Friday, 17 October 2008

Is TV programming a not-so-distant cousin of ARGs? (part II)

Bees on TV

Three days ago I started a discussion on how Alternate Reality Games resemble Television Programming. In the previous post I summarised Jane McGonigal's dissertation about collective intelligence gaming, giving some examples from the famous ARG called I Love Bees.

McGonigal presented the three stages of a CI-based ARG: collective cognition, cooperation and coordination (check previous post for reference).

1. Collective Cognition on TV:

Collective cognition is the collection, compilation and analysis of content, parts of a deconstructed narrative. The process of creating TV brand awareness requires similar actions. But instead of displaying fragments of a game storyline, the pieces are a series of messages forming a thread towards the consumption of the product itself. By messages I mean any touch point viewers have with the channel or programme brands, such as:
  • On-air promos (trails)
  • On-line promos (from online adverts to viral campaigns)
  • Off-air promos (billboards, magazines ads…)
  • TV Guides
  • EPGs/IPGs
  • Public Relations
  • The TV Channel
  • The Channel's TV programmes
Just like the story fragments and clues in ARGs, these brand touch points are massively distributed, and viewers have to be exposed to a certain frequency in order to take action and tune in. People will get the information from different message sources and eventually sample the channel or the show. But this is not the ultimate puzzle. This is just the beginning.

To make things easier keep one thing in mind: in this game, the goal is to develop better programming that matches perfectly the taste of the audiences.

During this phase, people exchange information. They exchange viral videos, they tell the rest of the family to shut up when the cool promo starts to air, they talk to each other about the show in a watercooler effect,

2. Cooperation on TV:

In the previous post I said "In the next stage, players presented their own hypothesis to the group of players, asking for feedback, collaboration and refinement of ideas."

At his stage people already had contact with the TV brand touch points, they've been exposed to the messages with a considerable frequency, and they have sampled the channel or the show. The engagement to a show may occur in different levels: some viewers become active fans, whilst other passively watch the show in the quietness of their homes. Fans like to share their enthusiasm with people with similar interests, so they go to online message boards, share their opinions about episodes, try to crack spoilers and sometimes even make suggestions for further plot unfoldments. Passive viewers stay at home, and a considerable part of them are the ones to push the buttons of Barb/Nielsen peoplemeters.

Meaningful amibiguity derives from the myriad of opinions about the show and it's materialised in the shape of online forum posts and audience measurement statistics. Media planners can understand the audience collective preferences looking at TV ratings, as well as establish a direct dialogue throught online message boards.

Online forum posts and TV Ratings are the cooperative materials for the next stage of this game.

3. Coordination on TV:

Ambiguity also applies to the Media planner side, as TV programming is instrinsically open-ended. Media planners (or Puppet Masters, if you like) never know for sure how the game is gonna end. Will people watch my shows? Will they tune in the channel?

Perhaps, the definite puzzle here is do enough people care about the show to keep it from being cancelled?

Similiar to ARGs, but not so in real-time, TV also applies constant re-design. Ratings give quantitive clues, whilst online posts are good for qualitative insights (sometimes focus groups, when there is time and money). The re-design can be made in three fronts:
  • Placement: Puppet Masters, oops, Media planners can re-schedule shows, changing positions, trying to embrance a larger audience;
  • Promotion: Media planners can boost promotion, trying to attract those laggards who couldn't put the pieces together fast enough in phase 1 (or who just didn't care about the approach).
  • Aggregation: The ultimate re-design tool. If it's a show: changes in the script, sometimes killing a character. If it's a channel: cancellation of the show, aquisition of better programming.

Naïve bees on TV

I'm not naive enough not to see that the participatory level of viewers in the TV game happens almost unsconsciusly. Audiences don't watch shows in an conscious effort to guarantee the next season.

So I'd say the main differences between ARGs and TV are:
  • The consciousness thing: in ARGs participation leads to a conscious result. Unless you take the TINAG (This Is Not A Game) aesthetic this far. If you do, TV is more ARG then ever.
  • Real-time re-design: some live shows can change due to minute-by-minute ratings, but in most cases, re-design at the aggregation level happens from season to season, unless your channel happens to be the producer. Some promotion or placement changes may be taken in a shorter timeframe.
  • Full collectivity: actually I've just changed my mind about this one. I was going to say that peoplemeters only measure a small sample of the audience, whilst all players in an ARG directly contribute to the C.I. But this is not true, viewers without peoplemeters in their homes or who don't post in online forums are just like regular ARG lurkers. They just watch the action, but don't actually take part in it.
So far I've compared ARGs to traditional TV programming. OK, except from some bits on internet communication. In this case, the internet only makes dialogue easier. However, I believe that there are more relevant innovations that can bring collective intelligence games closer to TV programming.

Think of when elaborate recommendation systems like Amazon's reach TV (I know TiVo's been playing with it for some time now). When all viewers are connected to some sort of internet TV, potentially, the accuracy in metrics will burst through the roof. When this huge amount of opinions are processed it forms a collective intelligence able to deliver the perfect programming for each one of the viewers. I'm talking about addressable content, where people receive a personalised bouquet of shows, based on their own preferences.

The irony in this is that the very perfectly individualised recommendation can only be delivered by a collective knowledge system.

Bees are collectively intelligent and have a hive mind

Collective intelligence goes a long way within the TV domain. In terms of media economics, we are starting to live the platform era. Not hardware, not software, but platforms. Think of facebook apps, iphone apps and Google adsense ( I'll cover this subject in detail in some other post). Now think digital TV as a platform, as a YouTube on steroids, where people can actually produce content together. This could lever new forms of participation.

Well, or perhaps I'm just tripping out here. Coincidently, the postman just dropped off my copy of Pierre Lévy's Collective Intelligence. Hopefully, I haven't butchered his theory in this post. I'll let you know after I read it.

Have a good weekend
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