Suzanne Stefanac, Nick DeMartino, AFI Digital Content Lab
Tomorrow and Friday (November 8th-9th), the American Film Institute Digital Content Lab will hold its annual interactive media showcase, the AFI DigiFest (formerly known as the AFI Digital Content Festival), at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Linwood-Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
The first day of the DigiFest will feature a series of curated presentations that highlight noteworthy digital productions from around the world that debuted over the past year. The presentations will include a preview of "Quarterlife," a new broadband video series from "thirtysomething" creators, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, that will premiere on MySpace.com on November 11th. The preview will be presented by Herskovitz himself. Other presenters will include winners of the 2007 Primetime Emmy Awards for Interactive Television, Current TV's president of new media, Joanna Drake Earl, and "Fallen Alternate Reality Game" creator, Matt Wolf.
The DigiFest's second day will feature five new prototypes that have been incubated in the Digital Content Lab (note: the prototypes were all conceived and produced at the Lab in collaboration with mentors drawn from high-profile interactive design and production companies): an online video platform and citizen journalist toolkit for PBS's weekly investigative news program, "Now"; a strategy for retaining viewer interest during ads in a DVR environment, that was developed for Bravo's "Top Chef"; a multiplatform, interactive social network for "Players," a new documentary about video game fans that is being produced by MTV, EA and Mekanism; a pilot for an original dramatic machinima series, created within a 3D game engine; and a user-generated film contest, dubbed "Filmocracy," that was developed for ITVS. (Note: the full line-up of AFI DigiFest presentations and showcases is available here: http://www.itvt.com/afidcl07-lineup.pdf.)
The Digital Content Lab's new director, interactive TV industry veteran Suzanne Stefanac, and the Lab's founder, the AFI's SVP of media and technology, Nick DeMartino, recently spoke to [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow about the upcoming DigiFest, about a new multiyear sponsorship deal the Digital Content Lab has secured with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, about current trends in interactive media, about the ongoing importance of storytelling, about future plans for the Lab, and much more. The transcript of that interview is below, together with audio clips from an earlier interview with Stefanac, in which she discussed, among other things, her background in interactive TV and her plans for the Digital Content Lab.
[itvt]: Nick, you were responsible for hiring Suzanne, correct? Could you tell us a little bit about the events leading up to that decision?
DeMartino: I literally was a day back from my vacation a year ago last August, and [former AFI Digital Content Lab director] Marsha Zellers called and said, "I need 10 minutes of your time." I said, "I'm really jammed up today. I'm just back from vacation. Can we have lunch on Friday and catch up?" She said, "No. We can't." And I thought, "Oh God!"
So anyway, she let me know that she'd made plans to move on, and she gave me a fair amount of notice--maybe five or six weeks. But even so, I spent the whole weekend kind of bummed out. Even though we have a headhunter and could have gone that route and advertised the position, the thought of spending my fall sifting through resumes of various people who may or may not have had something to offer, but who wouldn't necessarily "get" what we're trying to do here, made me nauseous.
Then I thought of Suzanne, who for years has been a supporter of what we're doing at the Digital Content Lab, and I realized that she would be the perfect person for the job. As I recall, I actually called her from a nail salon where I was getting a manicure, and I said, "I want you to take the job." She happened to be packing her truck for Burning Man, and her reply was, "And move from San Francisco?" And, even though she said that she probably wouldn't want the job, she promised me that she'd at least think about it, and told me she'd get back to me with a decision when she got back from Burning Man in 10 days' time.
So a couple of weeks later, I had to go up north for a project that I was working on in Sonoma County, and I called her on my way back from there to see what her decision was. She said, "I've thought about it and I'm prepared to talk to you." So I drove to her house, we went out to dinner, and she accepted the job. I ended up staying over on her couch, and the next morning we were on the phone with HR, and two weeks later she started the job.
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Stefanac: It's nice to have a good relationship with your new boss. We've been good friends for some time, really.
