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Getting Interactive for the Emmys

If you’ve been wondering, “Where has Liz G. been goofing off, and why is she neglecting this site?” — I haven’t been playing hooky, I promise! I spent most of the day yesterday at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood, judging the Primetime Emmy awards for interactive media. It was a really cool experience watching the finalists and meeting a great group of there to jury the entries — about 60 people from the digital content creation and distribution sphere. After the whirlwind trip — flying to L.A. for the day and just barely making the flight back home last night — I want to collect some of my thoughts and tell you all about the fascinating content I saw.

I was assigned to the fiction category, which meant watching the five finalists and rating them on eight different factors like user experience, creative achievement, and “enhancing the fiction scenario.” When they say interactive, it doesn’t just mean digital — it means viewers getting involved in manipulating, experiencing and contributing to the content themselves, so the presentations were more site demos than linear content.

All five finalists were from broadcast and cable networks, which wasn’t necessarily by design, but all the indie entrants had been eliminated at an earlier stage. At the same time, I was really impressed by the savvy use of technology coming from the big guys, even if there was the occasional snicker-inducing faux pas (like calling a fan wiki a “Wikipedia page”). But that’s just nit-picking.

So here are my notes and thoughts on the entrants:

HBO Voyeur: This was definitely an outlier among the finalist group. HBO made a standalone interactive experience where viewers can zoom around on an urban panorama to see what’s going on in various windows around the city. Each window reveals a separate vignette to be experienced in its own right. It’s lush and intriguing and looks very expensive (it was, but that info wasn’t included in our judging packet).

The whole project can be experienced at once or it can also be ambient, as an installed screensaver. Unfortunately, it appears to be offline now. I liked this, but it seems more like an art project than anything else. It pushes forward storytelling in its own non-linear way, but it’s not really that interactive — all the audience gets to choose is what music is playing while they navigate.

The Heroes Digital Experience: This was the first of three ARG (alternative reality game) finalists, whose similarities made it much easier to compare their differences. The Heroes Evolutions ARG was really well done, with a multiplatform experience extending the show’s story lines and back-story through the weeks it wasn’t on television. Cast commentary tracks, graphic novels, mobile participation, games — the whole thing is a showcase for integrating technology. That does mean the experience and the UI seemed a bit haphazard, as they adapted to fit any of these environments.

I thought the coolest thing about this was that characters and information from the ARG become a part of a TV show, so the experience isn’t just auxiliary. And fans were even able to affect story lines, though I’m not sure to what extent. But at the same time this didn’t seem like the ultimate incarnation of the ARG, perhaps simply due to the genre of the show. Ultimately the ongoing digital experience just filled in extra detail, rather than solving a mystery or having some other endgame.

Kyle XY: The Collective Experience: This was the only one of the finalists I hadn’t heard of before yesterday. It’s another ARG, this time around the mystery of a kidnapped character created specifically for the web experience. But here’s the twist, and it’s a good one: There’s a fictional character who is initially portrayed as just another fan trying to decode the clues but then gets wrapped up in the plot himself. He serves as a narrator and archivist, which makes the whole potentially-confusing ARG that much easier to follow.

One cool thing that ABC Family did here is allow its official television site to appear to be “hacked,” providing the portal into the ARG. Kyle XY takes an approach that’s opposite to Heroes by keeping the ARG a distinct unit that’s separate from the core storyline.

Lost: Find 815: This was a one-month-long buzz-builder for the fourth season of Lost, with an ARG surrounding a character peripheral to the main action of the show. It’s a little bit ARG-lite considering all the content was available from one site, but that’s probably its biggest asset too, since that many more people were able to partake in the experience without getting confused and turning away.

As with Heroes, the main purpose of the Lost ARG was backstory, though fans did get to see parts of some story lines before they aired on the show. What’s pretty neat is how far the network extended the pseudo-reality: There were actually billboard ads for the mysterious fictional Oceanic Airlines that got defaced with graffiti of the Find 815 URL to lure people into the rabbit hole. But ultimately fan participation seemed more passive than interactive, as the biggest reward was getting to see elements of the story develop in advance.

The L Word Interactive: This entry collected the various initiatives Showtime had run for The L Word‘s fifth season, including an official Second Life presence, an original fan scene incorporated into the show, and an official videoblogger, “Lezberado,” attracting a huge audience for her commentary. The entry was probably hurt by its frenetic presentation of all these things, which in contrast to the other finalists didn’t tell a unified story.

But I ended up thinking that The L Word was the strongest entry, because it has cultivated the biggest social network for lesbians, OurChart, out of a plot line from the show. OurChart is actually a separate company put together by the show’s creators, where characters are present but fan community is abundant. And really, creating real interactions that extend into the viewer’s life outside your content is really the most you can hope for from so-called interactive content.

We weren’t asked to pick a winner, but rather rate each entry on a scale of 1 to 40 based on the different categories. So for me, all of these ended up scoring in the low- to mid-thirties, meaning my votes will probably cancel each other out. But because this is a juried award, the vote tabulating is a bit interpretive — there could be as many as two winners or as few as zero depending on how definitive the scoring was. I’ll definitely be interested, and probably surprised, to hear which one wins.

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