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The In-Between Place: Digital Series Producers Break Down Extending A TV Show's Appeal To The Web

Posted By Chris Thomes, Wednesday, February 21, 2018

There is so much television now it’s mind boggling. It’s honestly a challenge to just find a few shows that I can settle into. Thumbnails of artwork swim in a confusing flurry as I drift off to sleep every night, remote in hand, having found absolutely nothing that I want to watch. It’s chaos.

The Netflixes of the world are trying to solve that problem, and perhaps they will. But for now, just finding the right television show feels like the biggest challenge on earth.

From the producer’s point of view, the challenge is just as bad. We just want to get our content seen. But with this giant layer of new technology between the producer and the viewer, it’s not easy. It’s supposed to be. That’s the promise of technology. All of these new streaming applications are dedicated to constantly improving discovery. Netflix is a master at this. They use data constantly to serve up different options to different viewers. In fact, no two Netflix homepages look the same. Everyone’s account is different because our individual viewing habits are different, and the application and algorithms automatically serve up what it thinks we prefer watching the most.

But all of that is for when you’re already in the app. What about when you aren’t?

Enter digital social content.

Specifically, I want to talk about scripted derivative digital series, or web series that are spinoffs or derivatives of existing scripted TV shows. Unlike memes, animated GIFS, and other micro-social content that serve up instantaneous and viral satisfaction, premium video series can deliver something these formats can’t—original character and story. Digital series can be the holy grail of social content for television comedies and drama, delivering to viewers new characters and storylines that deepen the world of a show. They can also be very effective at luring in and keeping audiences engaged, even when a show is in hiatus between seasons.

Clockwise from left: a walker from The Walking Dead: Red Machete; director
Joe Quesada watches a take from
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot;
storyboard art from
Slingshot; cast member Natalie Cordova-Buckley goes
over a scene with
Slingshot transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo

But getting a derivative digital series off the ground can be quite a feat because it resides in the “in-between” world—not quite marketing and not precisely the show itself. That status can lead to a garden of traps and landmines for those determined enough to push the rock up the hill. Variables such as network interest, funding and ad sales all contribute, as does production experience and where a show is in its lifecycle. The base of this steep hill doesn’t have just one starting place. John Canning, current Chair of the PGA New Media Council, most recently served as VP Interactive Experiences at NBC, one of the networks regularly producing web series. He thinks the trigger varies depending on how engaged a show’s producers are with digital. “I have worked with showrunners who were glued to social media and others who were not,” he explains. The key is to identify early in the process what are the production team strengths and understanding. Overall, I would say the traditional production teams are more aware of the community and the power to respond to fans. It is about balancing out that with making a great product given the constraints of modern productions.”

To Canning’s point, no matter how big or small the production company, their showrunners’ interest and engagement with social and digital content varies and can steer strategy. Even a juggernaut like Marvel has variations in their approach driven by the teams involved. Meghan Thomas Bradner and Marvel transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo brought Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot, one of the company’s first scripted digital series, to life. Bradner says, “There are a number of different individuals and divisions at Marvel involved in discussing digital strategy. It starts with our upper management, who see value in the future of digital, and then the creative teams at Marvel Television and the New Media division discuss what we can do and how that’s best executed. When it came to Slingshot, we also had our partners at ABC Digital Media Studio and our transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo who helped to execute that vision.”

That inconsistency appears to be one of the few consistent features across the board when expanding a show. A variety of stakeholders across the TV ecosystem can end up contributing. These drivers are often more ad hoc than they are part of a grand scheme. Sometimes it’s driven by a need of the showrunner or writers to delve into a story they couldn’t cover on air. It may be used for product integration for an ad sales deal or to satisfy a business development deal between a network and a partner. Other times, a series may be leveraged to maintain engagement when the show is between seasons. All of these drivers are tied to the funding of the project and act as steering mechanisms, dictating guide rails that ensure the effort returns on the investment in one way or another.