DeMartino: More than 10 years. As I recall, we met because of MacWorld. She was at MacWorld magazine, and I was involved with the MacWorld conference because of AFI's relationship with Apple in the early '90's. We both served on a program advisory committee for the conference, and we went on several retreats, which deepened our friendship.
Stefanac: We bonded.
DeMartino: Yes, we bonded. I can tell you that, over the years, every time I faced a challenge at the AFI--for example, launching our Web site, redesigning our Web site, figuring out what to do with streaming video--a cup of coffee in Yerba Buena Gardens with Suzanne would solve all of my problems. That must have happened at least five times. She was always two years ahead of everybody else in figuring out what was going on. And she was always working with the smartest people: she'd always have some referral who would save my ass on some project or another. Well, this time, she saved my ass herself, big time!
Of course, the best part of all this was when we made the announcement and I began telling people that she'd agreed to do it. Everybody's response--to a person--has been, "How perfect! You lucky SOB!"
[itvt]: Suzanne, you've been involved as a mentor with the Digital Content Lab--and with its predecessor, the Enhanced TV Workshop--from day one, correct? Could you tell us about some of the projects you've worked on there?
Stefanac: Yes. From the beginning. The first project I worked on was "Expedition 360" (http://www.expedition360.com) in 1999. It was an early broadband video app that followed Jason Lewis as he pedaled and otherwise circumnavigated the globe. The prototype involved real-time video and included viewer feedback. That kind of forward-thinking won me over, and I just kept signing up for projects. I loved how the "Extreme Rides" project used roller coasters to teach physics. "Blind Date" explored the then-new world of reality TV. "American Family" was a two-screen solution that married an active online community to an ongoing televised narrative. I first fell in love with Jon Stewart working on a "Daily Show" app. "Accordion Dreams" brought zydeco to the PlayStation. We also came up with a fantasy game for viewers of Turner Classic Movies and a fresh take on pledge drives for PBS. The "Dora the Explorer" project for Nickelodeon used simple remote control actions to make the show interactive for preschoolers. The last project I worked on as a mentor was "Unlocking Movie Assets," with lawyers and executives from three major networks all trying to figure out how to normalize metadata for movies. Wow! I'm sure I'm forgetting some projects I somehow participated on. I know that during one cycle, I was actually on four separate teams.
In the end, I just kept coming back--even though each project required a fair amount of work--because I always walked away smarter. Plus, over the years, the mentor community started to feel like a family. Coming back for the various events was always something I looked forward to.
[itvt]: Did the thought ever cross your mind that one day you might run the Digital Content Lab?
Stefanac: In all honesty, as much as I loved the Lab, and was grateful for the opportunity to continually spread my wings there, and to meet new brilliant people, and to just get smarter as a consequence, the fact that it was in Los Angeles made it difficult for me to imagine that I would ever run it. I had never even owned a car--which was really the biggest hurdle. But after Nick first talked to me about running it and I thought about it for a few days, the idea just became more and more exciting to me.
[itvt]: So you were thinking all this through out at Burning Man?
Stefanac: Yes. I spent 10 days out there completely off the grid. There's no email and no phone, and it's very separate from the rest of the world. I actually think that being away from my home in San Francisco made it easier for me to come to terms with the idea of leaving everything and moving to LA. I'm not sure I could have made the decision to move if I had been at home, whereas when I was on this very alien piece of turf--a giant stretch of salt flat--it put everything in stark contrast, and it just seemed like a good idea. And, of course, it has been a good idea.
[itvt]: You've been heading up the Lab for a few months now. Have you had a chance to leave your mark on it?
