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Commentary: The New Art of Storytelling
In the brave new world of delivering video to multiple playback devices, success isn't about multiplatform content. It's about multiplatform stories.
Tues., Nov. 18, by Tejpaul Bhatia

For the past decade we have seen streaming media technologies change the way content is delivered and experienced. We have seen streaming evolve from the early days when sports and adult sites streamed audio and video in the Real format to the emergence of Flash video and YouTube, which have given widespread access to virtually unlimited archives of professionally produced and user-generated video.

Streaming has become a real and powerful vehicle for distribution and monetization of content. Those of us involved in this game from day one have seen the focus of our conversations shift from codecs and new technologies to content development and revenue models. So now that streaming has hit critical mass and digitizing and distributing broadband content is a no-brainer, what’s next?

Most of us feel as if we are standing on the edge of something new and exciting, and that now is not the time to play it safe. It feels like we are about to uncover the biggest revolution of our lifetimes—and streaming is the catalyst. Television was just the beginning.

Many media companies are now exploring new revenue and distribution models using streaming. Some companies are releasing television shows on broadband, and others are selling them on iTunes. Some companies are creating ancillary content like "webisodes" and "mobisodes"—versions of television shows modified for alternative platforms—and others are producing content specifically for broadband and mobile devices. Some companies have even taken it a step further and have created cross-platform experiences to market television shows. These experiences start with "Easter eggs" on the television property that lead viewers to websites, mobile content, possibly to retail locations, and then back to the television show.

In this article, I am going to go out on a limb and predict what will become the next big opportunity in entertainment. I will start with the prediction, explain how I got there, and then examine the value proposition and what to watch for in the coming months and years.

The Prediction
My prediction is that the next big opportunity in entertainment can be found in the emergence of multiplatform storytelling.

A multiplatform story is a story that is created and designed to be told across television, PCs, and mobile devices. This is not the simple porting of television content to alternative distribution platforms, nor is it the use of those alternative platforms to market television shows. An end user can experience a multiplatform story on all of his or her entertainment devices. The glue that adheres the devices together and links the user to each platform is the story itself. The world of the story can be revealed on each platform in a way that exploits the platform to the fullest: linear TV, interactive TV with web applications, gaming, polling, user input, and whatever else the creator can think up.

The creator of the story world has to understand the nature of the person receiving the story and the nature of the multiple devices that the person uses to interact with entertainment. The story, like its distribution, is multi-dimensional and can offer a different experience to each user depending on that user’s entertainment consumption behavior patterns.

How We Got Here
I arrived at this conclusion a few months ago as I was trying to figure out why interactive television is not being adopted in the United States. In my previous job with ESPN, I was responsible for distributing and monetizing television content on multiple platforms, including the web and digital television, both via video on demand and interactive television. I learned quickly that multiplatform distribution was great but would always be incremental compared to the large revenues that come from television. I also learned that to get real entertainment value out of interactivity, the thought process of creating interactive television programming needs to be brought upstream to the creators of the television shows, not treated as an after-thought or a marketing exercise.

I was beginning to see interactive television as a logical intersection of television and streaming media. But for the last decade, interactive TV (interactive applications that run on a cable or satellite set-top box and use the remote control as a navigation device) has made very little impact on the media landscape. I wondered if perhaps the early interactive television efforts were simply ahead of their time. If we take the foundations and economics of traditional television and apply the streaming lessons from the web, could we be staring at the next big thing in entertainment? I was determined to find out.

The problem with interactive TV is that it sucks. There is no compelling content in the space yet, because there is no business model that will make the investment worthwhile. There are several other major barriers preventing a mass adoption of interactive TV, but the lack of good storytelling is the biggest. In trying to solve the problem of interactive television, I kept coming back to the story that current applications are trying to tell. There is a lot of utility—stats, gaming, weather, stock information—on interactive TV, but very little storytelling. I believe this is the result of business and technology folks trying to make something out of the space but not starting with content. The storytellers need join the interactive party.

So, in search of those content creators that would change interactive television, I made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to speak with film students, writers, and producers to see how they could tell stories over interactive television platforms. Fortunately, there was no shortage of creative thinking and good storytelling, despite the limited interface that a cable set-top box provides. But even with the right stories, there will still be a challenge in marketing interactive television content. How do you market an interactive television product that will only be available to a limited and gated universe? To reach the masses with an interactive television application, you have very few options. You can wait for an over-the-top solution like Microsoft’s Media Center PC or Apple’s iTV to reach critical-mass adoption, or you can go make a deal with 15 or so cable and satellite providers, most of whom don’t have an interactive television solution in place.

