Job requirement: an Internet connection and a keyboard. No experience necessary.No, seriously. The creators of a new drama on Current TV have been recruiting budding scriptwriters to help create each episode of “Bar Karma,” which premieres Friday [Feb 11].
The show’s producers, TV veteran Albie Hecht and renowned video game designer Will Wright, have spent the last year plumbing ideas from a vast community of visitors to a members-only website. Just about everything in “Bar Karma,” the characters, the premise, the set design, sprang from the suggestions of the digital masses, all working for free.
“Instead of one studio executive I have to answer to, I now have thousands,” joked Hecht, a former president of Nickelodeon. “Yes, Hollywood writers have been honing their craft for a long time. On the other hand, we have a rise of the (online) user-generated community. This show marries the two.”
Though reality TV has long invited viewers to vote, tweet questions to celebrities and submit bizarre home videos of their cats, few professionally scripted shows have solicited any substantial viewer feedback.
But as a digitally savvy population increasingly tunes out scheduled shows in favor of YouTube and video games, TV executives are seeking fresh ways to engage audiences. “Bar Karma,” which solicits ideas via a dedicated website (current.com/shows/bar-karma) as well as an iPhone app, is perhaps the most extreme example.
“This definitely takes things to a new level,” said Will Richmond, a cable and television analyst with Broadband Directions in Boston. “It’s an example of how huge, connected audiences are beginning to inform the way TV shows are made. But the level of input involved in this show seems unprecedented.”
“Bar Karma” tells the story of an abnormally lucky ne’er-do-well who wins a bar during a poker match. He finds out that the bar is a metaphysical place that tallies up the karma of people who stumble through its doors. It follows a tradition set by “Fantasy Island” and “The Twilight Zone,” allowing writers a lot of latitude to introduce new characters.
The kernel of “Bar Karma” came from Wright, whose games, including Sim City and the Sims, have sold millions of copies, generating more than $1 billion in revenue over the last decade. The games pioneered a genre called life simulation, and they give players digital tools to build virtual dollhouses populated by virtual characters imbued with a certain amount of free will.
A year ago, Wright came up with the software that lets people write scripts together. Called StoryMaker, the community consisted of 2,000 people recruited from Wright’s Facebook page.
“After a while, people started to ask, ‘What do we do with this story?’ ” Wright said. “Then they said, ‘What if we did a TV show?’ So I made the rounds to pitch it. With the major networks, the attitude was that the Web was their enemy. There was a totally watertight door between production and marketing, which is how they saw this.”
In the end, Current TV, a sparsely watched but up-and-coming cable channel accessible to about 60 million U.S. homes, took the plunge. The channel, which this week announced it had hired liberal political commentator Keith Olbermann, had been looking for ways to relaunch itself as a place for more polished, but edgy, programming. It tapped Hecht, who had overseen the development and production of such shows as “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Dora the Explorer.”
“At first, I immediately said, ‘I’m in!’ ” Hecht recalled. “And then I said, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ This has been a true experiment in terror. It’s like letting your teenager drive your Ferrari.”
Hecht’s angst stems from having to incorporate a potentially messy online project with a tight TV production schedule. He points to an eye-crossing spreadsheet filled with hundreds of tiny color-coded blocks, each indicating what has to happen within a set time frame. It took the producers six months just to come up with the spreadsheet, he noted.
In short, it lays out a complex schedule that enables “Bar Karma” to go from an online suggestion to a polished show in five weeks flat.
“We’re asking professional writers who until now have been free to create their own scripts to collaborate with a broad community,” Hecht said. “On the other hand, we’re asking the community to create the story, but then let go of it. Both are finding themselves in places they’ve never been before.”
The first episode will credit more than 30 volunteer contributors in addition to the show’s professional crew. Wright said that list could grow to 100 or more when the show opens its wardrobe and music departments to the community.
“Albie and Will are providing the toys and the playground, and it’s up to the community to come up with the content,” said Geoff Keighley, who’s in charge of game publisher relations at MTV Networks and worked with Hecht when the “Bar Karma” producer created Spike TV. “The question is, how great is the content that they produce?”
To bubble up better ideas, Wright built in a voting system that lets anyone thumb an idea up or down at any time. The most popular suggestions are then submitted through a formal week-long voting process that Wright calls a death match, a common video-game term.
There’s also a safety net of half a dozen professional writers who do a kind of extempore scripting from the winning batch of suggestions. This is where the pros earn their keep. Submissions are often one-paragraph descriptions of the plot or scene. It’s up to the pros to come up with the compelling dialogue, clever foreshadowing and punchy one-liners to make the show worth watching. In that sense, professional writers won’t need to be looking over their shoulders to see if they’ll be replaced by someone who is happy to work for free, said Hecht, who employed the same number of writers as he would for a regular show.
“At the end of the day, we want to make a TV show,” Hecht said. “We know people will only watch if it’s good television, no matter how it’s made.