All the web's a stage as BBC drama goes interactive

Wannabees is a new play filmed for the internet in which characters turn to the audience for advice on what to do next - and then they'll act it out. So how on earth is that going to work? Meg Carter reports

Filming has just begun for a new BBC drama with a difference. Wannabes follows a group of twentysomething would-be writers, pop stars and celebrities living in Brighton. A familiar recipe for a teen audience, perhaps, but this is no Hollyoaks-on-sea. Instead, the producers are trying to create an interactive TV drama for the internet.

"We want to create a junior Sex and the City - something frothy and fun," says co-writer Will Jewell, whose past credits include Doctors and Dream Team. "The main character, Leila, comes to Brighton to be a journalist. She hangs out in a club, Wannabes, where she meets Charlie, the spoilt daughter of the club's owner, who dreams of being famous; Zeb, a local wide boy who wants to be an entrepreneur; his girlfriend, Rachel, who's long-listed to run for Britain at the Beijing Olympics; and a singer-songwriter who's not sure if he should go solo and ditch his band."

The plot's twists and turns include a scandal that threatens to compromise the nightclub owner's political ambitions, and a dig at reality TV when Charlie becomes a participant on a Big Brother-style show called Give Them Enough Rope. Wannabes will mix broadcast production values with computer gaming techniques and has a narrative style. As events unfold, characters must address a series of dilemmas with viewers' help.

"One character gets drunk with his best friend's girlfriend - he goes to the bathroom where he turns to camera to ask: should he sleep with her?" Jewell explains. "The viewer will then see both possible outcomes before being invited to offer advice. The character will make his or her decision anyway, but for interacting the viewer will be awarded a friendship score based on whether advice is helpful or not."

Viewer participation will unlock additional filmed content - thanks or chastisement from a character they have advised, for example. Interactive games are also being built into the series. In one episode, Charlie invites her friends to Laser Quest. As the characters play the game, viewers select who meets who. Their decisions, in turn, dictate what film footage appears on their computer screen.

"People think interactive drama means letting the audience dictate the outcome," says Jewell, pointing to previous interactive dramas, including last year's Dubplate from Channel 4, in which storylines were dictated by viewers via text messaging. A similar technique was used for Forget the Rules, an Australian show that aired on the music station Channel V, the internet and 3G mobile phones.

"The problem with this approach is that each viewer choice leads you down a different route," he adds. "Most experiments so far have involved mini-dramas with episodes of just a few minutes. To produce longer-format interactive drama in this way would require months to film all the different elements and various outcomes, and a long time to knit them all together."

With Wannabes, the viewer interacts through limited choices, then it all comes back to the same point at the end of each episode - a necessary compromise, says the show's executive producer, Jamie Cason. Stories, not technical trickery, engage audiences, he believes.

"At first, we came at this more from a computer game design than a TV production perspective. But we struggled," he admits. "The most important focus has to be characters and plotting. TV and linear producers can learn from computer gaming, but that industry is struggling to develop interactive formats acceptable to a mainstream audience. Their weakness is characters and engaging stories, but that's our strength."

Wannabes is the fourth interactive drama to come out of the BBC's interactive drama and entertainment department, which is overseen by the BBC's drama and entertainment chief, Alan Yentob. Its first project was Thunder Road, a video-based interactive drama in 30 three-minute episodes by the playwright John Godber.

Next came the animated drama Ghosts of Albion and then, last year, Jamie Kane, awhodunit about a missing popstar. Created for the internet and mobile phone, Jamie Kane mixed live footage with online games, mobile phone messaging and clues to the popstar's whereabouts hidden on fictional websites. The initiative blurred the lines between TV and the web, but confused many within the industry and its target audience.

"Each of these interactive dramas is playing a valuable role in developing the BBC's understanding of how TV production will need to evolve in the future," says Sophie Walpole, the interactive drama and entertainment department's head. "We already do a lot of interactive applications for broadcast shows such as Spooks, Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who. Wannabes, however, is an original, on-demand interactive TV drama that's about assessing the next step beyond that."

Broadcasters are grappling with how best to make TV content available via the web, she says. The latest figures from Google show that surfing the web has overtaken watching TV as the UK's favourite pastime. Meanwhile, in the US, a number of high-profile, internet-exclusive TV shows are in production, including Gold Rush, a Treasure Hunt-style reality format developed by Mark Burnett.

Burnett, America's reality TV king and the creator of The Apprentice, has declared: "The internet is about to become the next broadcast network... and could well become the new primetime." That's a claim too far for Walpole. But, she says, only by investing in new interactive programme formats today can broadcasters such as the BBC gain the audience insight it will need to cope when TV via the internet becomes the norm.

Wannabes launches on www.bbc.co.uk/teens in September.

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