By Ed Waller
Published: October, 2010
New interactive production company Pop Monkey Productions launched in LA over the summer. Ed Waller spoke to its founders.
Quizmania, the five-year-old UK game show devised by Chuck Thomas, Debbie King and Simone Thorogood, was one of the pioneers of participation TV, and went on to be produced locally in Australia, Colombia, Portugal, France and Poland.
But although the format wasn't directly involved in Europe's call-TV scandals and regulator interventions of 2006 and 2007, its fortunes waned along with those of every other call-TV format on the market. However, with ITV - whose ill-fated ITV Play channel aired Quizmania - back in the call-TV business, with Netplay's The Zone, some are predicting a revival for call-TV.
Over to Wright to explain why: "What Quizmania did was show that people will embrace a lean-forward experience on TV, if there is something in it for them. All of us were working at FremantleMedia, but they ultimately decided they didn't want to play in that game, so we set up Pop Monkey Productions. We feel the US is ready to embrace the interactive TV experience."
The Pop Monkey definition of "interactive" includes voting, prize-winning for the home audience, talking live to the talent, getting answers to questions in real time or "anything that gives the viewer a stake in the show," explains Wright. "The technology is there; we've got Skype, YouTube, Facebook and smartphones that can do anything. Convergence is allowing the creation of new genres".
Thomas adds: "The US networks are afraid of change but we think it's important to show them formats that could trigger interactions that are different to the European model." The somewhat tarnished Euro call-TV model, that is.
Wright is keen to distance Pop Monkey from what he calls "the systematic failures in the ways that shows were being run" that led to fines for European broadcasters and police raids on production offices. "You simply can't do things like continue to take calls after your system has crashed or arbitarily award prizes to people in a sweep."
As well as broadcaster wariness over call-TV, one of the issues that has traditionally hindered the rise of such formats in the US is the fact that it has three timezones. Most of the game mechanics in participation TV involve the show airing live, and American Idol - which helped popularise SMS messaging in the US - gets around this with a tw-hour voting window that moves westwards across the country along with the primetime hours.
"There's no doubt that the timezones in the US are a problem and we're grappling with that. The networks basically rebroadcast the shows again for the West Coast, so we're thinking of having two live shows, or having the interactive elements built in as pre-record," says Thomas.
As well as mobile interactions with viewers, Thorogood says the start-up firm is exploring the web. "But we're trying to bring brands in the area of around-the-clock games," she says. "The viewers' experience of the show doesn't have to end just because the show has." The Pop Monkey execs point to GSN's success with its casual gaming site as a good example.
But Wright, for one, is cautious about brands trying to create their own online destinations. "One of the difficulty for web-only projects is getting traffic. Before brands can do anything, they've got to have an audience." But while brands might struggle on their own, there's no reason why TV shows can't get Farmville-size audiences for spin-off games, he says.
But Thomas is keen to clarify a final point: "We're nothing to do with FremantleMedia and we're not owned by CBS Studios," although they're based on the CBS lot. "We're privately financed, which means we can be more creative when it comes to deals with talent."
© C21 Media 2010