Tag Archives: SyFy

how to make TV now (the “whole world” approach)


Natalie Chaidez is the show runner for Hunters (Mondays, 10:00 eastern, SyFy). Recently Sean Hutchinson asked her what she was aiming for.

Our idea of aliens is cliched, she replied. She wanted to “flip everything you think you know going into an alien series.”

Mission accomplished. The aliens on Hunters are not your standard-issue “monsters from outer space.” Monsters, yes, but complicated monsters. We can’t quite tell what they are up to. Bad stuff, yes. But the exact whathow and why of their monstrosity is unclear.

Chaidez explains:

I wanted to do something different. That led me to a neurologist from Brown University named Seth Horowitz, and he and I collaborated about the planet, their anatomy, and how they’d operate on earth. It gave it a level of originality because we approached it from the inside out.


Why did you want to dive in and be that thorough if most people won’t know those details?


Because it’s fun! But you also just want to know so it feels cohesive. 90 percent of the stuff Seth and I talked about will probably never make it into the show.

This is interesting because it breaks a cardinal rule of the old television. And this is do exactly as much as you must to fill the screen…and not a jot more. To invent a world and leave 90% of it un-shot, well, we can just imagine the reaction of a standard-issue producer.

“It’s my job to make sure shit like this never happens! [Wave cliche cigar in air for emphasis] Artists! You have to watch ’em every goddamn second!”

This is a parsimony rule of the kind that capitalism loves. No expenditure must ever be “excess to requirement.” Some producers are uncomplicated monsters. It’s their job to make sure that creative enterprises are starved of the resources necessary to turn popular culture into culture. It’s what they like to call their “fiduciary obligation.”

The parsimony rule helps explain that dizzying sensation we get when we go to a TV production or a film set, and notice how “thin” everything is. Not rock but papermache! Not an entire world but just enough of it. An universe made to go right to the edge of what the camera can see, and not an inch beyond.

What Chaidez and Horowitz have done goes completely beyond requirement. They made an entire world, much of which we will never see.


This could be a case of the recklessness of the new TV. With the rise of the showrunner, people are no longer making TV as half-hour sausages. They have bigger ambitions and sometimes bigger pretensions. Budgets will bloom!

Or is there something going on here?

I think the Chaidez-Horowitz approach, let’s call it the “whole world” approach, has several assumptions (each of which, if warranted, is a way to justify additional expenditure):

1. A pre-text is better than a “pretext”

Our standards of richness, complexity and subtlety on TV have risen. “Thin” TV is now scorned. We want our culture to feel fully realized and in the case of the story telling, this means that we want the story to feel as if it predates the production. Novelists are good at this. But TV, ruled by cigar-waving producers, has been less good. Too often, the story world feels served up. Something tells us that it will disappear the moment the narrative has moved on, that it will cease the moment the camera is sated.  (For the pre-text impulse in the worlds of computers and cuisine, see my post of Steve Jobs and Alice Waters and their “exquisite choice” capitalism.)

2. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan interest

When we sense that the showrunner has taken a whole world approach, we engage. Shafts of light show through. We begin to try to construct the whole world from the available evidence. (We used to do this at the Harvard Business School. We would give students pieces of the spread sheet which they would then reconstruct.)

The “whole world” approach is a great way of turning viewers into fans. The moment we detect a whole world behind the narrative, we rouse ourselves from couch potato status and begin to examine faint signals very carefully. What does this stray remark tell us? If X, then we can assume the larger world looks like this. But if Y, we can construct something altogether different. (Remember when Star Trek viewers began to map the ship. The showrunners were astonished.) This is astounding engagement, one that every showrunner dreams of. And all we have to do, it turns out, is engage in complete acts of invention instead of “good enough for television” ones. And “good enough for television” (aka “partial world” TV) is a place no one wants to live anymore. It’s always less than the sum of its parts. That way lies creative entropy and fan discouragement.

3. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan fiction

Whole worlds made available in shafts of light invite something more than engagement. They say to the transmedia fan, “here’s a place to start. Make this glimpse your point of departure. Or that one.” Whole worlds make a thousand flowers bloom. And this too is the stuff of showrunner fantasy. To have fans who love your work so much they seek to invent more of it. To make work so provocative it sends fans racing to their key board, can there be any greater compliment? There is a whole world paradox, too. It says “the more complete your world, the more worlds it will help birth.”