DeMartino: Can I answer that? No matter how good any team is--and we've had some wonderful people associated with the program over a number of years--any time you have someone as smart as Suzanne coming in and taking a hard look at everything, it results in some really great changes. If I were to pick one thing that summarizes the difference she's made so far, it's that she is so ambitious for the goals of the Lab's projects that she goes out and really gets all kinds of people involved. She's very aggressively gone after new mentors that never got involved before, but that have a huge amount to offer. Under her leadership, we've really been very successful in the sponsorship area, closing deals with Adobe and IBM. And--this may be a scoop--we are about to execute a multi-year relationship with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
[itvt]: Didn't you already have a relationship with CPB?
DeMartino: Yes, but it was always on a year-to-year basis. What Suzanne has secured is a long-term commitment for the AFI to serve as an R&D facility in support of public broadcasting--so something quite different from the usual one year deal that might or might not be renewed.
Stefanac: The stability that a multi-year sponsorship offers will allow us to more appropriately nurture relationships with public television stations and producers, and to come up with prototypes and other projects that support the overall vision for the sector. There's an increased commitment to multiplatform solutions within PBS, and we look forward to helping identify solutions that allow producers to better engage with their viewers via interactive television and broadband.
[itvt]: Why do you think they decided to commit to a longer-term relationship?
DeMartino: I think it had to do with the fact that public broadcasting's leadership is changing--both at CPB and PBS--and I think they realize that the media world is changing just as much for them as it is for everyone else. Broadcasters need this kind of forward-facing analytic and creative capacity that an organization like the Digital Content Lab can provide. But anyhow, my point is that the sponsorship commitments we've received this year have really demonstrated the success of the Lab under Suzanne's leadership, and it's really quite gratifying.
[itvt]: I see that "thirtysomething" creator, Marshall Herskovitz, is participating at your DigiFest event, and discussing his new broadband TV series, "Quarterlife." That's quite a coup. How did you succeed in convincing him to take part?
Stefanac: Well, Nick had a real hand in that.
DeMartino: Marshall and his producing partner, Ed Zwick, are AFI alumni. They have also become board members, and are very actively involved in working with other alumni to improve the AFI. They've also been working closely with our outgoing CEO, Jean Furstenberg.
Anyhow, I heard about "Quarterlife" essentially being developed as a broadband project from a rejected ABC series, so I asked Marshall to keep in touch, as obviously that's the kind of thing we're interested in. I visited them in March, when they were shooting the pilot on location, and hung out with them. They recognized that we were interested in all this stuff and kept me abreast. At that time, they were going through a wide range of what-if scenarios--because it's a very different process from regular TV, where you simply produce something and then pitch it to ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, or whatever. If you're developing a broadband series with a social network attached, how do you go about distributing that? So what they did was that they went and made a deal with MySpace, in addition to creating their own self-contained community around the show. Of course, as soon as the news of the MySpace deal was released, there was a huge media frenzy, because Marshall and Ed are pretty major talents. They sort of switch back and forth between who produces and who directs, but between them they're responsible for such movies as "Glory," "Shakespeare in Love," "Traffic," "Legends of the Fall," The Last Samurai," and last year’s "Blood Diamond," and for seminal TV shows like "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life." They really are great artists with enormous credibility. And the fact that they are now ready to get into broadband television just shows how rapidly that medium is maturing. Actually, I remember when I went on location with them on "Quarterlife," I asked them what was different, and Marshall said, "Well, we're using digital cameras, so the length of the shooting day is different, because the lighting conditions are different. But besides that, not very much. We're shooting with SAG actors, and there aren't too many differences in the way things are structured financially."
Anyhow, I'd mentioned to Suzanne the possibility of having them do something at the DigiFest. They subsequently presented what they were doing at an apparently rather lengthy master's seminar on the AFI campus about a month ago. I happened to be out of town, but Suzanne and her team went. Afterwards, she wrote me an email saying that she and her team had been intrigued when I'd brought up the possibility of inviting Marshall to the DigiFest, but that they'd wanted to make sure that this wasn't just a case of a filmmaker who was simply dabbling in the digital space, and that it had been very clear from the seminar that he really gets it.
