Show creators and show fans are creating a feedback loop between television and the Internet, taking an already sophisticated show and adding layers of meaning for fans who want to dig even deeper. Lost, for example, plants clues in the show that are not apparent to a casual viewer – the mysterious numbers appearing on a medicine bottle, for example.
Hardcore fans pick up on clues and spread the word, becoming evangelists for the show and creating resources and guideposts for others. Johnson even believes fans could become seed investors for a show such as Firefly, whose devoted fan-base discussed raising money to continue the series after its cancellation by FOX.
Lost was launched just as he was finishing his book, but in Banff he spoke at length about the show as a perfect example of the way television can engage the audience's minds in ways that earlier series would never have attempted. "It's a remarkably complex narrative system and it's a huge international hit," he said, saying the show is creating "essentially a game in what was once a passive form of entertainment." It is, in fact, not just creating a game out of the intricate viewing, multitude of official and fan-based websites, and "mobisodes" for mobile devices, but is spawning an actual game, as well.
Perhaps more importantly for the industry attendees at the Banff World Television Festival, Johnson's theories touch on the economics of a television landscape where viewers are turning to the Internet, games, and mobile video devices. Producers aren't just using complexity to build a television audience, but to retain value for DVD and syndication sales, and to create opportunities to place revenue-generating content on these other platforms.
The covert clues, multi-layered jokes, and intricate stories of shows as diverse as The Simpsons and 24 are partly a product of the "incentive to make shows that can endure repeat viewings," according to Johnson. Interactivity, then, is smart for both creators and consumers - it not only adds cognitive complexity to pop culture, but makes good business sense.