The way to get around this market fragmentation in interactive television is to use the power of the web to reach the masses and drive them back to their televisions so they can experience television in a new way (assuming they are on a cable or satellite system that offers the interactive application). The problem with this solution is how to link stories on the web to stories on television and keep the user engaged. Since the likelihood of someone jumping directly from the web to her television screen is slim, the challenge is to keep the story fresh in the user’s mind for days after she is first exposed to it. If this is accomplished, the next time the user sits in front of a TV, she will want to interact with the story she first interacted with on the web. Accomplishing this is no easy feat, and it again leads back to the quality and the form of the storytelling.

Have you noticed that people can’t wait to watch the next episode of Lost or 24? Have you noticed that despite the fact that people complain about how little time they have, they still find time to watch 13-hour DVDs of these shows? The stories are so compelling that people can’t wait to watch and talk about the stories with their friends. That is the "link" that needs to be tapped into.

In a world where the spectrum of video entertainment ranges from highly produced Hollywood blockbusters to home videos uploaded on YouTube, how can you capture people’s imaginations, keep them engaged, and give them an experience that is as powerful as a Hollywood movie yet is as easy and convenient as watching a little kid breakdance on the web?

Why Multiplatform Stories?
The concept is not so hard for people in the industry to understand, because it has all the right buzzwords, but will consumers actually adopt this kind of storytelling? While the delivery of storytelling has evolved from oral tradition to the written word to radio to television to the web, the stories themselves have not changed in structure since the beginning of time. Why should we believe that they will change now?

There is no hard evidence supporting the notion that consumers will adopt this kind of storytelling except for the penetration of television, broadband, cell phones, PDAs, iPods, and other mobile entertainment devices in the consumer market. The evolution of video games over the past 25 years also supports the notion that consumers desire alternative story structures.

What this means is that the interface and the literacy to make multiplatform storytelling work are already in place. Most people have a television, and many have an enhanced television with digital cable and interactive capabilities. More than half of the U.S. has a computer with broadband connectivity at work and/or at home. Almost everyone has a cell phone. And many professionals, teenagers, and tech junkies have another mobile device: a Treo, Blackberry, iPod, or PSP. What this tells us is that we don’t have to change user behavior in terms of how entertainment is consumed for multiplatform stories to work. We do have to find a way, however, to create cohesive experiences across all those entertainment devices.

Putting consumer adoption aside for a moment, the concept of multiplatform stories offers a major value proposition for content creators and advertisers. If a multiplatform story can capture a user on all of the user’s entertainment devices, advertisers have the ability to reach their target market at all possible touch points in an extremely efficient, seamless, targeted, relevant, and accountable way. Advertisers can market directly to their target customers through the story, instead of trying to cast a wide net and hoping to reach potential customers in multiple locations. Time spent with the story increases, and the storytelling adapts with user behavior as opposed to trying to change user behavior or prevent its evolution.

But if multiplatform storytelling is to be the next big thing in entertainment, we can’t just put consumer adoption aside. Since we aren’t simply trying to change how stories are delivered but are instead trying to change the way stories are told, multiplatform storytelling is in essence setting out to become a new art form. And with any new art form—whether it is theater, film, dramatic television, or interpretive dance—it takes several iterations before a working format emerges. In other words, the next big thing in entertainment is not a new hit movie or a new killer delivery technology. The next big thing is a new focus on creating story worlds that are in tune with the new generation of consumers and the new interfaces through which they will interact with new stories.

The first multiplatform story will most likely not be a "hit." The next step will be several generations of trial and error with creative experimentation to learn what consumers want and what they are attracted to. It is time for a whole new generation of Spielbergs and Scorseses to hit the market. Creative thinkers can now create imaginary worlds that are as complex and intricate as the creators’ own imaginations.

What this means for streaming media professionals is that there will be a new breed of content creators that will exploit streaming media technology and will create powerful new business models that will change the way the entertainment industry functions. It will be a combination of the Hollywood studios and new independent producers that start to create for this new art form. The game has changed since our forebears created Hollywood. The new media landscape is characterized by limitless access, in-depth interactivity, and the freedom of portability. The new generation of storytellers will have to work extremely hard to create stories that meet the high demands of the new entertainment consumer who consumes content how, when, and wherever she wants it. Throughout history, despite technological advances, one thing that has always held true is that a good story is a good story regardless of the platform or the manner in which it is delivered or presented. Multiplatform storytelling will be no different.