4 a “whole world” approach is generative of transmedia

As Henry Jenkins has helped us see, transmedia is that extraordinary creation in contemporary culture where certain stories are so prized, they attract many authors. Eventually, the “one true text” gives way to a story that lives in all its variations, on all its media.  Now that our whole world is generating lots of fan fiction, it has like William Gibson’s Mona Lisa, slipped the confines of a single medium and put out into a vastly larger imaginative universe. Another paradox then. World worlds give rise to an entire universe. No, our cigar chomping producer cannot “monitize” all these variations but really that’s no longer the point. This will come…but if and only if you make something that our culture decides is worthy of its contributions. The life of a cultural “property” depends as Jenkins, Ford and Green say, on the willingness of the fan to distribute it. But as I was laboring to say yesterday, it also depends on the willingness of the fan to contribute to it.

It’s hard to write this post and not think how much it evokes the spirit of USC. First, there’s Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the USC Annenberg School. Then there’s Geoffrey Long, recently appointed Creative Director for the World Building Media Lab at USC. Geoffrey is my guru when it comes to the question of building worlds. And just today, I got the very good news that Robert V. Kozinets has been appointed the Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair in Strategic Public Relations and Business Communication at USC.

I am sometimes asked where people should go to study contemporary culture. Now I know.

Two New Rules for TV story-telling (aka things to learn from Being Human)

being human

Let’s begin here:

My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.

The cause?  That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.

Being Human is a great case study.

This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural.  A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.

It is a show is riddled with implausibilities.  Characters skip around in time and space.  They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.

And the viewer doesn’t care.  (At least this viewer doesn’t.)  The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere.   Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.

The key is good acting.  Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety.  With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”

There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl.  .  This is billed as a supernatural crime drama.  It too is stuffed with implausibility.  Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells.  For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

And the difference is largely acting.  The actors on Lost Girl are not bad.  They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.

This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie.  I found myself shouting at the TV,

“Oh, who the f*ck cares!  The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem.  Get on with it.  Spare us the pointless exposition.”

(Yes, it’s true.  I shout in point form.  It’s a Powerpoint problem.  I’m getting help.  It’s called Keynote.)

New Rule # 1

The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.

If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting.  If this means paying your actors more, pay them more.  Actors are everything.  Well, after the writers.  And the show runners.  Um, and the audience.  But you see what I mean.

And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV.  The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible).  Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP.  (The Being Human actors are attractive.  They just aren’t model perfect.)

This rule created a trade off.  Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors.  Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty.  As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway.  Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.

Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative.  Wooden performances can kill great writing.  But real beauty exacts a second price.  There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”

In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented.  In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent.  But here’s the new rule.

New Rule # 2

Do not choose beauty over talent.  Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show.  Now that work is performed by talent.  It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter.  Seek attractive actors.  But beauty will never matter more than talent.  Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty.  Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.

Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable.  What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise?  On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.

A change is taking place in our culture.  And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry .  Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work.  And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work.  What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.

As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes.  Watch this space.

Tweeting television (now locked in a box)

spreadable-media-libro-71784I have a friend who believes  every article, post, tweet he needs to read will come to him every day by new media.

And he’s right.  We  act as editors for one another.  We see something, we say something…on Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, LinkedIn and elsewhere.

But he’s  wrong.  I bet he misses things.  I know I do.  Plus, some things can’t get into new media.  They just don’t.

Take TV.  We watch a lot of TV.  And my Netflix research winter tells me that we watch this TV with new attention to detail and a deep inclination to talk about it.  We find favorite scenes, brilliant bits of acting, very special effects, but all of this remains locked in the box.  It just isn’t  “spreadable,” to use the language of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Josh Green.  (That’s their book cover above.  Highly recommended. Forgive the Italian subtitle.  Buy the book here.)

This is a classic case of the old media failing to seize the opportunities opened up by new media.  Imagine how many of the shows that failed this fall season might have made it if their early fans could have got the word out.

What we need is some tech overlay that makes clipping and sharing easy and possible.  Build it into the remote control.  Put on an IN button and an OUT button and a CLIP button and a SHARE button.

I am sure there are legal issues here, but I am equally certain Lawrence Lessig  or Jonathan Zittrain could sort them out over lunch time.  The copy right holders are, after all, deeply incented to permit the passage of small clips.  Permit?  What Jenkins, Ford and Green say about spreadable media, applies especially to every new season of television.  If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.

In the meantime, we can resort to efforts of our own.  Here’s a clip from one of my favorite shows, Being Human.  This is Sally, a ghost, explaining how she intends to protect the house from sale.  (Remember, she’s a ghost and therefore invisible to  mortals.)

I shot this with my iPhone.  Something less that stellar quality.  But good enough for the  internet, as they say.   Some people are put off by Being Human because it’s on SyFy (they don’t like science fiction) or because the show has such a weird premise (the creatures “being human” are a ghost, a vampire, and a ghost).  But I think this scene takes us beyond odd premises into the heart of the show.  Several “barriers to entry” fall.  SyFy wants this clip to click.

