Last summer the people behind the hit French TV series Plus belle la vie (PBLV) didn’t waste any time diving into transmedia storytelling by developing an ambitious alternate-reality game (ARG) intended primarily for the show’s diehard fans.
Plus belle la vie is the only daily drama series on French television to have known consistent success since it was first broadcast in 2004. The show annually airs 260 primetime episodes on the France 3 channel. The average audience for each episode is over 5 million, viewers who avidly follow the adventures of those living in the Mistral. So what could’ve prompted PBLV’sproduction company Telfrance Série to look into online opportunities and dabble in the new field of transmedia? The 2012 London Summer Olympics.
When France 3 advised it would be suspending the show for two weeks in August to rebroadcast highlights from the Games, the production team could’ve easily decided to take a break. They had no reason to worry about losing ratings even if it meant 10 less episodes in the season and an unusual hiatus for regular viewers. But after putting their heads together to determine what kind of impact the interruption could have on the series, the department of new writing and transmedia at France Télévisions and Telfrance Série decided to go the transmedia route and play out part of the show’s plot online where an established community of PBLV followers already existed thanks to the show’s web presence.
The PBLV site presents fans with different options such as an online store and a kind of “Second Life” game (created in 2008) appropriately called Plus belle la life in which viewers enter the show’s pixelated universe using an avatar. In early 2012 Telfrance and France 3 launched Plus belle la vie numérique (Digital PBLV). The show’s digital and multi-platform offspring offers “official” editorial content including two original spin-off web series. So creating the Plus belle la vie sous surveillance (PBLV under surveillance) ARG game and adding it to the show’s other web offerings was a logical choice, one that helped boost the producer’s and broadcaster’s multi-screen strategy.
The “rabbit hole”: where it all started
The controversial topic of video surveillance is introduced to the show in April 2012 when security cameras are installed in Mistral place, where most of the intrigue plays out, after a few small acts of vandalism occur. Based on their opinions and political inclinations, the series’ leading characters either welcome or protest this invasion of privacy. Journalist Ninon, a key character since the show’s very first season, decides to write a blog to encourage people to share their thoughts on the situation. The blog is launched on the show (we see Ninon writing it on her laptop) and on the “real” web (http://www.loeil-de-ninon.fr/) simultaneously and 1800 hits are instantly recorded. Although they didn’t know it at the time, these online viewers had just started playing the game.
Hacking and synchronising web and TV
The transmedia narrative twist was developed in some 38 episodes out of the 100 aired between April 26 (when the cameras were installed) and September 17, 2012.
The pirated videos showing Mistral characters in compromising situations quickly wreak havoc both in and out of the series’ universe. Ninon and the show’s online followers actively try to identify the hacker who goes by the name “Vigilant” (The Watcher) on his Twitter account.
Those following the Vigilant’s trail online discover they too have access to the cameras’ control server. Once in, encrypted riddles reveal precise times when new pirated footage will become available to the most inquisitive online visitor.
The content revealed in these videos – which was exclusively shown on the “hacked” platform – was later integrated into the story’s plot through subsequent PBLV episodes. In addition to being one step ahead of “regular” viewers, those who successfully gained access to these videos online also felt special. It’s what drove over 8000 people to log on to the show’s server to view the first video released this way.
“To give people the impression they were really hacking into the server we had to make sure the timing between what was posted online and what you saw on television was just right,” said Stéphane Natkin, one of the two game designers who worked on the ARG.
It was at this moment in the plot that the show had to break for two weeks, but that didn’t keep the story from unfolding on Ninon’s blog and on the “Les Amis du Mistral” (Friends of the Mistral) Facebook page where players discussed Vigilant’s various offenses. And the outlaw didn’t just strike online. He actually hacked into the France 3 network during the sports broadcasts and got on the air – dressed in a yellow chicken costume – to present new pirated videos for all of France to see.
