movie, and you’re hearing this in the theater: ‘Don’t do that! Don’t! Don’t’!” notes Calcote.
Interactive horror could grant viewers the power to actually stop their favorite characters from descending into the basement, or answering the door late at night, for example. Thanks to a rapidly evolving technological landscape, the possibilities are virtually limitless. Still, for now, creators remain optimistic realists — they know what can happen to shiny new toys in the entertainment industry.
“Is it a niche experience that you do sometimes, that occasionally filmmakers and storytellers use? Or is this big part of what Netflix will be?” Yellin says. “It’s probably going to be somewhere in between.”
Janko Roettgers contributed to this report.