In line with its ongoing strategy of bringing innovation to television on a regular basis, France Télévisions and its New Writing team launched an unprecedented interactive experience in April 2013. Viewers were able to take part in a live investigation during the broadcast of an episode of the Les petits meurtres d’Agathe Christie (“Little Murders by Agatha Christie”) drama series as two new detectives were introduced to the show at the beginning of its latest season.
Broadcast on France 2 in the first half of the evening, the “Meurtre au champagne” (“Sparkling Cyanide”) episode based on Agatha Christie’s 1945 novel of the same title was specially developed to ensure a memorable experience for viewers, although it was still possible to watch the show the “old fashioned” way.
A cross between the classical board game “Clue” and a choose-your-own-adventure – or CYOA – book, the application enabled viewers to “play detective” while watching the program. And it couldn’t have come at a better time since second screens, also known as “companion screens,” have been bringing up many questions in the industry, especially when it comes to fiction content.
When gamification meets second screen
The principle behind the experience offered by France Télévisions is quite simple: with help from Marlène, the police commissioner’s secretary (who is also a character on the actual series), visitors try to find out who murdered the beautiful Elvire by leading their own investigation on their tablet (or laptop) as they watch the episode on TV.
The interactive experience started at 8:50 pm, the same time the show aired. Viewer investigations ended about 10 minutes before the show did so users could make their own predictions, which were either proven true or false by the end of the episode.
The application content evolved as the plot of the episode unfolded. In the moments leading up to the crime – which were used to set up the intrigue – players didn’t have access to the (many) character files full of valuable information needed to solve the case.
But once the crime occurred, everything sped up. Players were solicited repeatedly, each time in a different way. They were asked to investigate the case thoroughly by answering questions, finding hidden items in sets, reading archived documents and completing a number of other assignments. Each time users got it right they were awarded points and taken back to the game’s homepage.
The various tasks assigned by the app required players to use different skills: memory (details found in the TV episode), focus (on what was happening on two different screens at the same time) and powers of deduction.
A timeline on the second screen allowed users to see when the next interactions were scheduled, which was very helpful in managing their time and deciding on which screen (TV or companion) to focus.
Technically speaking, the application is not a “real” app, but rather a “web” app that can be accessed directly through an internet browser on any tablet or laptop. Based on the principles of responsive design, the game can be played on multiple platforms for lower development costs. During the show the web application was synchronized with the stream from the network the episode was broadcast on and automatically updated each time a new piece of evidence was revealed to users.
With the help of several local government funds, the organization had a budget of up to €60,000 to invest in the application, one of the largest amounts awarded by the commission in 2012. As co-producer of the TV series, France Télévisions also funded the rollout of the viewer experience.
France Télévisions reported over 31,000 page views seen by 5,300 unique visitors during the launch of the interactive experience developed for the Petits meurtres on April 5, 2013. And as far as the TV audience goes, 4,246,000 French viewers (a 16.8% market share) watched the episode, ranking France 2 second for the time slot behind TF1.
As a complement to these rather mediocre numbers, the show’s hashtag (#LPMAC) ranked fourth among France’s trending topics for the evening. Gwenaëlle Signaté, the editorial advisor in charge of the program at France Télévisions New Writing, explained the results as follows:
“It’s difficult to anticipate viewership and to analyse their response to this kind of experimental platform. Our audience for the episode was mostly media- and digital-industry professionals who are also expert web users. They felt they were taking part in a new experience and so they adopted a ‘tester’ attitude. However, we also found a good portion of our viewers to be younger and part of a family, such as a mom watching and playing with her daughters, for example.”
Second screen and fiction: a not-so-perfect match
Compared to other second-screen applications already developed for the French market (such as The Voice on TF1, Futur par Starck on ARTE and some sporting-event broadcasts), asking viewers to conduct an investigation by completing relevant interactive tasks may seem a bit on the “plain” side. But let’s not forget that the context in which the game was played is completely different from other established applications. We’re not dealing with “reality” here. This app is all about fiction and, more precisely, all about a thriller.
As a guideline, TF1 reported the interactive experience developed around The Voice attracted close to 200,000 players.
This type of platform brings several questions on divided attention and the value added to original programs into question. While people watching a news show or a talent-competition reality series can easily focus on both TV AND live tweets, the same can’t be said for drama content requiring undivided passive attention aimed at a single goal/screen. As Mesagraph reported in a weekly analysis of the French audio-visual landscape on Twitter, the number of tweets posted during the broadcast of fiction programs (films and series) is often much lower than for current-event and reality shows. And similar conclusions can be drawn from the data gathered by Seevibes in the French-Canadian and English-Canadian markets on social TV activity.
The main problem users had with the Petits meurtres application is a major one. It proved virtually impossible to properly follow the TV movie (which provided viewers with its own clues as the police investigation went on) while solving all the puzzles, carefully reading all the documents and completing every interactive task presented on the second screen.
Any companion-screen experience developed for a fiction program is an ambitious and very tricky feat to complete. Not only does it have to contend with the issue of viewer concentration, it creates a moral issue as well. Will creators of a film or documentary really be enthusiastic about “enhancing” their work when the proposed “enhancements” will most likely take viewer attention away from their original content?
Choosing an episode from a series inspired by the works of Agatha Christie was both relevant – a criminal investigation elicits a strong commitment from players – and very chancy. Stories by the “Queen of Crime” are often full of twists and turns and almost always provide a list of underlying psychological issues that explain character motivations. Conveying these subtle nuances in an interactive game is far from easy.
User satisfaction is also a crucial element to consider when developing an interactive platform. As France Télévisions pointed out, players acted as app “testers.” They spent more time posting comments about software glitches and technical specs on Twitter than they did solving the case. Other visitors had issues of their own with the game, a major one being the lack of communication about the application. There was indeed very little information provided about the interactive platform during the show.
Embraced by Internet and media experts and professionals, the launch of the interactive experience did a better job of promoting the series than of drawing a “real” audience.
It’s still possible to experience the game online, although it’s no longer in synchronized mode. The episode was split into as many sequences as necessary to successfully conduct the investigation, and content (which is identical to what was shown during the broadcast) was redistributed and spread out in a new interface. The significant efforts put forth to ensure the game can still be played are commendable, especially when we know most transmedia and second-screen experiences disappear as soon as content credits are finished rolling.
While many of today’s mainstream shows are still building their digital ecosystem, fiction programs remain wary of offering viewers synchronized experiences despite several efforts made this season by series such as “The Walking Dead” and “Hawaii Five-0” (which let its audience choose the ending of an episode in real time).
Despite its user-friendly navigation and realistic web design, the Petits meurtres d’Agatha Christie experience had one very major flaw, and that is that it required the constant attention of players much like the original work that inspired the episode required the constant attention of readers. Interactions between enhanced content and their enhancements need to be on point in second screen applications, especially when they’re being developed for fiction series.