Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

The 39 Clues: The Future of Children’s Stories?

-

Once upon a time, there was only one way for children to dive into worlds of wonder, magic, and fantasy, and that was to read books. The beloved tales of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass brought hobbits, witches, and dæmons off the page and into millions of children’s imaginations. These popular childhood adventure novels, once intended to be pure literary works, now exist as major multi-platform franchises, spanning films, videogames, web pages, social networks, fan fiction, mobile content, and merchandise.

In the digital age, our youth has come to expect these kinds of multimedia dimensions out of their favorite books, especially on the Internet, and publishing companies have noticed. On September 9th, Scholastic Media will release The Maze of Bones, the first installment of the highly anticipated “The 39 Clues.”

The series is Scholastic’s follow up to   the mega hit Harry Potter. Except, unlike  Harry Potter, which evolved into a transmedia powerhouse after the books’ rising popularity, The 39 Clues will be a massive multiplatform adventure right from the get-go.  In fact, on Scholastic’s homepage a message appears next to The Maze of Bones: “WARNING: This book could take  over your life!”

Aimed at kids ages 8-12, The 39 Clues will be a 10 book series with a single story arc. It will be released over two years with each book written by a different best selling author. The franchise will be about uncovering the secrets of the most powerful family in the world, the Cahills, of which Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Napoleon and Houdini are relatives. It all begins when the Cahill clan matriarch, Grace, changes her will five minutes before she dies, giving her descendants the choice between $1 million or a clue. Amy, 14, and Dan, 11, the series protagonists, are two young Cahills who must compete with other branches of the family to uncover the 39 clues and discover the family’s ultimate power.

Here’s an excerpt from Rick Riordan’s The Maze of Bones (you can read the first two chapters online here):

“The children are old enough.  They are our only chance,” Grace said to William, her attorney and closest friend for half her life.  “If they don’t succeed, 500 years of work will have been for nothing.”  And with that final statement, Grace Cahill closed her eyes for the last time.

 On Sept 9, when 500,000 prints of The Maze of Bones hit bookstores simultaneously in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the official online interactive game will launch as well. This multimillion dollar marketing campaign features a contest where kids will follow the clues and hunt for answers. Scholastic promises more than $100,000 in prizes during the duration of the series. And participants who find all 39 clues and uncover the Cahill treasure will compete for the $10,000 grand prize.

To assist kids on this epic scavenger hunt, Scholastic will offer hundreds of collectible game cards as well as websites containing thousands of pages of background information, blogs written by characters in the story, online games, maps, treasure hunts, and numerous geographical and historical videos.  Needless to say, this will be a much different childhood story than Nancy Drew.

Remember when it took decades for the most popular childhood adventure stories to successfully hit the big screen? (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia) Over the last decade, technological advances have made it possible to bring classic children’s novels to life with stunning visuals. Now children’s series become film adaptations before anyone has time to finish reading the books.  Sure enough, before The 39 Clues could hit bookstores, Dreamworks acquired the film rights, signing Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones 4) to write the first installment and possibly Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Spielberg told Variety in a statement that The 39 Clues takes “creative leaps to expand the story experience from the pages of the books to multiple stages of discovery and imagination.”

It seems as if the future of children’s publishing is headed towards multiplatform experiences.  And Scholastic isn’t the only company hoping to cash in on the trend. Fourth Story Media has teamed up with HarperCollins to launch the The Amanda Project, an interactive mystery series targeted at girls ages 12 to 14 that is told across books, web sites, social networks, and blogs.  CSI creator Anthony Zuiker has signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Group (USA), to write “digital novels” in addition to an interactive Web site. And Simon & Schuster will release “Spaceheadz,” a series of books coauthored by Jon Scieszka and Francesco Sedita which also relies heavily on Internet sites.

Sciezka, the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, told CNN in this article:

“In the past we’ve made the mistake of demonizing other media, saying all TV is bad, all computers are bad, and all books are good. Kids know that it’s not true; there is great television and there are great games. I just also want to make sure that we don’t forget what’s unique about a book, losing yourself in an extended narrative.”

