Immersing viewers in 'Dirty Work'

A screenshot from RIDES' tutorial on its interactive media.

Kai Ryssdal: Consider for just a second how we watch TV now. Maybe you, definitely your teenage kids. Smartphone in one hand, iPad close by. Facebooking and texting and searching.

It's never been so hard for an entertainment company to get somebody's full attention. Rather than fight the device war, though, some companies are embracing it. Noah Nelson of Turnstyle News brings us the story of one company going all in.


Noah Nelson: Don't you just hate it when the phone rings in the middle of a good show? But what if it's the show calling?

"Dirty Work" clip: 911. What's the nature of your emergency? I think my friends were murdered. OK, are you with the victims? Yeah -- with one of them.

That's how the new web series "Dirty Work" begins. Your cell phone rings. You answer. And as you eavesdrop on a call between an operator and an eyewitness, crime scene footage unspools on the screen. Then comes a text message from a character whose about to join the story. Later you might get an email. You get the idea.

"Dirty Work" traces the lives of a crime scene cleanup crew. But their story is only half the story. Dirty Work is the first series to use a new platform known as RIDES. And it's designed for viewers who have, well, attention deficit disorder.

Here's how it works. You register at RIDES.tv with your email, or you can sign in through Facebook. RIDES does the rest.

Elan Lee: It collects all of those things together: your Facebook account, your Twitter account and what you're looking at the moment and your telephone number and your ability to receive text messages, and on and on it goes.

That's Elan Lee. He's the chief creative officer of Fourth Wall Studios, where RIDES was developed.

Lee: And it synchronizes them all together so that they all work in unison to tell a really, really good story.

And suck you in with all of your devices. You'll be so focused interacting with "Dirty Work," you won't have time for Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

This is where entertainment is headed, with giants like Microsoft and Sony looking to create more immersive experiences.

The founders of Fourth Wall Studios have a lot of practice telling stories this way. They pioneered something known as Alternate Reality Games -- ARGs.

Lee: They were stories that would reach out to you and live in the same world that you lived in. So all of a sudden, you'd be playing the game and in the middle of the night, a character from the game would call you on your cell phone and that's how the next chapter would begin.

The problem is the players got so good so fast, designers had trouble making the games complex enough.

But a half-hour web show is a whole lot easier to understand. So Fourth Wall created "Dirty Work," and last year, the company landed $15 million in backing -- enough to bring in experienced film and TV production people, Emmy-winning writers and recognizable actors from shows like "24" and "Breaking Bad."

Liz Shannon Miller writes about online video for the tech blog GigaOm.

Liz Shannon Miller: What's going to be key to them succeeding is to figure out how to monetize it.

The main ways that web series do that are with product placement and advertising or subscription fees. And Miller says RIDES has the potential to succeed.

Miller: The transmedia platform that Fourth Wall is developing here encourages a much more engaged viewer. That could be much more interesting to advertisers than say, throwing a 30-second spot at the beginning of a YouTube video.

Fourth Wall has produced three episodes of "Dirty Work" for the web so far. There's no word on viewers or ads yet, but they have a stack of shows in development across all kinds of genres. But the big question remains: Can anyone survive long-term on the strength of short attention spans?

In Los Angeles, I'm Noah Nelson for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstylenews.com, a project of Youth Radio.

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