Jay Williams, CEO of Legion of Creatives, recently produced a web series for AMC’s Walking Dead. He suggests that, “Each distributor has their own set of guidelines in terms of how this type of content is funded and deployed. In some instances, they pay for it directly or they might work with a brand partner who functions as a presenting sponsor. The same goes for planning, which is usually part of a broader strategic framework but can often happen ad hoc based on the defined objectives of a specific show or shows.” Legion’s creative process requires threading many departments together to weave an approach that both maintains creative integrity of the show, as well as strategically aligns with objectives. Typically, this process includes Williams and his business partner Noam Dromi, the showrunners, executive producers, writing staff, marketing departments, digital content teams, and possibly integrated marketing, business development or ad sales.

External funding is critical for premium digital series since the cost is not always factored into marketing or production budgets. (It’s typically considered ancillary content.) However a handful of networks do spend on digital content. Nathan Mayfield, CCO & Executive Producer of Hoodlum Entertainment’s and ABC’s Secrets and Lies and its digital series, Secrets and Lies: Cornell Confidential, speaks from experience. “Most broadcasters have a need to reach audiences across their other platforms so there is always some budget towards additional content,” he says. “The important thing is that the content is meaningful for your intended audience. That means it should always be planned when you are developing the show from the outset. Consequently, that content becomes something more valuable for your broadcaster to leverage with advertisers looking to speak to the same audience. If you think multiplatform from the outset, it means you are able to mobilize quickly to create content should an ad hoc opportunity arise.”

While this flexibility seems to be key for both funding and approach, one element remains true north for any of these projects—story. They all serve one master ultimately—the main on-air show from which they were derived. Bradner at Marvel notes, “We’ve done a number of different types of shows, some sponsored and some funded traditionally. Earlier and earlier in the development process, we’re examining how digital executions can extend and support the ‘mothership’ show. It’s always a part of the discussion.”

For Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot, producer Colo steered the project from the spark of an idea—the simple desire to do a derivative series—through the entire process, from EP buy-in to the writer’s room. Colo explains, “The creative aspects are no different in short form. Typically you still want to follow standard story structure. You just have less time to tell that story. For Slingshot, we formed our own writers’ room and followed the same creative process as our broadcast show.”

Even when the process is similar to broadcast production, it’s the story itself and the beats that get complicated, especially when a digital series comes out of nowhere and wasn’t planned for from the start of the season. Williams describes the details of the process: “There are numerous variables that go into determining the best creative direction for platform extensions. Each project we work on approaches the process organically. In the case of our work on The Walking Dead: Red Machete, the fandom’s ongoing discussion about the iconic weapon first used by the show’s lead character, Rick Grimes, a few seasons ago, created a narrative thread that our team was able to build upon. With guidance from the show’s creative brain trust, we integrated the machete into a stand-alone story line that could bring back characters from past seasons who were no longer on the main show.”

Mayfield is quick to point out it’s not just the writers’ room, but expectations of the viewer that also weigh on creative. “Depending on the show,” he explains, “the digital extensions should emulate how an audience is going to engage with the show and when they will choose to engage with the content—simultaneously, leading up to the episode, or simply housing conversations inspired by elements after they have watched an episode.”

It’s a balancing act for sure and one way or another, it requires buy-in from the writing staff. Mayfield confirms, “There is not a writers’ room that does not embrace the idea of digital extensions. Cornell Confidential was outstanding in this way. Showrunner, studio and network all embraced the digital content from the outset. It’s in the execution of these ideas where you see the true value of being one degree of separation from the writers of the show.”

Solving these story puzzles midstream is challenging to say the least, and it falls squarely to the experts, the writers and the producers. For Marvel, Bradner describes how the braintrust solved this matrixed issue in regards to Slingshot: “We got together with transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s showrunners (Jeffrey Bell, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen) and talked about the ‘three C’s’—concept, characters and continuity. [We looked at] continuity because this is a linear TV show and we needed to figure out when Slingshot would be released and how that would fit into the story from the main show. It just so happened we had this ‘pocket’ of time in-show that we could explore dramatically with one of our fan-favorite characters, Yo-Yo. Natalia Cordova-Buckley is such a talented actress and has this natural charisma that the moment she appeared on the show, fans wanted to know more about her. Slingshot was the perfect opportunity.”