Stefanac: Yes, I think he has a very sophisticated and in-depth understanding of what a social network around their series could do for that content, and of how to incorporate it and how to fashion things so that it's really effective--so that it's not only fun and new, but really enhances the viewing experience. The series features a video blogger as a protagonist. Each episode will play first on MySpace and then appear on the "Quarterlife" Web site. You'll also be able to download the episodes form iTunes. Fans will be encouraged to remix the storylines, suggest backstories and future twists, and even upload their own productions, if so inclined.
[itvt]: What specifically will Marshall Herskovitz be talking about at the DigiFest?
Additional Audio Streams with Suzanne Stefanac
- Early Years (3:30)
- First Encounter with a Mac (2:55)
- Making MacWorld Online Profitable and Discovering her Interests (5:30)
- Serving as Executive Producer of "The Site," the First Integrated Web and TV Offering (4:10)
- Working at Early-Stage ITV Start-Up, RespondTV (8:40)
- Researching Social Networks and Blogs (7:15)
- AFI Changes Strategy in Order to Move Forward (3:35)
- AFI Mentors and their Role (1:50)
- AFI's Mission and Biggest Challenge Today (2:25)
- Team Dynamics at the AFI Digital Content Lab (1:55)
Stefanac: Two days after the festival, "Quarterlife" will launch online, so he'll be providing a preview. But he'll also be specifically discussing the social network they've built around the show and what they hope to get out of that. The show's episodes are eight minutes each, and he'll be showing parts of one or two episodes and talking about what's new about each from a digital filming standpoint. And he really will emphasize the thinking that went into the show's social networks. So addressing questions like: what do you do when you want to enable the audience to give you feedback? As I just mentioned, they're open to the possibility that feedback from the audience will impact the show's storyline. So I think he's thinking about all this in some very fresh ways, and it should be exciting to hear what he has to say.
[itvt]: What will be the other highlights of the DigiFest this year--both in terms of prototypes that the Lab has been developing and in terms of the outside presenters you're featuring this year?
Stefanac: Our line-up for AFI DigiFest reflects the ever-widening spectrum of opportunities for storytellers. On the first day, we've invited eleven producers to present. The presentations will range from "Quarterlife" to PBS's "The War," Boing Boing's new television venture, and an online animation school with a remarkable track record.
For "The War," PBS called on local public television stations to do outreach in their communities to solicit stories from veterans of World War II. The response was amazing--which was a little surprising to some, given the age of the demographic--and a surprising number submitted digital video files. To accommodate those who might want to tell their story, but who didn't have access to video tools or expertise, they set up an 800 line that automatically digitized the audio.
Stefanac: Yes. Boing Boing's success in the blog world is legendary. Being the most-linked to blog on the Web allowed them to actually begin to make a living, but even more impressively they were able to take the sensibility that made the print 'zine a success and adapt it for online. Their recent forays into the actual television world suggest they will once again learn to adapt and thrive. Animation Mentor is the distance learning environment I just mentioned. It was set up and is staffed by working professionals from Pixar, ILM, Imageworks and other high-end houses. The online environment allows real-time collaboration, and graduates of the 18-month program that they offer almost always find work in the field.
In addition, we have presentations from Activision, from Sony Pictures' special effects gurus, on a 130-episode megaseries from Afterworld, on a surprisingly moving inspirational campaign from Adidas, and from both Interactive Primetime Emmy winners--Current TV and The "Fallen" Alternate Reality Game. What knits all these presentations on the first day together is the emphasis on telling a great story using various digital media platforms. The ability to be screen-agnostic, to take the best from each medium and use it to further the arc and engage the viewer is exciting to watch. It's no longer enough to just geek out with tech toys. You have to know how to use those tools to great effect.
[itvt]: And what will you be showcasing on the second day of the DigiFest?
