Ben Silverman, meet Chuck Lorre. Chuck Lorre, meet Ben Silverman.
Okay, maybe the two high-powered Hollywood types don't need me to make introductions, but at their respective Banff World Television Festival sessions, Silverman, the new chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, and Lorre, the co-creator of CBS's Two and a Half Men, both touched on interactive television, one looking to the future, one looking to the past.
Silverman, the founder of Reveille Productions and an executive producer behind The Office, Ugly Betty, The Tudors, The Biggest Loser, and 30 Days, among many others, is on a mission to revive NBC's ratings by finding "aspirational shows, positive shows. I'm going to zig when other people zag, and redefine what television is," he told New York Times TV columnist Bill Carter in front of a packed room during the festival's In Conversation With session.
Silverman thinks the current crop of interactive shows – American Idol with its phone and text voting, for example – are, despite their massive popularity, mere baby steps down the road of what's possible.
He brought up the example of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books he read as a child, where the reader could influence the outcome of the narrative. "I think there will be a time when we have that more interactive experience," he said, adding that it will require a "different kind of creativity and a new generation of storytellers," as well as more sophisticated television technology. "We're still early, but we need to foster the next generation of talent."
Well, one of the current generation of talent hit on that very thing for his proposed 2001 show Nathan's Choice. Chuck Lorre envisioned a two-act show about a recent college graduate who would end the first act faced with a two-pronged choice. "I thought interactivity was something that would be fun to do," the co-creator of the upcoming Big Bang Theory told his Master Class interviewer, Macleans' Scott Feschuk, who suggested the idea was likely before its time.
Lorre, under contract with FOX at the time, proposed that they would write and shoot both possible second acts. At the commercial break, the audience would vote online to determine Nathan's choice, and the winning act would air immediately. Later, FOX's cable FX Networks could rerun the episode with the unaired second act, to show the audience what would have happened if Nathan had made the other choice.
Lorre wanted the choices to range from the mundane, such as whether to date the girl next door or his boss's daughter, to more weighty choices that could lead to disastrous consequences, even to Nathan's death, only to have the world of the show reset the next week.
What did the executives think of his innovative idea? "They were terrified. They were just terrified," he shrugged. "Everything about it was mindboggling, even from a business standpoint. How do we pay the actors for the second act that doesn't air? Questions no one had thought of."
"It was very upsetting to the executives," he commented. "I thought it was a great way of telling a story with more alternatives than linear storytelling."
It's mindboggling to me, too, to imagine the logistics involved in that kind of show, but then I'm no network executive who gets paid to figure these things out.
In his own vision of creating a national "play along" event, Silverman pointed to the significant obstacle caused by something as mundane as multiple time zones. Still, NBC's new chief is looking for those innovative ideas, and the man who brought The Office from England and Ugly Betty from Colombia knows they could come from anywhere. Maybe even Los Angeles.