Companies & Industries

'Defiance': Syfy's Ultimate Transmedia Adventure


Art imitates life ... imitates art

Art imitates life ... imitates art

One of the business lessons Dave Howe has learned during his time as president of the Syfy cable network: Six-foot-tall extraterrestrials are a lot less expensive than 12-foot-tall ones. That knowledge came in handy during production of Defiance, Syfy’s new series about aliens who come to earth and their prickly relationship with the current inhabitants. Defiance is being simultaneously produced as a video game; the developers at Trion Worlds, Syfy’s gaming partner, wanted some of the alien characters to be 12 feet tall. Howe said this could only be done on TV by spending huge sums on computer graphics. With six-footers all you need are actors, makeup, and weird contact lenses. Much to the disappointment of the video game contingent, the aliens shrank, Howe says.

This was only one of many Hollywood-cyberworld face-offs during the five-year gestation of Defiance. Trion and Syfy also disagreed about financing and marketing the project, as well as when it would launch. There were production delays, and Syfy burned through several writers before it came up with a pilot script that worked.

Defiance’s difficult conception is emblematic of the lengths networks are going to in their quest for hits. There’s an oversupply of marvelous television these days, from AMC’s (AMCX)Mad Men to HBO’s (TWX)Game of Thrones. are both producing original shows. The abundant quality has been great for viewers, but for cable executives, it means working harder to hold people’s attention. Increasingly, networks are trying what the industry calls transmedia: incorporating other story lines on other media into a show to make it more immersive. For example, last fall Bravo encouraged Top Chef fans to watch Last Chance Kitchen, an online reality show in which the cooking competition’s rejects battled to get back on television.

Defiance is perhaps the most ambitious transmedia project yet: A TV show and massively multiplayer online video game where plot elements from the weekly show bleed into the real-time cyberworld of the game. The series debuted on April 15 to an audience of 2.7 million, making it the most successful launch in seven years for Syfy, which is owned by NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast (CMCSA). That’s welcome news at Syfy, where annual cash flow dipped by 2 percent last year to $349 million after a ratings erosion, according to SNL Kagan.

Each week, Defiance adherents can watch a one-hour drama set in a post-apocalyptic St. Louis. Elements of the show cross over into the game, which has attracted more than 1 million registered users since it went live on April 2. In the first season, a “hell bug” uprising in the game is timed to a similar infestation on the show; later, players will be tasked to find the cure for a plague that also afflicts the TV characters.

Transmedia, says Howe, is “the Holy Grail of storytelling.” Trion’s founder, Lars Buttler, agrees. It’s also a way to sell a lot of ads. Dodge, for instance, has negotiated a deal with Syfy and Trion to have its products scattered throughout Defiance’s multiplatform alternate reality. Steve Zaroff, chief strategy officer for McCann-Erickson New York, says Syfy is onto something. “They really seem to understand that consumers, especially in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, don’t distinguish between screens,” he says. “If they like a narrative, if they like a brand, they engage with it through the most convenient and interesting way available.”

Howe and ButtlerPhotograph by Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg BusinessweekHowe and Buttler

Still, Defiance is a big gamble for Syfy and Trion. The network will spend $40 million on the show’s first season, making it the most costly series in its history, and agreed to cover half of the game’s $70 million production. The show is also an important test for Comcast. The nation’s largest cable operator paid $16.7 billion to complete its buyout of NBCUniversal in March and is eager to show what it can do with its media brands. “It speaks volumes about the kind of company that we are going to create, where people look at things and say, ‘Why not put a video game and a television show together?’ ” says Steve Burke, a veteran Comcast executive who now heads NBCUniversal.

Alex Weprin, a senior editor for TVNewser.com who follows the cable industry, says the potential success of Defiance could alter the way Comcast develops shows. “I guarantee you that executives at Comcast and NBC are looking very carefully at Defiance,” Weprin says. “If it works and it’s big—and that’s a big if—this could be a regular thing.”

Howe says he’s just relieved Defiance got on the air—for a while it wasn’t entirely clear it would. One of the biggest issues was creating the show’s mythology. Trion developed a bible—game industry jargon for a document containing all the information anyone would need to know about the world of Defiance—that came to 300 pages. “We’re literally like, ‘Here are the seven races. Here are the back stories. This is what happened 1,000 years ago, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom,’ ” says Nick Beliaeff, Trion’s senior vice president of development.

The bible was too convoluted for Syfy’s writers, who were trying to write a two-hour pilot script. “It was both a gift and a curse to have this weighty tome of mythology,” Howe says. “You had to retrofit the TV series to the bible. We had four or five writers working on this project, and it did their heads in.”

There was also a standoff about when the game and the show would be released. Howe says Trion wanted Defiance on store shelves in December. But that’s the worst possible time to start a series, says Howe: By mid-December, advertisers have already started paring back ad spending. He wanted January or July. The partners settled on April. Just before Christmas, Howe hosted a three-way video chat from Syfy’s office in New York with the network’s Los Angeles production crew and a Trion team in San Diego. He toasted Defiance’s impending première—and insisted that everybody get along better.

In May, Syfy greenlighted a second season of the show. Even before that it had already begun to work on scripts with Trion. It has little choice. Trion, which has taken the position that the online offering must survive with or without the TV show, started working on the next version of the game early this year. That meant Syfy had to reassemble its writing staff earlier than it anticipated. “We need to make sure the game is going to work in tandem with the TV series,” Howe says. He adds that Syfy and Trion are in sync now, but says there are no guarantees that things will work as smoothly in the future. “We’re still like a squabbling family. That’s the nature of the beast.”

The bottom line: Syfy’s new Defiance series, simultaneously developed as an online game, has drawn 2.7 million TV viewers and 1 million players.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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