Q&A: Hilary Perkins, head of multiplatform, drama, Channel 4.
This week Channel 4 unveiled plans for its first multiplatform drama series Utopia, due to air early next year. The show will mark the broadcaster’s first full multiplatform drama commission to air on the main channel, having previously focused on commissioning for E4 – home to successful multiplatform shows Misfits and Skins.
The broadcaster is working with TH_NK, the digital agency that created Pottermore, along with TV production house Kudos and scriptwriter Dennis Kelly, to bake in digital experiences to the linear narrative at the start of the creative process.
Channel 4’s multiplatform commissioner for drama Hilary Perkins (pictured) spoke to new media age about the challenge and risks, along with the potential pay-offs, in embedding multiplatform storytelling in the heart of a brand new drama brand, (see below for details on the show’s plot).
How much of a departure is this from your previous multiplatform work?
This is the first fully multiplatform work we have done for Channel 4, with everything multiplatform based previosuly made for E4, where we have been active around leveraging social networks and additional video material to create those experiences for the E4 audience. So this is first time we have turned our attention to a high profile, brand new series for the main channel. Consequently we have had to stop and think again. Obviously there are overlaps in the channels but the Channel 4 audience is much more grown-up and the show itself is more grown up. We are not exactly starting from scratch but have had to completely change our approach.
How confident are you the main Channel 4 audience is as ready to embrace multiplatform as the E4 audience?
Audiences in general are ready for more. As long as you are creating a show that is exciting and compelling and the audience is invested in it there is appetite for more multiplatform activity. The main difference between the Channel 4 and E4 channels is the viewers of the former possibly have less time to invest. That is what we will be monitoring. We have to consider the fact it is a broader audience, which generally indicates a wider range of life stages if not lifestyes, so some will have more time to invest than others. Others will be used to multiplatform content because they have played along with the Million Pound Drop and Misfits for example.
Even programmes like Homeland have generated huge Twitter activity, which shows people are ready and willing to engage with digital platforms when they are watching high-end, tier one drama output. We want to take that further and explore what else we can do with that.
What can we expect to see from the show?
Since Utopia is a conspiracy thriller there were some possibly predictible ways we could have dealt with this online which I want to steer clear from. For example I don’t want it to be centred on asking the audience to solve the conspiracy theory. There is much more to this drama than unfolding a conspiracy. We have tried to drill into the essence of what the series is about and reflect the different themes along with its twists and turns. As the story unfolds, what it is about shifts. So we are trying to create a multiplatform experience in line with that.
What type of multiplatform experience?
I’m not following the template we have explored for Misfits and Skins, which is essentially building the world of the drama in social networks. There’s aways going to be an element of social networks in there as audiences use those platforms, but it is only a part of it – we are not building the world of the show there. We are more playing with the edges of where Utopia meets real life.
I hope to intrigue viewers of Utopia by making an online experience that is compelling, curious, and as disturbing and frightning as the online drama – evoking and echoing the unsettling feeling people will have watching the TV drama.
Drama has always been pitted as one of the hardest genres to tackle multiplatform storytelling – has that now changed?
No I think it is still fair to say drama is one of the most difficult areas to create multiplatform experiences. We have had some success, but there is still much to learn and a lot more exploring to do. Creating good drama in the first place is incredibly hard – finding a way to expand that to other platforms in a way that doesn’t detract from the linear drama itslef is a difficult ask.
Drama is something you tend to sink into and watch passivley, compared to other genres. Trying to find that kind of behaviour around watching fictional narrative is more challenging, but when it works the rewards are really rich, so i’m very interested in exploring what we do in this space.
* Utopia is a six-part drama set to follow the lives of a group of people whose lives change forever after the discovery of a manuscript of cult graphic novel Utopia, which unleashes a major conspiracy.