Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Syfy to Release New Series about the Cylon War in Belches rather than Episodes

I don't normally post about movies or series that are in development, especially early on in the process, because there are too many obstacles that can pop up to delay or entirely derail them. But once in a while... And this is one of those instances, where a tidbit that's just too tasty to pass up (and one that fits with the theme of most of my recent posts) has come to my attention:

The Chicago Tribune was reporting the other day that Syfy (the US science fiction specialty channel) will be developing a new series about the Battlestar Galactica universe's first Cylon War, called Blood & Chrome. (The story was also picked up by Syfy's own site, Blastr. Thanks also to Steve who caught the story when it hit and promptly drew my attention to it.)

The story will focus on the adventures of young William "Husker" Adama. The intent is to give the series a feeling of realism similar to contemporary war movies like The Hurt Locker, according to BSG and Caprica co-executive producer Michael Taylor, who will be writing the script for B&C.

That's the good news. Frakin' great news, as a matter of fact!

The bad news, though, is that it's going to be an online series consisting of nine or ten webisodes, each lasting only nine or ten minutes.

Now, I've got no problem with a series being run entirely online as opposed to on TV (as long as the Syfy site doesn't block viewers from outside the US from accessing the content, as those of us in Canada frequently find out when trying to watch web content on the sites of US networks).

What I do have a problem with is the new programming/writing/producing philosophy of micro episodes. I hate the misconception that more and more media are adopting these days (and I say this as someone who used to work in the media) that viewers/listeners/readers have the attention span of fruit flies. That consumers have the ability and the will to change channels to other programming is less a testament to their ability to focus on a single topic than it is of the weakness of the programmed content that's fed to them. When you've got good storytelling, as BSG and Caprica have excelled at, and when you've got a pre-existing loyal demographic, which is the case here, having been built by the quality of the afore-mentioned shows, then people will come to your site and watch long-form content. Hell, they'll expect it. Because long-form content for a drama like BSG or any of its spinoffs is invariably more entertaining, more challenging, and more satisfying than a quick hit can be.

You might point out that the success of the special BSG webisodes (the story about life under the Cylon occupation of New Caprica, and the one about Gaeta and Boomer) proved the viability of the micro programming choice, in terms of delivering storytelling and attracting the audience. To be fair, the webisodes were good stories - taken together as complete stories, that is. Individually, each webisode was a tantillizing but somewhat jarring and disjointed chunk. After a couple, I decided to stop watching them and hold off until they were finished and available to watch back-to-back, thereby creating a full-length episode. Comparitively, the viewing experience was far better watching them all together, and I think that's the case for any story involving a collection of scenes - they work better together than independently. Think about it, if you had to watch one of your favourite BSG episodes for the first time, let's say the pilot miniseries (which, admittedly, due to long feature length was broken up into two or three episodes initially, but each presented enough of the story to count in this example, I think) or "Pegasus" or "Razor" or "Final Cut" or any of a dozen others, would you rather watch them as single, full-length episodes, or diced up into little pieces and spoon-fed to you over weeks or months? I'd venture to guess that most people would probably join me in wanting the whole thing in one sitting.

You might also suggest that short webisodes may not be too different than the 7-10 minute segments we already get between commercial breaks in a normal hour of television. But I think there's a crucial difference in the effect on the storytelling if one makes an audience wait 2-5 minutes until the commercials end, versus a week or more between shotglass-sized webisodes. If you're only breaking for a commercial, some of the installments can have a slower pace and focus on character development, moments of reflection, or even the odd scene shot. Having a full-length episode that's only broken by commercials allows conversations, debates and moments of high drama to continue and develop on themselves. Even action is better in a longer format, because a commercial break usually isn't enough to significantly interrupt mounting tension. Let's step outside of BSG for a second and look back to just over a decade ago to the other greatest feat of drama in television history: Babylon 5. Can you imagine having to wait a week or more to see episodes like "Comes the Inquisitor", or "Shattered Dreams", or "Into the Fire", or "Intersections in Real Time" spoon-fed to you 9 minutes at a time? There's no way the tension could be sustained. Taylor is promising lots of cliff-hangers in B&C, but really, when they've only got 9 minutes at a shot, they've got to create an experience so intense that people will have to come back the next week, but then they'll have to start with another blast to reinforce that what the audience has been waiting for will be worth it, and the end result is that all the writers will be giving us is a series of cliffhangers, rather than subtler, but no less meaningful dramatic developments and character moments. The writers will, in effect, be trying to FORCE FEED US A STORY THAT'S ALL IN CAPS. Nobody wants to read extensive blocks of text that are all in caps (except newscasters, that is), and I'd certainly get tired of the visual equivalent after a while. That's the JJ Abrams I'm-gonna-make-Trek-into-Armageddon-for-the-ADD-generation way of doing things, not the BSG way of telling a story that people will care about in the long run.

So are the folks at Syfy planning on serving-up spitball-sized additions of the BSG franchise only because they've bought into the myth of the short attention span? No, I think there's more at work. The reason is to force us, as viewers, to visit their site more often, thereby strengthening their brand and, more importantly, getting more exposure for ads on their site and thus increasing their ad revenue. Money talks and daggitshit walks, fellow fanboys and fangirls.

And wanting to make a buck is fine with me. But there are better ways of getting us to come to their site, like exclusive bonus material, live interviews with opportunities for fans to ask questions, contesting, or investing in the production of more full-length, well-written webisodes - 1-2 hour webcast productions like Razor or The Plan - that will inspire greater fan appreciation.

The problem Syfy doesn't seem to understand is there's nothing to prevent me, as a viewer who prefers the longer format, from waiting until the full web series has played out, then going to their site once and once only to watch all the webisodes back-to-back - just like I did with the BSG webisodes. That way, they only got one hit out of me, which doesn't do their sales department any good when trying to up the rate card with advertisers. Or, I could wait and buy it on DVD or Blueray or whatever - again, not seeing much of the ads 'cause I'd skip or fast-forward through them or go get a pop or something. Or, and this does the network no good, I could download it off of a free torrent site where some other kind soul has probably already gone to the effort of editing the epis together seemlessly and without ads.

If Syfy wants audiences to get the story from them directly and on their terms (including exposure to ads), they ought to be doing a better job by producing full-lenth episodes rather than visual belches.
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