France Télévisions’ New Writing team continues to explore transmedia fiction. After launching its linear webseries platform, Studio 4 (formerly Studio 4.0), just last fall, it orchestrated one of the most interesting participatory fiction projects since The Spiral in 2012.
Using Alternate History and Real Time
In October 2014, France was hit by an unprecedented economic and political crisis. Faced with this difficult situation, the country decided to leave the euro zone. What followed was a period of chaos given the absence of a national currency or political power. (In this universe, both Hollande and Sarkozy died in a plane crash.)
With this fascinating alternate history as a backdrop, a TV series airs every Thursday evening on France 4. Furthermore, the anarchy.fr site makes its debut online and pursues a twofold mission: to create a true-false news site devoted to the fictional world of Anarchy and give the public an opportunity to take part in the writing the story as it unfolds.
The connection between the two media is unequivocal: on a weekly basis from the second episode on, one of the characters created by web users comes to life in the television series. Producing the series is therefore a weekly venture. Accordingly, each episode is scripted, shot and aired within 7 days.
On a daily basis over a seven-week period, a summary video, information updates and calls for testimony—as well as a regularly updated Twitter feed—keep Internet users informed of the serious situation facing their country.
Finally, based on the model created by 24-hour news sites, a mobile app enables people to stay in contact with the world of Anarchy, including sending photos or videos in reply to the calls for testimony launched by the scripting team.
In the manner of the infamous parodic news site Gorafi, anarchy.fr feeds off the news to better misappropriate it and reset it in a fictional context.
The topic hits the bull’s eye in the unstable French context to such an extent that the Journal du Dimanche announces a few days before the launch that Marine Le Pen becomes president in the fiction, something never contemplated in any scenario.
While a radio chronicle aired on France Inter told the events (Anarchy, le journal du chaos), even the daily newspaper Le Monde played into the game by offering David Dufresne one page per week in its paper. Under the pseudonym Maurice Upian, he told the story of how he had infiltrated the universe of Anarchy under the cover of a DCRI (French secret service) operative.
A Story Built Week After Week
A large place is given to the public. Internet users simply need to open an account on the platform to become coauthors of the story and continue writing the scripts of the web-based story’s “official” characters. They can also choose to create their own heroes.
Thanks to a sophisticated pointing system, the internaut-proclaimed protagonists are showcased on a daily and weekly basis until they attain the ultimate reward: each week, the character selected by the scripting team comes to life through the performance of a comedian hired for the occasion and presented during the TV series’ episode the following week.
Thus, Internet users become the “coauthors” of the series and those whose characters have been selected are paid in exchange of the use of their creation. Users can create up to eight characters and interact with those of others. They can also choose to purely and simply kill them off (39 deaths had been reported by the end of the game).
A scripting team formed of twenty or so individuals was set up to feed the universe of Anarchyon a daily basis. Like the Internet users registered with the platform, these journalists also contribute to writing the collective fiction.
Originally, in 2007, Anarchy was a project that stemmed from the minds of Benjamin Faivre, producer for Telfrance, and Boris Razon, then editor-in-chief of Monde.fr and today director of new writing for France Télévisions. The project has been under development since several years now (it even received a MIP award in 2012), but it is not before Boris Razon became editorial director of France 4 a year ago that the channel joined forces with the web team to undertake such a large-scale production. The overall budget approaches one million euros and is funded by France Télévisions, Europe Créative MÉDIA and the CNC.
Over the program’s seven weeks, from October 30 to December 18, 2014, the daily activity on the platform led to the creation of over 800 characters and the posting of close to 11,000 texts, i.e., the equivalent of “a 200-page novel per day” according to the report filed by the team at the end of the adventure.
Whereas the initial promise was to have one’s character showcased in the TV series, in hindsight, it is the creative process at work on anarchy.fr that more closely resembles fan fiction: starting from a given predetermined story line, internauts had the opportunity to give their imagination and literary talents free rein. What contributed to creating a truly virtual community, as can testify those who came out winners from the experience, are the possible interactions between the various key characters and therefore internauts themselves.
Mixed Results: The Major Divide Between TV and Web
Ironically, the TV series ended up being the weakest link of the chain: confined to a later and later spot in the evening’s programming schedule, the series is only followed by an average of 80,000 viewers per week—including catch-up viewers. The anarchy.fr community quickly lost interest in it and began focusing solely on the site. Even more symptomatic is the fact that not a single live tweet was posted while the series aired. Even the official account remained silent.
Whereas the TV series—despite it being aired so late—should have been the engine that drove the site, almost the opposite occurred. The site became a sort of continuously operating self-driven machine.
The error that was made was to create too much distance between the narrative arcs of the web and TV in an attempt to make both media autonomous. Indeed, the story told in the TV series focuses solely on a Belgian charity preparing to greet an influx of needy French citizens. If the parody of the humanitarian universe was conducive to raising smiles, this quasi lock-up had little to do with the crisis underway in the rest of France, namely the political blips that largely contributed to the online fiction.
“Fundamentally, what people wanted to see was an enactment of this story, not a Belgian lock-up in France. Instead, they wanted to see how the story actually unfolded in the country. We lacked the means to do so, we didn’t have enough money,” recently admitted Boris Razon.
Thanks to an interesting mechanism, qualitative success (the commitment of users to the story) and a design set out from the start as a participatory fiction, the Anarchy series demonstrated a great deal of narrative ambition and it is hoped that its semi-failure in terms of audience ratings will not hinder the enthusiasm of the historical broadcasters who are the only ones capable of federating the general public.