You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How Streamers are Expanding Interactive Storytelling in a Post-‘Bandersnatch’ World

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.

More TV

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Agencies' Antitrust Suit Against Writers Guild Set for January Hearing

    The antitrust suit filed by Hollywood’s major agencies against the Writers Guild of America has been set for a Jan. 17 hearing. U.S. District Court Judge Andre Birotte issued the calendar update this week on the litigation, filed on Sept. 27 by CAA, UTA and WME after the agencies consolidated their individual agency suits. The [...]

  • Gabrielle Carteris SAG Awards

    Gabrielle Carteris Preps for 26th Annual SAG Awards

    SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris is already looking forward to the 26th SAG Awards on Jan. 19, held in its usual location at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. “One of the best things about the SAG Awards is that it’s a peer-to-peer recognition,” she says. “It’s the highest honor for performers to be recognized by [...]

  • GoliathSeason 3CR: Greg Lewis/Amazon Studios

    'Goliath’ Renewed for Fourth and Final Season at Amazon

    Amazon has renewed gritty legal drama “Goliath” for a fourth and final season. The series centers on washed-up lawyer Billy McBride, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who seeks redemption after a client he successfully defended from a murder charge went on to slaughter a family. Thornton won a Golden Globe for his performance in 2017. [...]

  • Jon Favreau'The Mandalorian' TV show premiere,

    Jon Favreau Already Has a Star Picked for His 'Star Wars' Holiday Special

    The “Star Wars” franchise is no stranger to the strange and odd. But the wildest of all the offerings from the galaxy far, far away is the bizarre (but beautiful) “Star Wars Holiday Special.” And Jon Favreau is ready to resurrect it. The TV special celebrating the Wookiee holiday “Light Day” aired on CBS in [...]

  • Justin Marks FX

    'The Jungle Book' Writer Justin Marks Inks Overall Deal With FX Productions

    “Counterpart” creator and showrunner and “The Jungle Book” scribe Justin Marks has signed an overall deal to create new content for FX Productions. “Justin is a true creative talent and we feel fortunate to be his partners in supporting his vision of bold and ambitious storytelling,” said FX Entertainment original programming president Gina Balian. Marks, [...]

  • Tye Sheridan

    Tye Sheridan Starring in Survival Thriller 'Wireless' From Steven Soderbergh for Quibi

    Quibi has ordered another show with notable Hollywood talent attached: scripted series “Wireless” starring Tye Sheridan with Steven Soderbergh on board as executive producer. In the made-for-mobile-screens thriller, a smartphone has a central role. Sheridan (“Ready Player One,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”) plays a self-obsessed college student who is stranded in the Colorado mountains after he crashes [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content