Ideas can come from anywhere, but the more the ideas come from the producers of the main show, the better. Robin Benty, a digital producer who recently served as senior director for digital strategy and current programming at FOX, elaborates, “Sometimes a producer will come to the network with an idea for an extension. We love when it originates with a showrunner because it’s organic to the storytelling, so we go out of our way to try to bring it to fruition. I don’t know if producers understand that they do have power by controlling the creative in these extensions. At the network, it’s our job to work with the studio, evaluate the resources and determine if it fits within the marketing goals. Sometimes the network or studio pitches a concept to a showrunner based on what we know about the audience, the engagement we want to stimulate or a marketing angle we want to hit. The showrunner then takes those goals and creates a storyline that works within the world of the series.”

Left: The Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot team shoots on a
bluescreen set; right: cast member Luliette Lewis in
Secrets and
Lies: Cornell Confidential

But story is not the only challenge; just as important is time. Because most digital series are ad hoc, schedules for production teams are already locked. Benty explains, “Writers and EPs must first service the broadcast show, and these extensions definitely take a backseat if the main show requires their attention. The network and its partners on the extension must honor that.” Canning agrees, adding, “You can’t force this … and frankly, with current show production, there isn’t always the luxury of time or money to get the additional material created despite desire on the writer/producer’s part. This is where I have seen success in a digital writer/producer that works collaboratively with the writers’ room.”

This seems to be a growing need in television—the digital producer. They can be the glue that holds digital content opportunities together. Without them, there’s no ability to thread the needle, run the traps, nor facilitate and coordinate all the tasks required to steer a digital series around its “mothership.” Williams suggests, “First and foremost, the writers and EPs have to produce a great show. Digital extensions only have value if the core IP is something that engages audiences. Showrunners have a finite amount of time and resources to do their job, so we never want to get in their way with what we’re doing. That said, their perspective is invaluable to ensure that we’re remaining authentic and not creating materials that feel too marketing-focused at the expense of story. With both Walking Dead and Sleepy Hollow, we worked directly with creatives from the show who were dialed in to the long term creative blueprint developed in the writers’ room. Gaining the trust of the showrunner(s), producers and distributor is something that Legion of Creatives makes a top priority. These creatives and executives are trusting us to deliver a level of quality their fans have come to expect, and being able to deliver at that level is something we take very seriously.”

And while a digital producer may be critical to daily production, top-down buy-in from the executive producer(s) is the article of faith that makes the entire effort permissible. Most everyone agrees that while good ideas can come from anywhere, in order to maintain creative control over quality and integrity of story, digital series are always best run top-down with the showrunners involved and engaged. Mayfield agrees, observing, “The most effective digital extensions are always top-down, only that to navigate the approvals process and infrastructure within a broadcaster model you need to be selling up to the executives every step of the way, allaying fears or skeptics, embracing your champions and inspiring their sales teams to make it a viable revenue opportunity.”

That’s what all this effort is really about—engagement. Social media allows distribution of this content, along with the reaction to it, to be captured instantaneously. Williams explains, “Fan engagement provides important insights in this arena, since social media platforms allow them to make their feelings known in real time. That’s worth its weight in gold. At the same time, the emerging crop of showrunners is very digitally savvy and often comes to the table with great ideas from the start. Every IP holder, particularly those with serialized programs, must be focused on creating the foundational elements for a franchise story world with their shows, even if it only exists on digital platforms. With so many choices competing for their time, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is not a viable strategy. Expecting audiences to wait a week between episodes or six months to a year between seasons without feeding their appetite for supplementary content is unrealistic.”

So while all of this seems like an incredible amount of work to produce a scripted derivative digital series, it may just be the kind of content that is absolutely critical to maintain viewers in our fragmented and overcrowded TV ecosystem. Mayfield reflects on the value of it saying, “The key factor is to balance the spectacle with the meaningful. That is, the digital extensions need to draw on the talent from those producing and writing the TV show and then seek out the best talent who are experienced in delivering and executing content that is native to the platform it is living on. Most writers are so savvy in short form or social content, and for those that aren’t, they know it is at their own peril.”

With so many choices for viewers, getting their attention over and over again as they get distracted with everything from Words with Friends to the latest fake news, not to mention trying to peel them away from your competitor’s TV show, is a never-ending game of cat and mouse. And while the Amazons, Apples, Hulus and Netflixes of the world build better mousetraps, producers might just chip off a little of the cheese to offer viewers, keeping them on a straight and narrow path back to their TV show and out of the maze of content chaos.

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