The question is, does transmedia storytelling encourage children to read books? Rick Riordan thinks so. He’s crafted the narrative in The Maze of Bones to stand on its own while also recognizing that the complimentary game helps to expand the expierence. As a result, Riordan hopes to attract both readers and gamers. As he points out in this New York Times article:

There’s a lot of commonality between what makes a good game and a good book. Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, you want to feel immersed in the story and invested in the action and the characters, and you want to care about the outcome and you want to participate in solving the mystery.

Some kids are always going to prefer games over books. But if you can even reach a few of those kids and give them an experience with a novel that makes them think, ‘Hey, reading can be another way to have an adventure,’ then that’s great. Then I’ve done my job.

Riordan’s comments highlight a fundamental change in the way children engage with fictional universes. Increasingly, children immerse themselves in literary stories not only by mentally constructing how characters and events might look but now also by interacting and participating with them. At times, they are hunters and gatherers in an effort to expand their understanding of the world, other times they are directly contributing to it.  Children have taken a much more involved, community driven role, thanks to the Internet. Without a doubt, transmedia storytelling is revolutionizing children’s imaginations, redefining how they access storyworlds and how they interact with them.

Yet the Huffington Post asks an important question, “can a phenomenon be conceived by a publisher rather than created by the public?” Manufacturing a Harry Potter-type blockbuster is an enormous risk. Although, one could argue that  the 39 Clues is more like a kid’s ARG than a literary series. Each book will come with six collectors’ cards that can be used to find further clues in the online game. Now we don’t know how prominent a role the contest will play in the franchise, but clearly Scholastic assumes their multiplatform approach will be a mega-hit. And if it is, how much of that success will have to do with the gaming and prize components? I mean, even The Maze of Bones’ cover instructs us to “Read the book. Play the game. Win the prizes.” That should almost be followed by “See the movie. Buy the merchandise. Make us rich.”

Is that what it takes to get kids to read? Do children really need a more involved, active experience in their literature, or is that just something publishing houses say in order to make the big bucks?  How has multiplatform entertainment changed the role of the novel? Does it make kids more eager to participate in someone else’s storyworld (the publisher’s) rather than creating their own?

There are many more questions than answers when it comes to The 39 Clues. But I am excited to see how the franchise develops. I will be following the clues, not just in the context of the story, but also in observing how transmedia storytelling affects the children story experience. This could very well be the next Harry Potter, but whether that is decided by the publishers or the fans remains to be seen.

Note:

Just to be clear, Rick Riordan has clarified this on his blog, The 39 Clues has no magical or fantastical elements. It is a realistic adventure, though it holds plenty of mystery and wonder.

Here’s Riordan explaining the series:

New Media Narrative and Gemini Division (coming soon…)

-

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Gemini Division preview screening and phone conference with executive producer and creator Brent Friedman. After watching the first two episodes (which are now posted on the website), I got a chance to ask Brent some questions about the show’s narrative structure and aesthetic value. More on that later.

Set five minutes into the future, Gemini Division is the story of Anna Diaz (Rosario Dawson), an NYPD undercover cop, who investigates a global conspiracy involving “simulated soldiers.”(kind of like replicants) These SIMs were created to fight in the Iraq war but then mysteriously went AWOL. The Gemini Division is an agency formed to hunt the renegade soldiers and destroy them…before it’s too late. Meanwhile Anna, after discovering her fiancé was not human, becomes caught in the middle of the war.

It is too soon to tell whether Gemini Division will actually be any good. The first two episodes had their highs – seamless product integration, stylized CGI effects, and of course the stunning Rosario Dawson – but also their lows – the cliché creepy-stalking-stranger and some objectionable acting from Justin Hartley. Gemini Division has been labeled the ultimate test of web video because it boasts all the ingredients for success – big time celebrities, high profile advertisers, and a major studio distributor. As NewTeeVee writes, “if a web show like Gemini Division fails, why bother investing in online video at all?”

Yet whether Gemini makes or breaks web video history will not come down to any of aforementioned ingredients, but something far more essential to the final product – the story. Without a compelling story, there is no breakout hit. And Brent is very conscientious of that.