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Stefanac: On the second day--Friday--we'll be showcasing five projects prototyped in the Lab. One ended a few months ago and is a user-generated film contest format for ITVS, called "Filmocracy." The other four have been in the Lab for the past six months and are just wrapping. One is a social network built for a documentary, called "Players," about video game players. MTV, EA and Mekanism jointly brought the project to the Lab. Another is a citizen journalist play for PBS's weekly investigative news program, "Now." The third recent prototype is with Bravo, and proposes a solution to the fast-forwarding-through-ads dilemma. The team came up with a potentially workable way to preserve the relationship with the advertiser, while at the same time taking advantage of the DVR's time-shifting. And finally, we have an original machinima narrative pilot, called "Leaving the Game." John Gilles brought the idea to us and it's been quite an education figuring out how to craft a truly original storyline within a game engine. I think you have the list with all the presentations and mentors. We are so honored to work with so many really brilliant and forward-thinking folks.
So overall, both AFI DigiFest days celebrate storytelling. We really wanted to show that we no longer need to be in pure service to the technology--that while the technology is still evolving by the hour, there is enough of it driving enough platforms, that we can really focus on the art of it all. And on the individuals who are able to make these platforms sing.
[itvt]: Social networking seems to be, for want of a better phrase, the Next Big Thing in interactive television this year, just like user-generated content was last year. How is the Digital Content Lab responding to this trend?
Stefanac: I agree that "social networks" is a phrase that's being used very commonly these days, and it can mean a lot of things. I think the big issue is that, rather than thinking about storytelling from the standpoint of a single individual or production group putting a story out there where viewers pay attention to it very passively, we're really looking at a whole new way of thinking about what storytelling is. So what both days of the DigiFest will be examining is how we should think about narrative these days. What are the issues around narrative?
Over the years, people have often asked me, "Is the narrative storyline going to die in the face of all these interactive elements?" I've always laughed, because, from the earliest days when we all sat around fires outside of a cave, humans have wanted to submit to a great storyline. I think that it's just innate, and I don't see that going away. However, I do see a whole new community dynamic going on around storylines, even where you are still submitting to a single storyline. Particularly when you have an ongoing storyline--a series or a franchise of some sort: creators have the opportunity to unveil one aspect of a story arc and then solicit feedback, criticism, and suggestions. Then, while not succumbing to "story by committee," they can take the temperature of the response, glean the best ideas, implement and tweak them, and then let the next iteration of pure narrative loose.
This is very different from gameplay, which is a perfectly valid form, but one generally quite different from the storytelling dynamic. In a game scenario, the player makes constant choices within a defined world. There are multiple branches and endings that create a tension, but a tension that requires action. Games are evolving alongside storytelling, but I think they tap into a very different urge. The only project we tried to get for AFI DigiFest that didn't work out was BioShock. This game bridges the gap between traditional linear narrative and gameplay in some truly innovative ways. Not only is the game gorgeous enough to cause you to succumb, it is remarkably sophisticated in its logic. There is a moral ambiguity that is at once unnerving and intriguing. Do you kill the small girls who house the power that drives the world? Or do you try to save them? Either path is valid within the game logic.
Across the board, as I think about future prototypes for the Digital Content Lab and as we were trying to decide what to bring in to AFI DigiFest, storytelling seemed to loom larger on the horizon than any other topic. This was partly because, for the first time this year, the DigiFest will be co-produced with AFI Fest--AFI's film festival--which attracts 75,000 people. It's a big event, and all these people attend it out of a great love of filmmaking--i.e. a great love of submitting to a story. And so I think that, even though the projects we'll be showcasing this year are very wide-ranging, there will be a significant focus on storytelling and on making the most of the various platforms and screens at our disposal.
