Anthony Zuiker, creator and executive producer of CBS' massive television franchise CSI, called for "cross-blending storytelling" across multiple media formats including television and games, in his creative keynote at the MI6 Game Marketing event in San Francisco.
Zuiker, whose primary experience in entertainment lies with the massive CSI television franchise -- by Zuiker's reckoning, CSI: Miami is the "most popular show in the world" -- shared his vision for a future in which television, games, and mobile content cross-pollinate and support each other -- or in his words, it was all about "the future of broadcast television, and how gaming will be an essential part of expanding and protecting TV in the coming years."
According to Zuiker, "The advertising model for TV is completely broken top to bottom. I've lost 20% of my viewership in a year and a half... where are they? They're on the web and other platforms." Despite a "revolution" in television that now delivers some of the highest quality programming in the history of the medium -- Zuiker believes that the "technological boom" happening concurrently is negatively impacting the popularity of the medium.
CSI's Connected Experiments
The question, in Zuiker's mind, is, "how can we converge television and gaming and web to work on my platforms?" Zuiker laid out three game and online-related "experiments" CBS has done with CSI. The first was featuring popular (and NSFW) community site SuicideGirls.com on the show, which, despite being disallowed by CBS legal to mention the URL in the show's dialogue, increased the site's bandwidth by "65 percent across 8 hours."
The second experiment was a mobile phone quiz game known as CSIQ
, in which users paid $1 to answer a trivia question about the show, with the winner receiving a $10,000 prize. "The first time we did that 75,000 people paid a dollar. The second time it was 100,000 people. The third time was 125,000 people. We got to 200,000 people." Unfortunately, CBS dropped the game when the advertising time it took up became more valuable than the revenue the game generated.
The third, and best-known experiment, was a recent episode of CSI:NY that featured popular virtual world Second Life as an integral plot point in an episode's story. "The first night we did that we had about 75,000 people actually click through, log in and actually become part of Second Life... to this day we are getting 4000 people still logging in to Second Life."
Converging Through Cross-Blending
"The big question for all this, is this," Zuiker asked. "How do we bridge the future of the broadcast with Silicon Valley? How do we converge and bridge broadcast and gaming? That thing is called cross-blending storytelling. We go from television, to web, to mobile, to gaming, and then drive the narrative back up top to television." Zuiker pointed to sites AirPlay
as examples of web products that could work in this context.
But when it comes to creating cross-blending, Zuiker believes that "you have to make content that's specific to the platform. TV shows are for TV, web shows are about five minutes long and called 'web-native programming'."
Though he didn't use the term, he turned to talk of alternate-reality games, in particular praising how Lost handles its integration with the web. "Every single TV show going forward will have to do... a rogue portal... that's not CBS.com or ABC.com. A social portal that will have gaming inside there so it feels like the web generation will have their own destination site... Sites that don't feel like CBS.com so the web generation doesn't feel like they're being handled by corporate slick."
The Right Way To Cross-Blend
Zuiker believes that as cross-blending becomes more prevalent, "If you truly want to understand the quantification of your viewership, you need to be tracking on all devices. I feel the future will be Neilsen-type ratings for TV, gaming, web..." However, Zuiker described his "fear" of the web becoming a database of easily accessible television programming, and noted that "every time the networks give away content for free on the web, it ends up cannibalizing the broadcast."
In contrast, "The way we've been successful on the web is to plant ivy and allow it to grow," according to Zuiker, referring to seeding content that piques the interest of web users into the show and allowing them to continue to explore it themselves. "If you can get a broadcast launch with 20 million viewers, you can get a huge head start... and hopefully that catches," he said, referring to the idea of using a popular program like CSI to launch an online property, either directly or tangentially related (as with Second Life.)
Engaging the gaming audience in the narrative of the show will be crucial, according to Zuiker. He envisions a theoretical CSI online game that ties into the show directly: "In the gaming area, you want to give people tasks, to shoot things and upload pictures... You're doing this because you want these people to be creating their own story and it will be part of the crime on the broadcast... Even if it's not the actual thing I shot, I was part of that experience, that community, that narrative."
In a word of caution, in an industry that's currently feeling the burn from gaming, Zuiker warned the audience of iTunes, "If you don't take care of your platform it will go away... MTV and VH1 didn't take care of music videos like they should have, and Steve Jobs came in and stole that away."