Trekkie

Some interesting rumours about the future of the Star Trek franchise. Could Jonathon ‘Riker’ Frakes head a new Star Trek series? Will they cover the Fall of the Federation? Does anyone apart from me care? Find out next week in the astonishing conclusion to…

Pushing

Okay, I know that I’m a bit harsh on Push, Nevada, but it seems that I’m nothing compared to some, as shown by this (unfortunately) fake press release entitled ABC Cancels Entire Schedule. An excerpt:

“Push, Nevada,” a high-concept mystery series produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Sean Bailey and sponsored by the IRS, was unique in that, by watching and piecing together the on-screen clues, the home audience could discover where a million dollars was hidden — which one lucky viewer would get to claim.

Unfortunately for ABC, nobody was, in fact, watching.

“When Nielsen reported back that they couldn’t even detect a rating on [the last aired episode of Push, Nevada], we knew our experiment in pushing the limits had gone seriously, horribly wrong,” Lyne stated. “It was our tentpole show. When your tentpole show fails, it’s… it’s… well, it’s not good.”

BBC News

I’ve gotten into a habit of synchronising my lunch with the 1’o’clock BBC News, and after a few weeks you can almost predict what they’ll be showing when. For example, at roughly 1:16pm you can be sure that they’ll begin some kind of lighthearted piece that is accompanied by suitably cheesy music, unlike all the other taped segments. Today there was something by the BBC’s Family Correspondent (‘Family Correspondent?’ I remarked to myself. ‘What on Earth does a family correspondent do all day, stay at home or something?’).

This won’t be new to most of you, but BBC News is impressively international in its scope; I’d say that at least a quarter of each programme doesn’t touch on the UK at all. It’s a pleasing change from the news I saw in America.

What’s the Point of Push?

I’m having a real problem with what ABC’s Push, Nevada programme is supposed to be about now. I recently read an article (I can’t remember where) which described how both ABC and Liveplanet are saying that the show will do badly, underplaying expectations. Apparently only a tiny audience is expected for the series, due to the following combination of factors:

1) It’s up against CSI and Will and Grace, both of which are hit shows and are targetting the same demographic as Push.

2) The premise of Push, $1 million prize notwithstanding, is not actually all that attractive to most people. It’s like Twin Peaks, really, and Twin Peaks was a cult show, which means that it didn’t have that many viewers.

So, like I say, ABC and Liveplanet are predicting that audience numbers will be terrible, essentially covering their asses for the inevitable. Which leads me to pose the question – what the hell is the point of the show? If it’s going to do badly, and you know it’s going to do badly, and you’re blowing $1 million on it, what’s the point?

The argument that I’m seeing on the web is that the only way ABC can compete against CSI and W&G is by producing a cult show that will have a loyal audience. But then why do you need a $1 million prize? It’s no small amount of money, and shows like Buffy and Star Trek have done perfectly well in capturing a loyal audience without such gimmickry.

The audience figures for Push’s pilot show (aired on Tuesday, not its permanent Thursday slot, which is when it’ll be up against the big boys – CSI and W&G) were middling. It pulled in 12 million viewers over the hour, but it lost audience throughout that hour. Push’s loss in audience is vitally important because it means that people were switching off from the show, and this is at a time when the show was only up against re-runs. In other words, it’s not good news.

At the moment, I’m not optimistic about Push’s chances. It could surprise everyone, however, and regain its audience – it’s too early to tell. What I’m interested in is the fact that this will be yet another blow against the burgeoning mmoe genre; producers will ask, “What’s the point of doing this web game thing if it didn’t help Push, even with a million dollar prize?”

The Mission

Back in the 80s, there was a science fiction series directed by Stephen Spielberg called Amazing Stores. Aside from its intro sequence, which was rather impressive for that time, most episodes were pretty uninspiring and dismal. There was one episode that it seems everyone (including me) remembers: The Mission.