DeMartino: As Suzanne was just saying, storytelling is a very ancient and very fundamental art. And what often happens with new tools and distribution methods is that it takes some time for people to come to grips with how to use them effectively for storytelling. For example, you probably remember back when CD-ROM's were starting to get popular, and people were predicting that narratives would all have branched endings--which, of course, never really worked that well. On the other hand, there are some people who succeeded in coming up with new ways of storytelling that appeared to anticipate some of the tools now at our disposal, long before those tools were invented. I don't know if you've ever heard of Wendy Clarke--her mother was Shirley Clarke, one of the greatest documentary filmmakers in the history of the world. Wendy did this thing for years, called "The Love Tapes." When portable video became available, she set up this little kiosk in an enclosed space, and she'd bring it to places like the lobby of the World Trade Center, video tradeshows, street fairs, or whatever, and you'd go in there and she'd ask you to talk about love, and she'd videotape it. And she would never describe what she meant, so people would go in in couples, or by themselves, or with their mothers, and talk about the love of their child, their boyfriend, their father, and so on--any number of things. And she packaged these videotapes into these amazing documentaries which were all technically pretty basic, but extremely powerful, because people were telling the stories of their lives. And, in a way, she was creating a social network-type experience where she had to do all the work, because the technology wasn't available to do it for her: she had to find the people; she had to bring them in; she had to tape them; she had to edit them; she had to distribute them. And, of course, we now have tools and platforms that do all that.
Stefanac: In general, I think we're witnessing a great evolution in the various media that are out there: on the one hand, each medium is becoming more sophisticated and unique; on the other hand, they're feeding into one another more than ever before. You can't think of television, publishing or the Internet any more as a one-to-many medium or as any single medium. You have to think of all of them together as a giant and constantly mutating feedback loop.
[itvt]: Other than the fact that you're being aggressive about securing new sponsors and mentors, how do you think the AFI Digital Content Lab and its annual showcase event are changing under your leadership?
Stefanac: The Lab has constantly evolved throughout its nine years. Changing the name from the Enhanced TV Workshop to the Digital Content Lab a couple of years ago signaled one significant change--from being television-centric to embracing a broad spectrum of platforms. But all along the way, both Anna Marie Piersimoni and Marcia Zellers, the two directors before me, tweaked the process to reflect current potentials and interests within the creative community. I inherited the Lab at a very interesting time. All this interest in many-to- many collaborations and multiple screens and new distribution mechanisms means that the media landscape is warping as we watch. I want to ensure that we're able to adapt, and to continue the now-long tradition of serving as an innovation test bed. To that end, we're working to find a mix of projects that reflect the challenges facing our community. It made sense to bring Bravo into the Lab to come up with a DVR fast-forwarding solution, even though the Lab hasn't traditionally focused on advertising. This is an issue that's plaguing the networks, and we had the right mentors to try and worry out a workable solution. With the machinima project, it made sense to attempt an original narrative series pilot because that was the way to prove that today's storytellers have a whole new arena--3D game environments--within which to tell their tales. We'll continue to seek out projects that are meaty and that provide real answers to real challenges, even if it means doing things that might seem to lie outside the parameters of the Lab from a historical perspective.
A couple of other fronts that I'm working on have to do with how we present ourselves to the world. We've been lucky to have attracted some great press recently. Denise Caruso's column in the New York Times last June was an enormous boon, with dozens of folks cold- calling us wanting to be mentors or suggesting projects. We want to do an even better job of telling our own story so that the phenomenal work of our mentor teams reaches the larger community. We're doing outreach to the journalistic community and learning how to tell our own story in a way that helps us to future the overall goals. Also, very soon, we will launch the AFI Digital Content Lab blog, where we can track the most interesting news and developments within the digital media world, where we can invite mentors to submit their own news or requests, and where we can keep our friends and associates posted about what's going on our front. I'm also intent on launching a wiki sometime in early 2008 that captures some of the wisdom surrounding innovation that we've gleaned over the years. In this same vein, I want to start an interview series that focuses on innovation. Innovation is at the heart of everything that has ever happened in the Lab and we'd like to help share some of the insights and methodologies that allow our collaborators to consistently come up with solutions that change our world for the better. Some of these interviews will be live, but all will be archived and searchable on the Web site. We want to become an ever-better resource for anyone committed to excellence in media.