God knows, we have quite a lot of content circulating on line.  The numbers are simply breathtaking.  But the fact of the matter is that TV preoccupies us.  And it’s getting better.  As it stands, this part of our culture is excluded from the conversation.  This should change.

Brands Being Human

Subaru is doing great work for the SyFy’s  Being Human.  Here’s one example:

This is an insider ad.  You have to know the show to get what’s happening.  These are werewolves.  They’ve gone into the woods to “turn.”  The brand has found the spirit of the show and “had a little fun with it.”  Romantic feeling is imposed on something that will shortly turn nasty and violent.  Clever.  And this is absolutely in the spirit of Being Human which plays with genre expectation constantly and well.

Here is Being Human in action.  In this scene, Sally, the ghost, discovers that her house is up for sale and she decides to discourage home buyers with a ghostly trick.  Ooooooooooo!  In this scene, remember, she is invisible.

Generally speaking, Subaru has done a great job claiming a nest of companionable, cozy, domestic meanings for the brand.  It has attached itself to “family” as well as any brand in the biz.  (And that’s saying something, considering that so many brands are trying to make this connection.) Recall the Subaru ads that feature dogs aging and kids practicing for their driver’s license.  This is great work but it may leave the Subaru brand defined as something perhaps a little too domestic and of-this-world.

The Being Human work manages this problem beautifully.  A brand that verges on the humble and everyday becomes suddenly exotic and even daring.  The Subaru meanings expand wonderfully.

Notice how elegantly this is accomplished.  The Being Human work is site-specific and exists, in effect, only for the Being Human audience.  There is no danger  that the broader Subaru market will see this work and no danger that it will transform their “cosy” associations with the brand.  This is brand surgery.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is the opposite of product placement.  Instead of jamming the product into the show, the show is allowed to find its way into the “brandscape,” to use John Sherry’s term.  And both the show and the brand profit.

Product placement is often an absolute tax on a show.  You know that moment when the appearance of the product suspends your suspension of disbelief.  You might as well stop watching and thousands no doubt do.  I don’t care how much the show makes from product placement.  In many cases, the artistic price is too high.  Plus, as a strategy, this is just plain dumb.  It says in effect, “People aren’t watching our ads! Ok, so let’s force them to look at the product!  We’ll make them watch us!”  You’ll make them watch you?  This is your idea of persuasion.  This is your idea of managing meanings? Really?

There’s another Subaru ad for Being Human that feels, to me, less successful.  It shows three actors acting like characters from the show.  See it here:

This execution feels wrong to me and it serves I think as a useful test of where this strategy can work and where it fails.  When the ad is merely leveraging the creative original, it feels like a pale imitation and it provokes, I think, a relative loss of value.  By which I mean, more is taken from the show than is returned to it.  The brand is merely exploiting the dramatic riches of Being Human and not taking possession of them for larger creative play.  In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot, “bad poets borrow, good poets steal.” This spot borrows where the first one steals.  This is not as bad as product placement but it isn’t a lot better.

Carmichael Lynch, the agency in question, has done great things for Subaru.  There is a cultural sensitivity at work here that really is exceptional.  And our opening “werewolf” ad breaks new ground.  Letting the brand out to play in an ad, in this way, is to let the brand out to play in the world.  And this is one of those cases, where brand and ad are working together, borrowing meanings from one another, to their mutual benefit.   Both brand and show get bigger, richer, and more interesting.

But what might be more remarkable is the fact that the Carmichael Lynch work takes Subaru almost no other automotive brand is prepared to go.  This is daring.  It is clever.  It participates in popular culture.  It makes the brand a living, breathing presence in the life of the consumer and our culture.  It takes the brand a little closer to being human.


Dean Evans, CMO, Subaru

I am hoping Carmichael Lynch will send me names of the creative team so that I can give them a mention for this really exemplary work.  Watch this space.

Being Human, US and UK versions

I am a big fan of Being Human, the US version, that recently appeared on SyFy.  

It’s a wonderful “what if.”

What if there was a vampire, werewolf, and a ghost living in a house together?  I have to say that my initial response was puzzlement.  As in, “um, er, I don’t know. What would happen if they lived together?”

Some part of the show comes from how well the producers work out the “what if” in a manner that satisfies my sense of the plausible and takes me places I never would have guessed.  Being Human works a productive balance between “oh, that makes sense to me” and “wow, how interesting!”  

The new media consumer is especially fond of things that satisfy a sense of the plausible and the possible.  (We get to keep a foot in the familiar and one in the new.)  Managing both is key…and difficult.  (I was able to predict the death of The Good Guys early because it was clear it could not find this balance.) 

When Pam got me Apple TV for my recent birthday, I was thrilled to see that it contained BBC America and that this contained Being Human, the UK version.

