CNN - Fast forward, broadband drama
July 25, 2007

LONDON, England -- The captains of the television industry may want to switch off their sets for a minute (actually, 37 seconds) to assess the potential of interactive Web drama. This week, a new series called "KateModern" launched on Bebo, the global social networking site with a pioneering, young audience.

The series's central character Kate is a university art student in London with typical teenage angst about her studies, her social life and her future. It all sounds highly familiar. But this drama plays out online in bite-sized episodes, bitten up into even smaller morsels (an average of five weekly video blogs, amounting to just 12 minutes of video content per week.)

This is not just another drama serial. Not only is it finely chopped up with a plot development on fast-forward, the plot is flexible, relying on viewers to contribute ideas on direction and pace. The audience can interact with characters online, and sometimes in real-world events.

Miles Beckett is one of the creative forces behind "KateModern" and says what makes the show work is that it is 100 percent compatible with the medium.

"Our idea wasn't to take a sitcom and cut it up," Beckett says. "We looked at the medium first and thought, how can a story be told on something like YouTube. This story is non-linear, organic, dynamic. It goes back and forth as characters and fans correspond with each other."

KateModern comes on the back of Beckett and his team's hugely successful first series "Lonelygirl15," which centers on a fictional character with similar teenage woes to Kate. The show began last year with short video blogs on YouTube and became one of the world's most popular interactive dramas with over 60 million views.

Networking site Bebo charted the success of "Lonelygirl15" and joined the team to create "KateModern." They will share production costs, as well as advertising revenues. Bebo users will be granted access to new episodes first but video will be quickly released on YouTube, MSN and the "Lonelygirl15" Web site. What Bebo hopes will draw users back to their site will be the interactivity, which will exclusively happen with them. Bebo's International President Joanna Shields believes it is that which sets "KateModern" apart.

"What (the 'Lonelygirl15' team) have done is unlocked a utility of connecting with people," says Shields. "I think they've really hit on it with this deep, one-to-one engagement of a character with fans."

Beckett agrees the interactive nature of the show is essential. "We felt like all the core elements from 'Lonelygirl15' worked and we wanted to use that again," he says. "We want fans to impact the story, like if they hate or love a certain thing or a certain character. It's very dynamic and that makes for a much cooler viewing experience."

"KateModern" will try to encourage a high involvement of its fan base, enabling them to chat to characters, doodle online, help them solve puzzles, exchange plot ideas with other fans, respond to polls and upload their own videos to the characters' profile pages. The very nature of the medium allows for feedback to be integrated into the plot, unlike on television where lead times make such interaction impossible. Some fans will even be invited to participate in live shoots in the real world.

"Who know's how this will play out," says Bebo's Shields, "but I do think we're bordering on something unique. We know the younger generation is watching less and less television. The Internet is where they live, that's where they connect. It's a lifestyle medium."

"KateModern" will not only be a test of this new genre of broadband drama but also the business model of whether it pays to create new media content exclusively for the Internet. Bebo hopes to tap even bigger audience figures -- through "KateModern" -- as a route to raising advertising revenues. Although social networking sites are popular, they are not yet attracting high advertising rates. The "KateModern" gamble may have already paid off in part. Bebo has scored the involvement of big brands, like Microsoft Windows Live and Disney.

"It's been very lucrative for us," admits Shields. "Six sponsors have joined us and we're weaving their products into the storyline, as well as using more traditional banner advertising. This is premium advertising, similar to the cost of advertising with a 20-week television series. That's exciting news for the Internet."

Bebo has an appealing audience for brands with open-minded marketing teams. It boasts millions of users, concentrated between the ages of 13- and 24-years-old (in the UK), and an average user spends 40 minutes per session. "That should be a marketer's dream," says Shields.

"KateModern" isn't the only broadband drama getting attention. "Prom Queen" debuted last month, a series of eighty 90-second episodes chronicling the lives of high-school graduates. The fact it's backed by Vuguru, the indie studio set up by former Disney chief Michael Eisner, shows the diversity of people getting involved in this platform.

The trends are there. Social networks are becoming the medium of choice for more young people. Daytime television viewers are drifting online. Illegal downloading is hitting networks' pockets. There's room for alternatives as users becomes more familiar with pasting photos, writing blogs and chatting online. Small-screen broadband drama looks set to draw even bigger audiences.