In my next post, I’d like to focus on the Gemini Division’s narrative construction (it may be too early to do so, but I will update as the season moves forwards). Because web video is very much in experimental form, there is no precedent to follow. As a result, the show is a blend of old media and new media, a mixture of narrative ingredients already proven to be effective and new Internet-based elements yet to be mastered. Gemini Division can thus be seen as an amalgamation of narrative devices from a variety of media, including comics, video games, novels, and TV Shows, all of which allow the show to potentially branch out into any of those platforms. For Gemini Division, the web series could be the perfect incubator for a transmedia franchise. But like I say, it all comes down to story.

I’m going on vacation tomorrow so I won’t be able to return to this post for a little while. (Consider this the teaser trailer) Until then, if you want more info on Gemini Division, head over to Prime Time For Change, where Tim provides a nice summary of what went on in the Q&A with Brent.

On a completely different topic, I plan on blogging about this article from the Boston Globe, which I found quite interesting. Bye for now!

Hollywood and Web Video Follow Up

-

Soon after blogging about Hollyood’s potential to have a strong, profitable relationship with web video, I came across Beet TV, a video blog by Andy Plesser. Plesser posts interviews with media executives and clips from various conferences, focusing on the “rapid emergence of online video and its impact on industry and society.” As I browsed through the site, I found many videos which related to my previous arguments.

In the post “Creative Producers will Grab Advertisers with Original Sponsored Videos“, Saul Berman, strategy partner of IBM, discusses a few of the issues surrounding web video monetization. At one point he mentions IBM’s global CEO study, which found that outperforming CEOs have a knack for “disrupting the market before someone else disrupts it for them.” Now, a growing trend in the digital age is that consumers are expecting higher quality content on the web, in terms of production value and level of engagement. That is exactly why I argue Hollywood needs to be more aggressive in the web video marketplace. While the studios have begun experimenting with digital media creatively and economically, in general, they have yet to effectively distinguish their content as superior online entertainment. Here’s the interview:

Berman also talks about a product placement business model, which has become increasingly viable. I’m going to take a look at this in more detail as Gemini Division unfolds, but it seems like a popular approach for producers, advertisers, and consumers, as long as the brand is subtly integrated within the story as a realistic element, not a distraction. Jigar Thakarar of CBS Interactive sees this brand integration as a much more profitable business strategy than offering pre and post roll ads. Here’s his interview from “CBS Sees Sponsored Web Video Programming as Viable Model“:

Because viral videos don’t carry advertisements as they travel through YouTube and other video hosting sites, I can see why product integration would be a practical solution. But it will be interesting to monitor exactly how producers handle a brand’s identity within the context of a story. Will the narrative, mise en scene, and characters always be faithful to the integrity of the show, or will they be heavily adjusted and obscured to land sponsorship? Ultimately, it comes down to finding a balance, but I still wonder if both parties will always be open enough to compromise.

As far as the consumers go, on the one hand nobody wants to feel as though a studio’s production is an excuse to advertise. That perception ruins all credibility. But on the other hand, young adults (ages 18-34) have become trained to avoid and ignore brand messages. So often the best way to reach them is through highly innovative, seamless product placements, allowing a brand to be more easily absorbed. It’s just another example of convergence – branded content and unbranded content merging together. And hopefully, when done correctly, everyone involved will win.

Another interview comes from the Dmitry Shapiro, co-founder of the Internet TV site, veoh.com. Shapiro argues that the future of television is in fact Internet TV. Using veoh as a “virtual digital video recorder,” viewers can consume Internet TV as they do broadcast TV, sitting back on the couch eating potato chips. Take a look:

Shapiro contends that users can get the same experience from Internet TV as they do with broadcast TV. However, unlike TV programs, web shows typically do not enable viewers to sit back, relax, and watch. They are designed to be seen on the fly, as a daily installment. But what if they were both? If there is one complaint I had with Afterworld, it’s that I was not able to plow through the episodes quickly and easily, since every 3 minutes I had to select the next video. Given the show’s twists and turns, I wanted the option of getting comfortable and sinking into the story. It may sound ridiculously lazy, but returning to my computer so often detracted from my suspension of disbelief and the overall immersive experience. (Not to mention the annoyance of hearing, “My name is Russel Shoemaker, I sold technology to the world..” for 130 episodes.)

