Bridget Jones: Cross-Platform Programming
Jan 20, 2015: In 2000, I was tasked with creating the convergent platform strategy for “Bridget Jones.” I was heading Entertainment for <kpe> Europe, an American digital agency responsible for building Channel 4’s e4.com. <kpe> was managing the digital properties/extensions for the book. The movie had yet to be released. It was an exciting project that not only challenged traditional tenets of storytelling but also gave us the chance to boost audience engagement, brand equity and revenues.
What’s the point of cross-platform programming? Standaone properties in each of the media – film, TV, Internet and mobile devices – that are not integrated and fail to feed off of each other pose a missed opportunity. Integrated media may unify and greatly enhance brand equity and present new opportunities for advertising, sponsorship, subscription and e-commerce. With regard to Bridget Jones, we intended to not only distribute content across multiple platforms but also exploit the property across multiple channels – online and off.
Why resurrect a project from 15 years ago? In Internet time, is this not ancient history?
At the time, we were striving for “convergent programming” – now known as transmedia or multi- / cross-platform entertainment. By exploring the process of extending traditional content – books, films and TV – into digital properties, we began to ask questions that are as relevant today. Technology was lagging behind content in 2000. Not only were the pipes small but few people had broadband. Imagine waiting for minutes to download a large image or watch a 5-second video.
Technology has caught up if not leaped ahead of storytelling. Oculus may sell thousands of VR headsets, but if there’s no content for a next-generation user experience, virtual reality remains on the shelf.
THE CHALLENGE: HOW TO MAP TRADITIONAL CONTENT TO A CONVERGENT PLATFORM AND CREATE A CROSS-PLATFORM PROPERTY?
What we want to explore in this blog is not a formulaic solution but a way of thinking. How do you expand a linear narrative into a multi-platform property and incorporate interactivity?
In the case of Bridget Jones, it was a two-fold task. First, the novel (keep in mind that the movie was still in the pipeline) had to be dramatized, which meant the source material had to be activated or shaped via the language of action. The dramatized content then needed to be structured so as to capitalize on the advantages of cross-platform programming. To drill down into the Bridget Jones story, we engaged in a step-by-step process as follows:
- Define the world of Bridget Jones (in the novel)
- Identify strong throughlines of dramatic action in the material
- Track the rising action of each throughline
- Isolate a single beat/episode of a throughline and develop convergent programming to enhance the action as well as the user experience
- Create a functional prototype of a single beat as proof of concept
STEP 1 – THE TENTACLES OF THE BRIDGET JONES UNIVERSE
What is the Bridget Jones universe? We deconstructed the story and zeroed in on its main components – characters, conflicts, events, etc. In a fun and funny way, Bridget Jones is a fish-out-of-water story. A single fish is out of its element in the married world, and vice versa. This duality in which these two worlds were at odds could serve cross platform programming. Online audiences could pick sides – choose to be in the Singleton camp or the Married faction. Another duality was the juxtaposition of Bridget’s internal world – the diary – and her single (external) lifestyle. Some observations were:
- Tension between the dual worlds – Singletons and Marrieds – fueled conflict and comedy
- Clear pockets within each world established setting, tone, pace, characters and problems (dramatic situations)
- Dual worlds were porous and fluid – i.e., characters easily crossed the divide between the worlds
- Complexity emerged due to the diffferences between ‘what seems’ and ‘what is’
STEP 2 – IDENTIFY THROUGH-LINES
Bridget’s relationships within the dual worlds consisted of narrative ‘threads’. These threads had to be pulled out from the novel and then dramatized. From a dramatic standpoint, certain threads were stronger than others. The strong threads could be shaped/used for TV or film. Weaker threads could be strengthened by adding key dramatic elements – i.e., boosting the given set of circumstances – and distributing this content across multiple platforms.
STEP 3 – TRACK RISING ACTION TO FIND POINTS OF ENTRY OR TRIGGERS
“Experience is always an amalgam of premeditated ideas, and insisting on authenticity may not be sincere anymore… (on the other hand)…. If the idea exists before the image is made…people see only that. Things are more delicate than that; I want to give people points of entry.” Wolfgang Tillmans, artist
A balance must be struck between the pre-recorded (traditional programming) and the spontaneous (interactive programming). At what point do you turn over the author’s role to the user?
Where lie the points of entry – TRIGGERS for a call to action from the user – in a narrative that allow for a convergent platform? Please note that we envisioned Bridget Jones as a TV show and therefore based our assumptions on traditional episodic structure.
- For each throughline, track the rising action and shape the material into a series of episodes
- Within each episode, determine the given set of circumstances – setting, problem, character need, why now? – and the dramatic question – the cliffhanger that leaves an audience wondering what will happen next?
- Figure out where traditional and interactive programming weave together and why – at what plot point can we break away from the narrative and not lose the power of the story and, in fact, enhance it?
- Given the episodic structure, determine how back-and-forth undulation between traditional and interactive programming can be achieved through feedback loops between the audience and the show writers
STEP 4 – ISOLATE A SINGLE THREAD AND BEAT FOR A PROTOTYPE
Once you track the rising action – the arc – of a throughline, you can figure out where to break into traditional linear narrative and introduce an interactive component. In many respects, a traditional TV show does it for you already. Because the audience is left with a cliffhanger at episode end, the writer opens the door to a spectrum of outcomes. The cross-platform component can take advantage of that opened door and feed upon the mystery. Between TV shows, the interactive component then becomes the glue, creating a feedback loop between audiences and the show’s characters and events.
The more important question is once you receive audience feedback, what do you do with it? How do you incorporate a user’s choices into your programming?
Deepening audience engagement, building community and extending the dramatic tension during the 11th hour is the primary goal of the feedback loop.
Our thoughts on feedback loops via multi-platform programming were as follows:
- Writers can choose whether to go with the audience input or defy the audience – note: either way, the audience is more involved in the dramatic narrative
- Possibly incorporate audience feedback subtly in the narrative through actual use of audience language on the Web site or SMS in the show’s dialogue
- On a single-screen interactive TV, the audience feedback can be shown beneath BJ’s action as running commentary and advice
- TV writers and audience can develop a relationship as well – both sides can battle for control of the narrative (illusory only, but illusion is powerful – it’s a cheat)
- Avoid the necessity of audience feedback to determine plot points
- Point-and-click interactive storytelling is not the goal of this concept
Based on these steps, we were aiming to build a functional prototype – a TV pilot and the interactive components – revolving around the world of Bridget Jones. In the 15 years that have passed, multi-platform programming has evolved and is fast-becoming the norm. As creative media artists in today’s hyper-connected world, we’re concerned with the nuts and bolts – the how-to’s – of creating cross-platform properties, and some of the old discoveries still apply.
– J Dakota Powell