An old man stands behind a bar. Half butler, half mad scientist, he sports a three-piece gray suit, an all-knowing smile, and the frayed messy grey hair of an aging genius. He withdraws a deck of cards labeled with simplistic circles and lines, slowly shuffling the deck before placing a handful of cards in front of a patron at the bar going through a turning point in their life. Every time he touches a card, the card’s face is replaced by a glimpse into one of the patron’s many potential futures.
Welcome to the signature scene from Bar Karma, a science fiction themed television show on Current TV. This past Friday, Bar Karma ended its first season. The show features characters from different times and places as they unknowingly enter a bar outside time and space when they have a tough decision to make. The show repeatedly asks questions about fate and free will as the barkeep and his small but attractive staff attempts to help each new character while protecting their renegade consultation shop from a mysterious evil entity. Each episode’s narrative is created in part by an active portion of the Bar Karma audience that proposes and votes for plots.
Co-produced by former Nickelodeon executive Albie Hect and Sims creator and game industry legend Will Wright, the show is experimental TV on the bleeding edge of interactive storytelling. “The mission is to extend to the viewing audience an unprecedented amount of input and participation in the development of the series,” says David Cohn, General Manager for Current TV. “To create the world’s first community-developed series.”
The show’s website hosts a slew of forums, polls, and questions that allow the audience to propose and vote on what appears in the show. Audience members propose ideas for everything from the type of alcohol the characters will drink each week to the pictures on the walls of the bar and, of course, the plot itself. One major section of the site is devoted to Wright’s developed StoryMaker, a platform designed to allow the community to write plots on digital cards and edit and modify each other’s plots to create a web of potential narratives. Once registered on the site, members can vote on plots and set items at approved times.
The rules for the community exist in a grey area between a democratic and hierarchical process, leaving many participants unsure of where they stand. As a result, Current TV is left doing a lot of hand holding to meet audience perceptions of what “community driven” means. “We had one community member that created the basic idea for one of the episodes and after it aired he was a bit upset that the final show didn’t quite feel like what he was intending,” Wright told ARGNet. “This lead to a long discussion between him and the production team (with everyone chiming in) about the challenges of remaining ‘true’ to the original creative vision.” When people create ideas they become attached to them, and as Wright puts it, “their level of emotional engagement skyrockets.”
“See, up there? That’s my name, onscreen. A television creation credit,” wrote community member Geoffrey Wessel in a blog post about having his plot idea selected for the show. “My pitch was a ‘Producer’s Pick,’ which means even if the people didn’t vote on it, the producers liked it enough. Which is really what matters in the end, I suppose!” Wessel later explained to ARGNet that “[i]n the end, only two real elements of my story made it in — the idea of a robber running into the bar to hide out, and the idea of him trying to get leverage on everyone by threatening the Dayna character . . . the better ideas . . . from the pitch never got used.” However, Wessel noted, “[n]ow I’m free to use them in something else.”
Current TV’s participation tango with its audience is an attempt to give the audience a hand in the storytelling process without lowering the quality of what is expected from scripted TV.In our interview, Wright elaborated on hisco-producer’s claim that the Bar Karma process to giving your teenage children your Ferrari to cruise around in for a few months, saying “when there are 100 hands on the wheel you don’t worry so much about driving into a ditch . . . but when 4-way intersections appear you get very apprehensive about whether the group can pull it together and make a collective decision before you get there.” The producers solved the problem by offering extremely narrow avenues for audience participation with few guarantees of what would be used.
This won’t be the last time we see community driven TV experiments, especially with famous game designers entering TV production. Moving forward, I hope to see Bar Karma and similar experiments embrace deeper forms of participation. How would you deepen the experience for Bar Karma?