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Streaming Sites Crunch the Numbers on Interactive Video
Creating an interactive online experience, such as Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, takes a lot of extra footage and budget. Viewers like it so far, but do the economics add up?
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It seems obvious: A production that needs more footage is going to be more expensive. Interactive shows—those choose-your-own-adventure style features—require a lot more footage. So does creating interactive content makes business sense?

The Netflix original show Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, delivered at the end of December 2018, upped the ante for both entertainment value and technical excellence. This branching narrative let viewers make choices and determine everything from what the main character eats for breakfast to far more psychologically challenging options.

That show's default path can be viewed in 90 minutes, but there’s a wide variation in how many endings can be seen and even how long it takes to get there. In all, the production team shot 150 minutes of footage divided into 250 segments. The shoot took 35 days, which creator Charlie Brooker says is equivalent to developing four separate episodes.

“It's really interesting when you pull back and you think about the idea of interactive properties and subscription business models,” Zane Vella, vice president of product interactivity at Comcast, told the audience at the TV of Tomorrow Show. With this type of content there’s the chance for consumers to watch multiple times and revise how the story’s characters will make moral and ethical choices. As your branching narrative expands out there is exponentially more production that you have to do and that has to be taken into account."

So it's costly, but not as costly as creating new shows. It's a lot easier to extend a franchise and shoot parallel paths of three, four or five branches than developing all-new programs, Vella said. The upshot: Creating interactive branches increases costs, but it's actually more affordable than going out and developing new properties.

Encoding and the Path (Not) Taken

Interactive video is a new thing, and getting it right required developing new tools and coordinating multiple production teams. For Andy Schuler, manager of video engineering at Netflix, one of his team's key challenges was handling all the potential variations in a cost-effective manner.

Consider the problem of latency: When viewers choose a path that video needs to play seamlessly. Any delay would ruin the experience. So which option gets cached? Netflix says both. “While caching multiple choices does add complexity and some additional cost, it’s limited by the client buffer capacity, so cost does not grow with segment length," Shuler says.

Netflix developed a branching manager tool to handle the complex web of potential story paths. The company needed to both provide a structure for the writing of Bandersnatch and ensure a smooth transition between scenes.

For encoding, Netflix replaced the chunking approach of using two-second GOPs (groups of pictures) with a newly developed per-scene approach. This allowed for low latency and optimized stitching of ABR (average bitrate) files. “Per-scene encoding optimizations were critical to achieving a seamless experience across multiple platforms,” Schuler says. “Our encoding ladder is customized to best fit each piece of content, so that we can provide optimal quality at nearly any data rate.”

That's the same approach Netflix now uses for all its content. "The encoding ladder is informed more by the creative choices of the camera department and editors than whether the content is meant to be viewed linearly or not.” Schuler gave more details on interactive storytelling during his Streaming Media East 2019 closing address.

Show Me the Money

Content like Bandersnatch can achieve a much higher engagement level because many viewers watch multiple times and experiment with different paths. The content owner is able to capture data about user preferences and use this as a departure point for additional personalization. Interactive storytelling can work on transactional or ad-supported platforms, as well. One recent ad-supported production is Epic Night. 

“We just came off shooting Epic Night, our scripted interactive content branch narrative for the Eko platform,” says Marc Hustvedt, CEO of Fine Brothers Entertainment. Eko funded Epic Night, acollege-party adventure, and will debut it on the free, ad-supported HelloEko streaming video platform in the fall of 2019. Last year, Eko received a $250 million investment from Walmart to develop interactive content.

Epic Night will present a user decision point every 60 to 90 seconds, usually between 2 options, with more than 3,000 different possible permutations,” Hustvedt says. “Pending final approval, there should be about 120 minutes of finished content for a play-thru of about 45 minutes.

“I think on a per-minute basis it doesn't necessarily have to cost more. From the perspective of per-user minutes watched it probably is more expensive. But in terms of a per-minute shot, it’s comparable.”

Picking a Winning Format

Video site Twitch has become an effective branching storytelling platform by using text and other types of interactivity. Producers are looking at other approaches that resonate with viewers. Jason George, CEO of Telescope, says he used several different strategies, such as viewer voting, in the reality show American Idol, where live polling allowed viewers across multiple time zones to watch and make their choices at the same moment.

One project in development is Predict the Game, a live competition where viewers can win a cash prize by correctly making sports predictions. This new area should bring a number of interesting business and technical challenges to the forefront, but producers need to make sure interactivity is never just a gimmick. “I don’t think Bandersnatch’s interactivity will work for any other show. If the interactivy is any less creative than the TV show itself, you failed,” George says.

While some formats were flashes in the pan (think 3-D), work is now being done to create platforms, approaches, and guidelines that ensure interactive development thrives. Movielabs develops common technology goals in the entertainment industry for digital distribution. One of its focuses was creating cross-platform extra (CPE) specifications that standardize the process of supplying interactive content—whether that's for a movie or a trivia game.

“Tooling is a really important aspect,” Vella said. Adding three months of code development for each interactive production wouldn't work. “But if you [already] have tools you make it easy.”   

Bandersnatch flung open the door for interactive storytelling, and Netflix has more on its schedule. The platform launched You vs. Wild in April, and announced an interactive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special and an animated interactive series called Battle Kitty.

While it’s too early to assess the value of interactive, this content paradigm should be able to find a home in SVOD, TVOD, and AVOD business models.Whatever the platform, viewers will vote with their clicks, and it will become apparent soon if interactive video has real staying power.

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