What a delicious opportunity to consume what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia,” one story told in more than a single form.  (I know someone is going to object that both shows are TV and this is not transmedia. Saying that British and American TV are the same medium is like saying British and American football are the same game.)  This transmedia opportunity is sweetened by the fact that the media in question are transatlantic. With their special relationship, the UK and US continue to be, for certain purposes, variations on a theme. How interesting then to see what these two cultures would do with the same cultural artifact. 

The first thing to notice is a bit stunning.  In the old regime, the American version of a transatlantic exercise would feature actors who were more beautiful and less talented. This is NOT what is happened in the case of Being Human.  The UK actors are better looking and the US actors might actually be the better actors.  (They may be tied on the acting question.) 

This tells us that American TV is getting better or at least ballsier.  Not to lead with beauty, or (to think of this as the trade-off it probably it was) to go with talent even when it costs you beauty, that’s a big shift for an American culture producer.  

The second point is harder to assess.  Being Human uses diversity to propel itself out of genre.  By this time, we have a pretty good idea of what and who vampires are.  Indeed, the genre is starting to congeal and now takes quite deliberate innovations (True Blood) to sustain life (all puns intended).  Ghosts too.  As a culture we have gone from having no idea what a ghost is to having a pretty clear script.  (Blame Whoopi) Goldberg.  Werewolves, not so much. 

So Being Human has a built-in “refresh” feature.  Just as we are beginning to think “been there, done that” about any one of the subgenres, we are obliged to follow the story line as it crosses these subgenres.  Or, less abstractly, just as we are thinking “vampires, yawn” we are obliged to watch a vampire interact with a werewolf and then a ghost.  New life returns to the vampire.  (ditto).  And definition comes to the werewolf.   

In effect, Being Human is an interesting and successful TV series because it is not the product of the grammar that comes from genre.  It is interesting and successful because it contains a grammar that helps it escape genre.  It is not generated but generative.  Being Human contains the secret that characterizes all the culture we care about these days.  It is both familiar and unpredictable, both from genre and beyond genre.  

Being Human, Being Jenkinsian

I watched the opening episode on Being Human on SyFy this week.

The fun thing about science and fantasy fiction is that you never know which of the assumptions that govern your world will be reconstituted in the present one.  And even once you’ve spotted the difference(s), it’s still hard to anticipate what differences the difference(s) will make.

This is distinctly the pleasure of Being Human.  You can’t guess, beyond the obvious things, how vampires, werewolves and ghosts will coexist, and its fun to wait to see this play out.  The ghost (and the actress who plays her, Meaghan Rath) is especially interesting because she is still figuring out how to be a ghost and divides her time, in the meanwhile, between being a busy body around the house, and wailing, properly, at the sheer injustice of her fate.

Shake well.  Repeat as necessary.

Putting a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a house is interesting.  Putting this vampire, werewolf and ghost even more so.  It’s not that this has ever been for me a matter of burning curiosity, as in “I wonder what would happen if…”  But it makes a diverting pretext on which to sharpen on our wits.

Because we don’t just sit there.  We are Jenkinsians.  We are hunting and gathering the simple where, what, and who.  We are also working out the back stories.  (It turns out the werewolf is Jewish and that woman we thought was his girlfriend is actually his sister.  To know something about this family makes what we may think about his identity as a werewolf richer and more interesting.  I mean, otherwise, he’s just a one trick pony, er, werewolf.)   And we are performing a kind of cultural Sudoku.  If this is true, and this is true, we tell ourselves, then this is probably true.

The cultural participant, the Jenkinsian observer, is looking for 5 things:

1)  What are the differences that create this little world?  (And have they been well chosen?)

2)  What differences do these differences make?  (How will this play out?  I will want to be rewarded for my perspicuity, what there is of that.  And I will want to be rewarded by developments I couldn’t possibly anticipate, that will thrill me in the unfolding.)

3)  What is the field of possibility? (What am I given as background and back story?  And what can I do with them?  How rich and engaging a field is this?)

4)  What can I assume, reliably and speculatively?  (Given what I am given and can surmise from questions 1, 2 and 3, what is my own invented Being Human.  This is where the cultural Sudoku comes in.)

5)  Has the world been successfully jumbled?  Have things been brought into collisions that are normally kept asunder, and does their combination deliver present, and promise future, interesting, outcomes?

6)  Oh, there’s a 6th.  I think we are looking at each of these characters and asking "what would it be like to be like that?"  

This is the unofficial viewer’s guide with which I watch Being Human and probably any show. We are active viewers, digging, poaching, reworking, creating, empathizing, as we go.


Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The MIT Press.

Post script: I hope Henry, my esteemed colleague, will forgive me taking liberty with his ideas and his name.  This idea was buzzing around in my head, and I had a 50 minutes to turn it into words on the train.