‘The Mission’ was by all accounts a superstar episode – directed by Spielberg, music by John Williams, and starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer ‘Jack Bauer’ Sutherland. You can read a synopsis of the episode at the link above and when I watched it, I was very impressed. Admittedly, I couldn’t have been any older than 10, but by browsing on some forums on the Internet it seems other older people were similarly impressed.

For some reason, I’ve always mixed up ‘The Mission’ with the movie ‘Memphis Belle’ even though now I think about it, I’ve never seen the latter. Anyway, it’s a shame that there isn’t much good short story SF on TV any more. I was never privy to the Twilight Zone or the original Outer Limits, shows that many die-hard SF fans swear by, but I did think that the first few series of the new Outer Limits weren’t bad. A fair number of people watched the new Outer Limits when they were on BBC2, I recall.

Alas, production values dropped and perhaps the constant grind of depressing stories wore viewers down. If only some enterprising TV producer would decide to adapt some published SF short stories… while many are merely average, the best are truly excellent and some are very well suited to adaption, even on low budgets, if necessary.

Dream Time

I just saw an advert on the Sky Chinese Channel (PCNE) for a show that can only be described as the Chinese version of ‘Dream Team’. For those of you who don’t know about it (i.e. 99% of you), it’s a football soap opera on Sky One. I hear that football is becoming a big thing in China so perhaps it’s no surprise.

College Girls

It strikes me that, so far, the Channel 4 documentary College Girls is giving people a very skewed view of life in Oxbridge. I understand that documentaries have to concentrate on the more interesting aspects of their subjects, which is why the first episode was about a student activist refusing to pay her university fees and the second episode was about a girl running for a post in the Oxford Union.

However, judging from the reactions of friends at Leicester University who I watched the first episode aired, College Girls is not doing the public perception of Oxbridge any favours – so far, almost every single person shown on the programme has been privileged and frankly atypical of the average Oxbridge student. We call such people ‘socialites’ at Cambridge – I’m sure others use less diplomatic words.

Today’s episode on the Oxford Union, which the majority of Oxford students do not attend, gave the impression that most students there regularly go to black tie balls, do no work and spend their time plotting politics. No wonder people don’t like Oxbridge.

Thankfully, it seems that later episodes in the series will be more realistic, dealing with the work pressures of Oxford and the personal problems of students there. Alas, I fear that the damage has already been done – undoubtedly the series director wanted to pull in as many people as possible with the first couple of episodes, and we know that first impressions count (trust me, I’m a psychologist!)

American TV

Yesterday, I read an article at the Guardian about Big Brother 3 in the UK, which among other things mentioned that Channel 4’s editing of the primetime programmes results in a drastically skewed view of the contestants. I thought, “Well, obviously.”

Then last night, while watching Big Brother 2 here in the US (I see it as an ethological exercise) I found myself being driven into a frenzy by the apparent evil character of pretty much everyone on the show. During a break, I paused to ponder why there’d been such a reversal in the personalities of all the contestants who were seemingly nice the week before, and of course then I remembered the Guardian article.

It seems that Big Brother represents the ultimate in media manipulation; while many people including myself have had the misfortune of being quoted out of context in the media, if you’re careful about what you say, you can avoid too much unhappiness. However, when everything you do and say is being recorded constantly, it would take a phenomenal effort to prevent yourself from saying anything incriminating, or making any outbursts. I’m sure that if you recorded me for 24 hours a day, you’d find enough nasty stuff to fill a ten minute clip per week.

Another thing that I’ve noticed while watching US TV is the clever way in which they schedule advert breaks. Apart from being far more (and too) frequent, they’re scheduled so that the end of one programme and the start of the next are invariably not separated by a break. This happens pretty often on series where they show two episodes back to back. It’s quite a clever technique, and I imagine we’ll be seeing it in the UK before long.

A Push Too Far

“How far away is Push, Nevada?”

Push, Nevada is quickly shaping up to be the second major commercial TV-mmoe, after the BBC’s Spooks. Developed by ABC in conjunction with Liveplanet, an ‘integrated media’ company started by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck among others, Push is attracting a great deal of attention for offering a seven figure cash prize to a ‘winner’.

