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Parallel worlds

Nickelodeon bowed iCarly in 2007. The show-within-a-show about Carly Shay and her friends who busied themselves producing webisodes broke new ground and solidly tapped into kids' growing comfort with the multiplatform universe. In the intervening two years, not much has come along that incorporates non-linear storytelling tools to drive the narrative of a linear series and weave viewers' offline and online lives together in the way iCarly has. Sure complementary websites are pretty much mandatory these days, but series that include viewer input and content are harder to come by. That may be about to change.
October 1, 2009

Nickelodeon bowed iCarly in 2007. The show-within-a-show about Carly Shay and her friends who busied themselves producing webisodes broke new ground and solidly tapped into kids’ growing comfort with the multiplatform universe. In the intervening two years, not much has come along that incorporates non-linear storytelling tools to drive the narrative of a linear series and weave viewers’ offline and online lives together in the way iCarly has. Sure complementary websites are pretty much mandatory these days, but series that include viewer input and content are harder to come by. That may be about to change.

Several indie producers are following in iCarly creator Dan Schneider’s footsteps and starting to create shows with storylines that plug seamlessly into the online world, weaving games, instant messaging, social networking and user-generated content into the fabric of fictional shows to drive their plots.

Learning from iCarly
According to Margie Cohn, head of live-action development for Nick US, producer Schneider wanted to play up a small aspect of his previous series The Amanda Show, which had Amanda’s biggest fan driving kids to a fictional fan site, AmandaPlease.com. During its run from 1999 to 2002, the show was the most trafficked part of Nick.com.

What Schneider then came up with was the first series to fully connect the linear and digital environments in the very core of its storyline. iCarly revolves around Carly, played by Drake & Josh‘s Miranda Cosgrove, and gives the audience specific tasks to create their own original content online, such as uploading a picture of a great sandwich or creating a video of themselves performing a special talent. The kid creations then have a chance at being scripted into a future episode or becoming part of Carly’s online webcast.

Like their own random snippets and pictures that kids are regularly watching and uploading on YouTube and myspace, Carly and her friends create trailers spoofing movies, Photoshop wacky images together and perform nonsensical and hysterical sketches.

Giving viewers the chance to offer up their own ideas and content online in a show that mirrors how they are consuming media hit a sweet spot. This spring, the show beat out Hannah Montana and American Idol in ratings among kids two to 11, as well as tweens nine to 14.

‘When internet ideas are foisted upon existing TV ideas, it doesn’t work as well,’ says Cohn. ‘But the concept of a kid who put their own show up on the internet just seemed like a natural idea in the next evolution of where TV should be. When there’s a real intrinsic content piece that comes out of the show’s creative, it makes it more natural and easier for the show to execute.’

Together from the start
One such show is London-based Ragdoll’s Tronji. The prodco rolled out an initial 15 eps on CBBC this spring while simultaneously embarking on the soft launch of a corresponding MMOG. A parallel universe sits at the heart of the concept of the show for kids ages six to eight. This world, Tronji, has been thrown into crisis mode by a seismic event known as the Wobble that caused a portal to open up between the viewers’ own world and Tronji. Prior to the Wobble, Tronji was filled with brilliant landscapes and zany characters. It’s since been drained of color and happiness and only children entering Tronji World can use their special skills to help restore it to its former vibrant glory. Each episode begins with a different set of three real children, who identify their special skills and are then transported into Tronji, where they become animated characters and start problem-solving to restore a tiny bit of color back to the world.

‘The narrative progresses along the lines of a mathematical equation,’ says Ragdoll producer Andy Davenport. ‘You solve the problem in stages, not necessarily going directly to a solution. One child at a time solves a small part of it.’

Alongside the TV series, 3-D MMOG Tronji World (www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/tronji) houses more information about the alternate universe and its inhabitants, as well as a suite of single-player games. Reflecting the TV experience, players create their own avatars before exploring the constantly changing environment depicted in the MMOG, which includes 26 settings full of characters and objects from the TV series. Each distinct area challenges kids to complete structured missions and play games both on their own or in teams.

‘They draw themselves as the essence of their skill, so they become an avatar and enter into the Tronji world and become a cartoon character within the 3-D animated world,’ says Davenport.

He explains that though the online and the TV show function differently, both require kids to enter the world of Tronji. Production of the first series involved pulling groups of children together and prompting them to choose their skills and then create their Tronji likenesses. But Davenport says future seasons will be fed by kid ideas taken from an active online fan base. While the TV show is currently driving the web traffic, he says the message boards are buzzing with chatter about the online game.