Web shows do need to be short in length, no doubt about that. For many people, after about four minutes, streaming quality diminishes and their attention dwindles. But I’m a viewer who wants to watch the story as a “couch potato.” That’s why I think it’d be useful to fuse 10 episodes or so together in a half an hour format so that I can have more options: watch it on the go or on the couch. In this way, web shows could function as a medium independent of TV (in terms of style, format, and distribution) but also function, courtesy of Shapiro’s veoh application, as an extension of TV, as Internet TV.

To date, there has not been a breakout mega hit in original web programming. Web content still only appeals to fragmented audiences and studio executives still worry web content will cannibalize their audiences and revenue. Perhaps those problems will be mitigated when more consumers watch Internet video on their 42 inch flat screen TV in addition to their iPods. The bottom line is this though: Hollywood should not be complacent and wait for the future – they must disrupt it before someone else disrupts it for them.

Hollywood’s Web Shows: The Future of Television?

-

I have argued before that the television industry would benefit from transforming its business model to enhance consumer engagement and adapt to new technologies. That is not to say that broadcast TV is in danger of disappearing (in fact a May 2008 Nielsen Report pdf found Americans are watching more traditional TV than ever) but DVRs, digital cable, and online video all make it increasingly difficult for networks to secure consistent viewers and advertisers. As a result, pilots, even beloved shows, either produce immediate results or face extinction. The system has become so reliant on statistics that a show whose viewership falls below 93% of its networks’ average viewers will be flat out NEXTed. (source: tvbythenumbers.com)

Wait a second. What about the people watching the show on DVD, on the Internet, or on mobile devices? How are they accounted for? And, if you’re like me, you don’t want to invest in a show when you know it’s likely to be abandoned without warning. But it is the nature of the business that a series won’t survive without the initial ratings. It’s a vicious cycle and breaking it would mean one of two things. Either audiences gain enough trust in the networks to risk their time and energy to invest in a new series, or the networks trust the audiences to improve the ratings of a show even after a poor start.

What we have here is what smart people call a Hegelian dialectic, the idea that the tension between two opposing forces is resolved through a synthesis. In this case, the tension between the networks’ old consumption expectations and the viewers’ new consumption habits has resulted in a new Hollywood experiment: web shows.

(more…)

Transforming the TV and Film Industry in the Digital Age

-

In today’s technologically savvy world, the role of the media consumer is evolving. The availability, mobility, and practicality of media convergence have enabled infinite possibilities in consuming media. No longer is it realistic for the media industry to deliver content through one medium and expect mass audiences to passively consume it. Instead, media executives must cater to a different kind of audience, one that has fragmented into millions of smaller interest communities and one that will not be satisfied in merely consuming, but also producing, sharing, and interacting as well. According to media scholar Henry Jenkins in the MIT Technology Review, “younger consumers have become information hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise.” However, despite the strong economic incentives to embrace this “consumer 2.0,” many media companies remain hesitant to launch franchises reliant on transmedia storytelling. Certainly, the lack of a consistent and dependable business model makes constructing and executing a multiplatform story risky. But as long as media companies cling to old production and distribution practices, they will never reap the benefits from delivering more complex, interconnected narratives across multiple media to consumers who demand more involved, engaging experiences.

In this paper, I begin by explaining why the television and film businesses need to transform their business model to adapt new technologies and new consumers. I then argue that transmedia storytelling, when done correctly, successfully fulfills this need and promises many economic advantages. However, while a transmedia story franchise has potential to be highly lucrative, I recognize there are economic and creative challenges that remain problematic. I conclude by exploring what the entertainment industry can do to overcome these obstacles and benefit from everything that transmedia storytelling has to offer.

Monetizing Internet Video Content

-

This was a paper I wrote July 22nd, 2007 for a class at the University of Southern California. The assignment was to describe a system in the entertainment industry and explain how you think it could be improved. My internship at GoGooRoo.com, an internet video guide, inspired this piece.