“Let me tell you that hacking the France 3 network for 17 seconds to broadcast content that is completely out of context in front of such a huge audience was quite a bold move. We’re very grateful to France 3 for rolling with it,” said producer Benjamin Faivre. Four clips each running 15 seconds or so were broadcast two or three times throughout the two-week period and watched online over 40,000 times.
When the series went back on the airwaves in the middle of August the clips broadcast on television were shown again and explained in detail during the first episode after the break. And Vigilant kept posting videos online which made the people targeted in the clips quite anxious and Ninon and the other “Mistralites” very angry.
The young journalist starts writing her blog again and asks those online to help her disable the security camera server by implementing the same DDOS (distributed denial of service) strategy – get as many people as possible to connect to the same server simultaneously in an effort to make it crash – used by Anonymous and other “real” hackers.
The meeting is set for August 23, 2012 at 8:25 pm, which is during a PBLV episode. Some 10,000 people logged on at the appointed time. What we saw on TV (Ninon seeing the site crash on her laptop) and what was really happening on thousands of computers (users helping to get the system to crash) was perfectly synchronized. The “coup” was a resounding success.
“The servers crashed thanks to our online viewers,” said Boris Razon, director of new writing at France Télévisions. “We designed a program set to accept failure and had a few other backup options we could activate online in case it didn’t work. Two web community leaders were also assigned to the project full time to monitor the pace created with the riddles on a daily basis.” He explained that because the series is filmed three months before broadcast there is very little room for error in achieving synchronisation. On the off chance things didn’t go according to plan they had other ways (besides video clips) of getting the audience involved and adapting their “contribution.” If no one had shown up at the meeting, there would’ve been a reason for the server to crash anyway.
A “non-specialized” audience lends a hand
Once the server crashed the last and more “traditional” step of the game was set in motion and the rules were clearly explained: solve a complex riddle by finding various QR codes over the span of several days in order to decipher the URL that will reveal Vigilant’s identity.
More than 17,000 viewers participated in the final chapter of the game. The first player to come up with the correct answer won a day on the set of PBLV, a prize sure to appeal to any fan (which is why the ARG was created in the first place).
“Within four months we understood we were dealing with a fan base that was used to consuming – whether it be news, exclusive footage or whatever else – rather than being involved and proactive in a game, for example,” said Benjamin Faivre.
No “external campaign” was launched to recruit players into the ARG and any game details were only made available within the show’s universe. And since the only way to get drawn into the game was through the plot on television, the ARG was clearly intended for the PBLV audience. A few “real” hackers may have shown interest in the game when the DDOS attack was requested but most of the online traffic was created by the TV show’s fans.
“The first lesson to take away from this experience is that it’s easy, even for the audience of a series you’d never expect it from, to jump from television to the internet. And what’s more, these viewers gladly did it with very little coaxing. Imagine how many people would’ve played the game had it been planned well in advance with mass advertising,” said Boris Razon.
When the PBLV team developed the idea it was intended as a full-scale test to experiment with various principles of TV writing: the blending of different media, and more specifically creating web content while complying with television production rules, the space-and-time factor (the show’s guidelines had to be respected but geolocalized riddles weren’t used to ensure wider appeal), the type of information provided (what you should – or shouldn’t – reveal on television) and the level of difficulty of the riddles presented to the public.
Stéphane Natkin is very clear in his position on the subject. “I firmly believe we need to present players with very difficult riddles,” he said. “Because the game is played on the web there’s always someone online who can solve riddles quickly and post answers within five minutes. We’re actually dealing with collective intelligence in this scenario.”
The team behind the game is happy with the results of this first “test.” They’ve already started working on a follow-up game using more advanced tools so they can continue to explore the overlap between television and the Internet. France Télévisions announced that more than 70,000 people played their first “daily ARG” which generated some 100,000 views on YouTube.
By launching the Plus belle la vie ARG (which integrated pure-player projects and variations on television content), France Télévisions clearly demonstrated they’re willing to experiment with, and are even deeply committed to, developing a real transmedia approach.
All quotes were taken from the conference held during the “I LOVE TRANSMEDIA” event which can be seen at http://vimeo.com/51807164.