Rather than provoking joy in the mmoe/ARG player community, the seven figure sum is worrying many. It’s a widely held belief in the mmoe community that co-operation, not competition, is one of the most distinctive and enjoyable features of the genre. The scope and difficulty of the AI game, for example, would have made it practically impossible for any one person to ‘solve’ the game – not that it was something that could be solved. As a result, co-operation was key for the player community to get the most out of the game, by sharing ideas, speculation and puzzle solutions.

When a seven figure prize enters the equation, everything is changed. While there are already laudable efforts to form player groups to attempt to win Push and donate the prize to charity, I suspect that this will be the exception to the rule of players fighting tooth and nail to get their hands on the million dollars. We’ve all seen what people will do for a million dollars, not only on TV, but also in countless stories in everyday life. More often than not, a lot of people get hurt. It’s likely that the same will happen with Push. Why would you exchange clues and information with someone else, if it meant that they might win the money instead of you? Why should you trust anyone? I am not suggesting that the mmoe player community is comprised of a group of bloodthirsty backstabbing sharks (although others may differ) but a million dollars can do a lot to make someone’s morals disappear temporarily.

As a result of all of this, the game will suffer. Competition, not co-operation, will be paramount and the online community will fracture into dozens or hundreds of small groups, intensely suspicious of spies. The game will have to become much less subtle so that the puzzles will be solvable by smaller groups, and undoubtedly the producers will want to keep everyone on a level playing field until the end – and so they’ll artificially slow down gameplay so that everyone can catch up.

The Million Dollar Question

Literally, how will the producers decide upon who gets the prize? Unless they decide to track the ‘score’ of everyone playing the game (a difficult and unreliable task, to say the least), they will probably offer a final puzzle at the end of the TV series. Either the first player to solve it will win the prize, or they’ll do a prize draw of everyone who successfully solved the puzzle within a given time frame. The former situation will result in a mad rush to enter the solution first, and additionally mean that you don’t actually have to play the game to win – you just have to answer the last question. The latter solution will most likely have a simple puzzle which everyone can solve. And there’s nothing that mmoe players hate more than a simple puzzle.

But of course… exactly how many mmoe players are there, in comparison to the masses that ABC and Liveplanet want to attract with Push, Nevada? The vast majority of people watching Push will not have time to follow the game on the Internet or to solve intricate puzzles in foreign languages. They’ll want to be able to sit back and take it easy, and I don’t think ABC is going to argue about that. Consequently it’s no surprise that Pepsi is interested in becoming a major sponsor of Push. Viewers of Push, we’re told, will “go out to their local fast-food outlet or look under soda pop bottle caps” for clues. Pepsi is not interested in a few thousand or tens of thousands of people buying their cans, they will want millions. Let’s face it, in order to make a game that appeals to millions, there’s inevitably going to be some dumbing down.

I might be wrong. I can think of a few scenarios where Push could successfully dissociate the million dollar prize from the game, meaning that co-operation could be preserved. This would of course be quite an altruistic act for the producers, since what would be the point of producing a game which most of the viewers don’t actually play? And what would be the point of a game which has little, if any, connection to the final million dollar question which is after all what 90+% of your audience only care about? Certainly I hope I’m wrong about the money and that there’s only a seven figure prize fund, not a seven figure prize, meaning that there would be a lot of smaller prizes and slightly less competition.

Push, Nevada is set to air on September 12th. The Internet portion has already started; the first website called Push Times is now online. I don’t think everything about Push is terrible – I like the fact that there’s a TV-mmoe being released, and that some of my ideas for interactive product placement are being used. Having arcs for the show is a great idea. A seven figure prize is definitely not – at least, not for the present ARG/mmoe player community. For all its claims of being similar to Microsoft’s AI game, Push is aimed at a completely different audience. If you’re reading this, chances are that you aren’t in that audience.
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