The digital age of internet video and web streaming has undoubtedly revolutionized the entertainment industry as a new medium to reach mass audiences. You don’t need a distribution house to show your movie to the world anymore. But with such an easy and free process of uploading video on the web, how can a video site possibly make a profit? Like TV shows and motion pictures, the longevity and revenue of a particular video channel is largely dependent upon viewer popularity. Once a site hosts video content that attracts viewers and keeps them coming back, marketing companies will then compete and pay to advertise, which is the primary source for a video website’s income. (Rigler)

The most difficult aspect of the system involves keeping viewers at a particular video website despite the thousands of competitors available on the web, including the video juggernaut YouTube. To monitor what sites are most popular, the Nielsen/Net Ratings can calculate how many users go to a given webpage and how long they stay there. Recently, the latter has been the more important statistic in terms of drawing advertisers. (Jesdanun) So not only does a video site have to be innovative enough to find viewers, it also needs to be engaging and compelling enough to appeal to viewers for long periods of time. Video websites accomplish this through a variety of ways. Some offer a social network to accompany video content. Others list recommended and most viewed videos or organize content based on a user’s interests.

Whatever keeps consumers entertained though, advertising companies are willing to dish out huge amounts of money to display their ads on such video hotspots. Unlike commercials on TV and film, which are produced for a wide audience, advertising companies on the web find greater profit in presenting their ads towards a specific group. (Rigler) For example, ReelTV, a video site about movies, contains ads for NetFlix and FilmStew.com. In this way, advertisers present their product to people who are more likely to notice them. So for a site like GoGooRoo, which links viewers to a huge variety of video channels, the hope is that a broad range of companies will want to pay for ads on each specific category—movie trailers and advertisements on the film related channels and computer and software ads on the technology channels etc. (Rigler)

Advertisers pay video websites in different ways for hosting their ads. They may pay a certain amount for every user that clicks on their ad or for every user who buys their product of their webpage. (Moncur) But the industry standard has been to pay a video website a fixed amount for every thousand ad impressions (1) they display.

Advertising becomes problematic however, when viewer generated content is involved. Cynthia Littleton of Variety notes, “advertisers demand far more certainty on the type of content before they’ll spend big bucks on it.” Companies don’t want to risk their brand name appearing next to a video that infringes on copyright laws or is offensive in nature. (Teeling) Thus, while viewer generated content may draw the most viewers, it is more difficult to attract big name advertisers.

Nevertheless, I think viewer generated content is an area which can greatly improve the business of monetizing online video. The way the system works now, the majority of video hosting sites do not reward the producers and filmmakers who made them popular in the first place. Sites like Revver and Brightcove do share a certain percentage of their advertisement profit with the people who post viral videos and attract millions of viewers. (Pick) Metacafe awards 5$ to a video producer for every 1,000 views past 20,000. This is a smart and effective system and should be implemented by companies struggling to compete with YouTube and MySpace. First, it would improve a video website’s ‘time spent per person’ rating because users would spend hours researching what is popular and what would make them the most money. The video website would benefit from swelled traffic and advertisers would benefit from the increased chances of reaching their audience. Secondly, the system would  help eliminate copyright and offensive content because advertisers would not invest in legally questionable videos, no matter how many views it received. Finally, splitting revenues with video producers makes people more understanding and tolerant of advertising. Since people know the ads are there to benefit them too, they won’t be as frustrated by pre-roll ads (2)or annoying popups and banners.

Another efficient way to monetize video content involves linking advertisers and users through contests and competitions. In this strategy, an advertising company would make a deal with a video website inviting viewers to create creative commercials or videos for their product. The video that receives the most views would win a hefty reward. This would directly link users and advertisers so that they’re working together; as the user promotes his video to win the competition, they’re also promoting the advertising company.

In sum, because the system of monetizing video is fueled by a buyer’s market, I believe video websites need to give more incentive for viewers to return to their sites. And if that incentive is money, then a cycle is created which benefits everybody–First, viewers are drawn to a video site in hopes of making a profit. Mass amounts of viewers will then attract advertisers. And the money from the advertisers will be split between the website host and the users who produced the content for it. With this win-win cycle, the medium of online video would distinguish itself further from TV and film as the premiere form of entertainment.

(1) An impression is an instance where the ad appears on the page.

