TV You Control: Bar Karma and Community-Developed Television

1 Dec

“Bar Karma is unique in that we not only welcome your suggestions, we can’t live without them. Bar Karma is the first community-developed television series. You decide the story, the characters, the plotlines — along with other viewers/participants.” – Bar Karma FAQ page

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the CurrentTV show Bar Karma, a single-season experiment in crowd-sourced television from the mind of The Sims and SimCity creator Will Wright that sort of flew under a lot of radars, but it’s worthy of closer inspection considering our recent discussion of participatory television.

I won’t delve too deep into the show’s sci-fi narrative and mythology about a mystical bar that travels through time and space and guides lost souls through crossroads in their lives, since I don’t find it that interesting — what’s interesting about Bar Karma is how it harnesses the creative energy of a TV-watching community and transforms them from passive recipients to active producers and storytellers. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, given the culture of speculative fan-fiction and forum discussions that have arisen in online communities centered around complex shows like Lost and Heroes, and how these forms of meta-engagement sometimes indirectly influence writers who take this type of feedback into consideration. However, through the show’s innovative StoryMaker application, creation and conversation are performed using a streamlined digital interface designed by Will Wright that stresses collaboration. Through StoryMaker, users/viewers can craft story pitches beat-by-beat in a 22-frame visual storyboard format with written captions (with each “card” or frame representing about one minute of screen time), recommending or commenting on cards composed by other users and expanding on them by composing the next scene, or creating their own from scratch. Despite the degrees of freedom in this utopian forum for organic, creative expression, the show’s professional production staff always run ideas through a “reality check” before throwing everything up to a community vote. Wright described this dynamic as essentially “blending the anarchy of crowds on the internet with a professional production team that’s inserted into the loop at strategic points.” The voting system then acts as a crucial filtering process that ultimately informs the production staff’s decision of which story pitches will be converted into episodes and arcs, given budgetary and time constraints. Voting, which focuses on positive reinforcement by not allowing users to explicitly dislike or down-vote ideas, also helps build reputations as users are ranked in a leaderboard by how many of their ideas have been recommended by community members. Perhaps a bigger incentive than community street cred, however, is that if your idea makes it into the show, you’ll see your name in the show’s end credits alongside the rest of the writing and production teams.

At the moment, the show’s site is in “read only” mode, since production has ended and the show hasn’t been picked up (yet) for a second season, but I highly recommend surfing through some of the archived story pitches, which range from short one-sentence posts in response to world-building challenges posed by the production team, to fleshed-out scene-by-scene outlines created collaboratively on StoryMaker, just to get a sense of how this novel mechanism enables collaborative storytelling. Also, I’ve only seen the first episode (spoiler alert: not that great, which prompts me to think if this show was only compelling to the invested niche audience that actually participated in the story-pitching process), so I’m still not entirely sure exactly how much of this community input (from un-professional strangers) was actually produced, and how much was filled in by professional writers. However, with Bar Karma, the process is far more fascinating than the product, and I’m curious to see if more shows adopt this emergent, community-driven approach to participatory televisual narratives.

Interview with Will Wright on Attack of the Show!

Brief StoryMaker tutorial

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One Response to “TV You Control: Bar Karma and Community-Developed Television”

  1. jhaderlein December 2, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    This raises an interesting question about the role of viewer control in the modern era. It may entirely be possible that we don’t really know what we want or what it is about fiction that we enjoy so much. The classic economic principle that the wisdom of the crowd always solves may just not apply to the creation of art. Perhaps there is something ineffable about what makes targeted genre offerings actually work in the modern distribution system. Just because you know your demo’s exists doesn’t mean you will appeal to it correctly. The trajectory of this show reminds me of Snakes On A Plane, an internet-sourced sensation that had absurd amounts of media exposure but still underperformed at the box office. Television’s iterative nature ought to ideally calibrate their attempt at forging a strong connection between audience desire and content creation, but the show will need to stay successful long enough to do so.

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