This Monday, Electronic Arts and the television production company Endemol announced a partnership to develop a concept they call Virtual Me (press release). It basically sounds like an online service where you can re-enact popular TV shows with other users using personalised avatars. Endemol is responsible for formats such as Big Brother and Deal or No Deal. In a similar effort, MTV last year launched Virtual Laguna Beach, a virtual world based on a “reality” TV show.
To some extent, the sudden interest in turning everything to avatars and virtual worlds may be due to the Second Life hype. But there is also substance to it. In the teenage virtual world Habbo Hotel, re-enacting television shows has been a popular pastime for years.
I first heard of this from my colleague Mikael Johnson (see Johnson & Toiskallio 2005). Game shows, dating shows and talk shows all all there, from Who wants to be a millionaire? to Idols. Someone acts as the host and decorates a room appropriately for the show. Contestants are selected, and other users act as spectators.
There is a kind of business aspect to this unofficial and unlicensed play. Sometimes, the host will require contestants or spectators to lay down an entrance fee in virtual items. The proceedings may be given as a prize to the winner, or they may be kept by the host (and perhaps used to construct an even better game show next time). Popular hosts may become minor celebrities inside the service. I think this is an interesting type of user-created content, and depending on how EA/Endemol implement it, perhaps it works out for them as well.
Another thing the announcement reminds me of is the possibilities of virtual asset based revenue models outside MMORPGs. It’s no longer news that community sites like Cyworld IRC-Galleria are selling virtual property to users. The income from those sales is easily comparable to advertising revenues. Could the virtual asset revenue model be leveraged in television programs as well?
It’s not such a crazy thought when you consider that European TV stations already run heaps of interactive games during off-peak hours, anything from football to war games. Dozens of simultaneous users send in commands via premium SMS messages. In many games the session is persistent, meaning that you can earn points for your nickname. I wouldn’t be surprised if customisable avatars are next. The Finnish company RedLynx is one of the pioneers in this area, which they call Participation TV.
According to the EA/Endemol press release, the “two companies will […] develop entertainment formats and experiences for a wide range of platforms, including TV and online.”
At some point, of course, television and online media are supposed to have converged to such an extent as to make these distinctions meaningless.