Mind the App

Mind the App

Excerpted from an article in C21 Media. 

With broadcasters and producers alike now developing children’s properties online, how is the standard of content being affected and what are the potential pitfalls? Nico Franks reports.

There’s been plenty of talk about the potential of turning digital properties into television programmes. But although the platforms on which IP is created may be changing, how much impact is this actually having on TV development?

“People have always taken good IP and put it out in as many different formats as possible,” says Anthony Lukom, VP and general manager of Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) in the UK and Ireland, giving the Pacman TV series from the early 1980s as an example.

Nevertheless, with producers and commissioners strapped for cash, content creators must now find more economically efficient ways to try out new ideas without having to commit to expensive pilots.

“As a kids’ content producer, we need to be looking at producing kids’ content first and foremost in the games environment,” Lukom says, highlighting the benefit of creating games in-house on its Toonix.com platform.

Lukom believes the online world is one of the best places to create new TV properties, due to the lower costs of production, freedom to experiment and instantaneous audience reaction. And he’s not alone.

At Dublin’s Cartoon Finance conference in November last year, Jackie Edwards, executive producer of animation and acquisitions at CBeebies, said the games section of the UK preschool nework’s website is an ideal place to “test the water” for new shows.

Such changes in development strategy are already beginning to alter the way producers create their content, as Josh Selig, president of Little Airplane Productions, testifies. “The licensing community is aware that the next big hit may not come from broadcast but from some digital online experience. As time goes on, the traditional model of 52×11’ episodes will become archaic,” he claims.

Catherine Warren, president of Canadian entertainment management consultancy firm FanTrust, adds: “Apps offer living, breathing storyboards that are so much more sophisticated than a paper-based treatment.”

This means the app space, with its low barriers to entry, is a testing ground that has already been pounced on by producers. But how will a focus on gameplay affect the quality of the stories being created – and is a child’s emotional engagement with a game going to be anywhere near as strong as with a character from a book or TV series?

Lukom admits this is a worry. “What’s interesting is the shelf life of these properties. If something doesn’t have a narrative the characters aren’t there – and how is that sustainable?” he asks.

There is therefore an increasing need for TV producers and games developers – both conscious of the potential pitfalls – to join forces as early as possible in the development process. “The two business models are so different and there’s a huge learning curve for TV producers wanting to get into the space. But because the devices are so new, they’re doing it at a time when everyone is learning,” Warren explains.

Having previously worked in the business-to-business field, Dublin animation house Studio Powwow has decided to change its business model as a result of the digital trend. It’s now going direct to consumers with its ambitious animated comedy adventure ShipAntics, aimed at an eight- to 12-year-old audience.

“Traditionally, most production companies would try to raise capital from a broadcaster for a TV series. But we’re cutting that out and going straight to the consumer with the game first,” says Powwow CEO Richard Glynn, previously a line producer on CBeebies’ Tilly & Friends.

Taking its cue from classic single-player adventure games such as Grim Fandango, Powwow describes the multi-platform property as Moshi Monsters meets the interactive storytelling style of the video game Mass Effect.

The firm is looking to have “natural convergence” with the gaming community, by engaging with fragmented audiences through forums and YouTube clips that are based in the immersive world of ShipAntics, Glynn says.

Then, when the gaming app is made and with plenty of download figures, proof of online awareness and user metrics to hand, Powwow will be in a much stronger position to pitch ShipAntics to broadcasters.

However, it’s a challenge to combine a strong narrative with engaging gameplay, due to the storytelling aspects of a game being “substantially different” to those of a TV series, Glynn admits.

In recent years Finland has emerged as the place to find apps with the potential for huge audiences, mostly due to the success of Helsinki-based Rovio’s Angry Birds. Another Finnish video game development company, Supercell, is now tipped to follow in its compatriot’s footsteps.

Supercell’s general manager for North America, Greg Harper, says TV is definitely on the company’s horizon. “Our focus is very much on developing games into long-term franchises. We plan for and invest in the titles with the assumption that they’re going to be around for a very long time,” Harper says.

Harper believes the Supercell property best suited to adaptation as a TV series is Clash of Clans, a combat strategy game. However, he is quick to emphasise Supercell’s position as a games company first and foremost, calling it “very early days” for any sort of expansion into TV.

TV spin-offs shouldn’t be “opportunistic grabs for money,” he says, and they have to line up with the existing brand, or else a company risks losing the trust and loyalty of its audience.

Nevertheless, the potential revenue to be had from the licensing deals associated with apps – again proven by the proliferation of Angry Birds and Moshi Monsters paraphernalia available to consumers – has already stirred the licensing business into action.

“We normally only work with toys or an animated series as a starting point, but we were intrigued by the prospect of taking a small but successful app into this industry,” says Claus Tømming, director of Danish brand licensing agency Ink.

The company represents Subway Surfers, a 3D game app that sees players taking the role of young graffiti artists trying to evade a railway security guard and his dog. It goes without saying that Ink, as well as hoping to drive downloads past the 100 million mark, wants to get the brand on TV.

This is already a reality for the popular Fight My Monsters app, the free-to-play online game for 7-12 boys in which gamers create and trade monsters and challenge others to battle. It is currently being developed as a 3D animated TV series by Irish prodco Brown Bag Films, producers of The Happy Hugglemonsters for Disney and Peter Rabbit for CBeebies.

Jennie Stacey, development producer at Brown Bag, says there are both advantages and disadvantages to working on a web-to-TV crossover. Unlike developing original IP, for example, a lot of the work in terms of audience awareness has already been done. However, this is often a double-edged sword. “There’s a rich, visual world that already exists in the game, with hooks already there to develop. But the challenge is that gamers are very loyal and really love the characters they’ve created, so we have to respect that,” Stacey says.

Again, there are issues with narrative devices. But just because the characters are based on a trading card game doesn’t mean they will be one-dimensional – just look at Pokémon. Indeed, Brown Bag is in the process of looking for a “great narrative device to bring that competitive edge into the series,” Stacey says.

Brown Bag is also working with the game’s original producers to come up with characters that stand on their own two feet. “Or eight feet, given that they’re monsters,” Stacey adds. “The stories at this stage are coming from the relationships between the characters.”

Indeed, if producers want to tap into the funding available for audiovisual projects, they must prove their efforts create synergy between narrative content and technology. So says Eamon O’Reilly, coordinator for interactive works at the audiovisual arm of the European Commission’s Media programme, which funds such projects. “We want to see the technology complementing the audiovisual and vice versa. It has to be a sustainable package that is of interest to the audience and allows them to participate more fully with the content,” he adds.

This is an excerpt from a paid article on C21 Media. Click here if you have a subscription.