‘Tronji was always designed to be a property that is bigger than just a single platform. So the idea is that this parallel world can be drawn out by the strengths of whichever platform it’s being approached from,’ says Davenport.

BBC Worldwide head of children’s Neil Ross Russell says the show fits in well with the pubcaster’s remit of staying cutting-edge and complementing the way children consume media, which he likens to enjoying martinis – anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

‘Tronji is a brand that you connect with through any particular touch point; through online, TV or gaming,’ says Ross Russell. ‘It’s designed to reflect their needs and actions, as opposed to fitting them into a preconceived schedule as many other programs do.’ He adds that creating a property with such an extensive online gaming element required expert help. BBC and Ragdoll hired Cambridge, England-based game development company Nicetech to create the world’s infrastructure at the outset of the show’s development, and they built the storyline and mapped out how the two mediums would work together from day one.

New production pipelines
Likewise, Blabbagab, a show in development at UK studio Wish Films, incorporates so many digital platforms that director Will Brenton can barely describe one aspect without jumping to talk about another level on which the show exists. Tween- and teen-targeted, the show follows the social lives of teens in three different countries and exists as an online community and a TV series all at once.

‘Teenagers have already mutated the traditional TV model to their own end by simultaneously being online and watching TV shows and texting,’ says Brenton. ‘What we were looking to do with Blabbagab was tell a story in a way that gave you different views of the same situation via all the methods that teens are using.’

The result is split-screen images (à la 24) of individual events occurring at the same time, with an additional overlay of scrolling text messages and pop-up boxes that mimic everything from Twitter to YouTube. As the show’s airing on TV, viewers will be online simultaneously, reading other conversations about what’s happening on-screen. As well, there will be the usual supplemental information such as video diaries and character blogs that will be continuously updated. ‘The whole soap opera of the series becomes a living breathing being in that it’s moving on a daily basis,’ says Brenton.

He admits that the series’ scope is large and ambitious and requires a nimble production process that will allow the studio to monitor what’s happening online and what storylines and characters are getting the most hits each week to drive the story. It will also involve units filming in each of the three territories that correspond with the show’s co-pro partners – Wish, Canada’s Decode Entertainment and Burberry in Australia. Brenton says Wish is looking at creative filming techniques as a means of cutting production costs. ‘We’re actually helped out by the way that teens use technology, with portable video camera and video phones,’ he says. So low-budget video cam shots will be part of the broadcast, as well as user-submitted content.

Double helix revenue streams
As for ROI, Brenton says he’s looking at ways the narrative itself can create branding that could exist outside of the show. For instance, one of the characters is a clothing designer and her creations could be made commercially available in the real world. ‘It helps create a financial model for the show and it’s a life for the show outside its online element,’ says Brenton. ‘Without it turning into product placement, there are ways of letting things grow out from the show naturally itself.’

Nigel Stone, CEO and producer at Buckinghamshire, England-based Platinum Films, says for the prodco’s latest series, Matt Hatter Chronicles, its website forms the hub of the entertainment brand. The 26 x half-hour boys adventure comedy, rendered in both 2-D and

3-D animation is the studio’s new multiplatform concept that’s in the thick of production for its 2010 delivery to Nick UK.

Stone likens the show to Indiana Jones meets Tin Tin. Its plot begins in an old movie theater in London’s Notting Hill that has a portal that leads to a different dimension – the Multiverse. For years, hundreds of monsters and strange villains from the cinema have been projected accidentally into the strange world. These classic horror creatures are now on the rampage, and it’s up to 12-year-old Matt (and his two friends, Gomez and Roxie) to help contain the threat one monster, and one episode, at a time.

As the corresponding website will be accessible 24/7, it acts as the hub of the property. Stone’s also made a point of building the TV and online content together so that they feed into each other and push viewers from the plot-driven episodes to the backstory-laden online hub and vice versa.

Stone says involving licensees holistically in the show’s storyline is a way of adding even more platforms for the story to play out on, as well as offsetting expenses. ‘This is where it gets interesting for licensed properties, whether it be trading cards, toys, or comics; they all have a place where they can tie into extra content,’ he says. Ideally, licensing partners will tie in with more than just flat merchandise at retail and be woven into the property’s storyline with extra content, gaming and visuals.

‘You are in partnership with them and they get to extend their product,’ Stone adds. Although he’s staying tight-lipped on Platinum’s own convergence deals in the offing for Matt Hatter, he says the company has a publishing program in the works that will drive kids back and forth between the books, the website and the TV show to take in the full scope of the property.

‘Ideally, the book converges with the online product, which converges with the TV product, the movie, the computer game and the toy.’

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