(2) An ad that runs before a video begins. This commercial may range from five to thirty seconds.

References

Literature

1.) Littleton, Cynthia. “Sony Flips for Clips.” Daily Variety: July 16th, 2007.

Online Articles:

2.) Jesdanun, Anick. “Nielsen scraps Web page view rankings.” Yahoo! News: July 9th, 2007. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070709/ap_on_hi_te/online_measurements

3.) Moncur, Michael. “Web Advertising Basics: Overview of Ad Revenue Models.” Website Workshop: November 16th, 2004. http://www.wsworkshop.com/money/ad-revenue-models.html

4.) Pick, Michael. “Internet Video: How to Monetize your Independent Video Content.” Robin Good: November 13th, 2006. http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2006/11/13/internet_video_how_to.htm

5.) Teeling, Erin. “YouTube: Show me the Money!” The BivingsReport: September 19th, 2006. http://www.bivingsreport.com/2006/youtube-show-me-the-money

Interview:

6.) Conversation with Thomas Rigler, co-founder of the GoGooRoo Internet Television Guide, about the system of monetizing video content. July 13th, 2007.

Wikipedia debate not a debate at all on Nightly News

-

I wrote this on March 26th, 2007 as part of my blog for Media Technology and Cultural Change.

Well, the Wikipedia debate continues to be an unnecessarily hot topic. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams aired a story about the controversy in citing Wikipedia as a credible source. After learning all about Wikipedia and becoming an author on the site myself, I found Lisa Daniel’s report horribly misguided. Here are some of my complaints

First of all, Daniels only included one student, my friend on the basketball team who I can say is probably one of the last people you should be interviewing on national news. I would say on the whole, most students at Middlebury know Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Yet Daniels only includes the interview which fits her story topic perfectly. She makes it seem like most students think Wikipedia is a credible source. This of course is not the case. Yes, it would have made her job a lot harder to include interviews with students who knew not to cite Wikipedia, but that’s what good journalism is all about.

Furthermore, the story emphasizes that Wikipedia can be easily edited by anybody. Yes, that’s true. But there is no acknowledgment of the Wikipedians, the army of people who aim to make Wikipedia as accurate as possible.

And Daniels does not even touch on the benefits to collective knowledge and reaching a larger audience. Instead, she highlights that any mumbo-jumbo idiot can write anything. To demonstrate this, she edits her own Wikipedia site to say “Lisa Daniels is a rock star.” When I checked the history of this site however, I found that Daniels’ vandalism was corrected in one minute. One minute. Why Daniels did not include that information I don’t know. But one person made an interesting point in the discussion page:

“I think Lisa Daniels learned a lot about the value of wikipedia. First, she started as a vandal, making an erroneous claim about herself. Then, she found out that within one minute, her vandalism was remedied. (I wish they would have shown that footage) Then, about 10-15 minutes later, she helped make Wikipedia better by improving her own entry (making herself and her career sound more substantial in the process).” –(IP address)

Isn’t the point of journalism to learn about a topic and present that information to the world? Why wouldn’t Daniels discuss what she learned rather than report exactly what she was assigned? There could be no better argument for the use of Assignment Zero. Daniels was one reporter with one job to do. She probably did not have time to interview people from Middlebury’s media department who might have a different view on how Wikipedia should be used. Granted, this is a two minute story, not a special assignment, so it is her job is to give an overview. But the problem with an overview is that people who know nothing about Wikipedia have no idea about its benefits. Had this story been on Assignment Zero, people could have reported about the pros and cons to Wikipedia and offer a more objective overview. They then could discuss it and share their own opinions. Collective knowledge at its best — instead of just one news team, many people covering the issue. So I ask you, which is more inaccurate: a news report that fails to cover both sides of a story or an online encyclopedia which anyone can edit?

Perhaps I am so riled up about the story because it made me realize: if a news report is this one-sided in a “debate” about Wikipedia, how seriously can I take anything it says about actual, more important news?

You can see the report as it aired:

To be fair, Lisa Daniels’ MSNBC article on Wikipedia does a much more balanced job of presenting the story. While I’ll admit the article was much better than the TV report, I am still critical of the news story simply because I think more people will have seen the television version.