By the way, I should also point out that the Digital Content Lab is not just me. None of this would exist without Nick's constant interest and support within the AFI. Plus, I have an incredible team. Lisa Osborne has been fabulous as the supervising producer, and she's really very smart and sensitive about bringing all these different and disparate people into the teams and helping to manage them in such a way that they produce the best possible prototypes and thinking. Also, there's Chris Denson, who's our new events marketing manager. He comes from the world of music and hip-hop, and he has a sensibility that helps to keep us honest. And then there's Linda Arellano, who recently graduated in multimedia studies and who seems to be a Jill-of-all-trades. We're sorry that Hu Xiaoming, our intern from the National University of Singapore for the past several months, is no longer working with us, but we wish him well with his studies and look forward to following his career.
I'm mentioning all these people not just out of courtesy or even gratitude, but because I think the fact that multiple people are responsible for this--not just one individual--is an example of how the media world is evolving. Media are becoming less and less a function of the imagination and vision of single, talented individuals, but rather are an outgrowth of a richness that grows up when people have all these new technologies at their disposal that enable a kind of exchange of information that was never possible before. Collaboration yields fruits that solo work really can't support.
When I look at media, I often think of mushrooms and mycelium as a metaphor...
[itvt]: You were trained as a biologist, correct?
Stefanac: I was a chemist. Anyway, when you think about mushrooms, the individual mushrooms that you see on the forest floor are just a small part of the story. Underlying those mushrooms is mycelium, this really thick, rich biomass of intertwined little threads that are underground and that you usually don't see, even though it's much, much larger than the mushrooms. And, when there's been exactly the right amount of rain and it's exactly the right temperature, a few individual mushrooms grow out of that biomass, which are often really lovely, but which are very ephemeral. They come and they go.
So how I view the media world is that there is this rich undergrowth, this loam where the mycelium grows, and that's made up of all the different people who contribute in one way or another--whether they're the actual producers, or the viewers who give feedback or new story ideas, or who tell one another about new things and thus grow audiences. The actual individual stories and projects that emerge from that milieu are like mushrooms--very ephemeral. So I think what we have to do is realize the importance of that rich undergrowth and soil where the mycelium is, and endeavor to keep that healthy so that it grows the best mushrooms. And I do believe that the television industry as a whole is starting to understand this. We talk to the networks all the time, and all of them are putting a great deal of effort into thinking of their projects in a way that's more than just "We're going to put it on a different platform, and maybe we'll allow people to offer commentary." They're thinking of those projects in the context of a dynamic feedback loop where audiences are, in a way, just as instrumental in the creative, promotional and distributional process as individual creatives and other professionals. Of course, we don't know what this new way of seeing media will result in. But it's definitely fun right now to watch it and see what it elicits.
[itvt]: So has the Digital Content Lab changed its editorial focus under your leadership?
Stefanac: Again, I'd have to say that the Lab has always adapted to the moment, and I'm clearly doing the same. I think I'm trying to focus on solutions that foster truly great storytelling, and that provide some kind of realistic financial model as we move forward. Not every project will have to be a "Hamlet," and not every project will need to prove it has the potential to run in the black. But this combo of real-world viability with great narrative that draws in audiences, that intrigues, informs, inspires, and sometimes just amuses, is the kind of dynamic that will allow digital media to hold its own against more traditional forms.
[itvt]: Now, to some extent, the Digital Content Lab--which, as we discussed earlier, was originally called the Enhanced TV Workshop--has moved away from its original focus on interactive television, correct?
DeMartino: Yes and no. I wouldn't say that we've stopped focusing on interactive television, because we still have a couple of very strong relationships into that industry--for example, with CableLabs--and there are still a number of projects that are being developed under the auspices of the Lab that have to do with set-top box technology and so forth. But I do think that the center of gravity of the interactive TV industry has shifted pretty dramatically to broadband delivery for two reasons--because more homes have broadband now, and because advertising is shifting to broadband and the highly trackable Internet advertising model has become very influential.
Stefanac: One of the ideas that we've explored--both at the Lab and with the DigiFest--is that we're becoming more and more screen-agnostic. Television isn't going to go away and set-top boxes have a whole new horizon ahead of them. But, at the same time, the smartest producers and content creators are thinking about things in an increasingly broad way--they're looking at the spectrum of screens, the spectrum of delivery systems, that they can use to offer their content. And I think that the degree to which they're able to create content that is appropriate across all these different media will be a great indicator of their content's potential for success. I don't think that it's wise to focus too much on any single platform any more, as that doesn't look to me like the way that people will want to consume information and entertainment going forward. I don't think it's even just about being able to deliver content to multiple discrete platforms--it's about having content that ties those platforms together. One of our biggest wins recently was with the Cartoon Network. They had television shows and they had created a lot of games for broadband that were based on those shows. But they wanted to create a seamless dynamic between the two assets, so that the show and the games would not only co-exist quietly on the different platforms, but so that, wherever the viewers wanted to watch or play, they would be able to do so. In other words, so that they could watch and play on a set-top box, on broadband, or on mobile. And I think the team that worked on that project did a great job, because they came up with a solution that was a single Flash file that would play across all these various platforms, and it worked. Not only that, it was the first example of building a game to the PS3's browser.
From the point of view of the creative process, what you have to do is develop content that has a unique and consistent look-and-feel and functionality, so that people recognize it and enjoy it no matter what kind of screen they're accessing it through. It's very different from a few years ago, when you'd go to a show's Web site and it would look very different from the show itself, and would also look very different from the mobile app you'd created around the show. I think people are thinking more and more in terms of "I have this great story to tell, and share with an audience, and it doesn't matter which screen they're getting it on."
[itvt]: Are you talking to any of the large social-networking sites, like Facebook or MySpace, about becoming involved in the Lab? Obviously they're moving fairly rapidly in the direction of broadband TV.
DeMartino: My personal feeling about Facebook and MySpace is that they're enabling environments--audience aggregators, if you will--just like Netscape or Internet Explorer were. What's happened with those services over the past few months is nothing short of astonishing, in that they've opened up their development environment to third-party developers. So I think it's less about Facebook per se than about all these third-party developers who could turn Facebook into a TV service or whatever. Those people don't even sit in a room with Facebook executives and discuss what they're going to do. They simply take the API and develop whatever they want to develop. In fact, some companies are securing financing whose entire business model is developing for Facebook.
Stefanac: In general, I think it's important, as media becomes more and more multiplatform, not to think of it in terms of individual platforms and technologies. The Emmys this year provided an interesting window on how we might think of all this as we move forward: This was the first year that narrative programming that existed solely on broadband could compete for Emmys with programming that aired on broadcast or cable networks. And I think this helped reinforce the idea that what matters is the quality of the content, regardless of the platform it appears on.
Some years ago, I was the West Coast editor of a magazine called Holosphere that was published by the Museum of Holography in New York. Holography, of course, was this fabulous new technology for creating very vibrant 3D images. But the problem was that the early holographers shot things like bowls of plastic fruit and brass unicorns. They were great technicians and they were exploiting and refining the technologies, but the actual holograms fell short. The simply weren't that thrilling, and they didn't impress people. And, in many ways, because of this, holography never lived up to its original promise. What this illustrates is that new technologies and platforms for content distribution and enhancement are not going to be successful unless the content that they distribute and enhance is of excellent quality. So I think that what we do at the Digital Content Lab should play into the AFI"s mission of celebrating excellence in the art and science of the moving image. You have to think not so much in terms of new technologies and platforms, but in terms of how to tell the best damned story, regardless of the platform it's viewed on.
Originally Published: November 7, 2007 in [itvt] Issue 7.42
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