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The Audience Experience & the New Middle Ground

Over the years of teaching stylistic prediction and adjustment, I’ve learned that many of us bring with us a pushback from really embracing where the work is supposed to live. We often roll our eyes and/or judge/resist really going for it. How crazy is that? How likely are we to do our best work or book a gig when we are JUDGING IT?

I’ve seen it far too often to think it’s an anomaly. It’s standard. That judgment, I think, comes from a place of insecurity and the need for validation of our work. I think that happens because in doing our work to grow as capable actors, most of us develop a false valuation system for said work.

Most of us have come up through years or decades of heavy lifting to be as truthful as possible every moment. That discipline is crucial to our development as actors: forcing ourselves to push past comfort zones; developing range and ownership of instrument; and growing as people and artists. But, when we are operating from a need for validation, the very positive reinforcement that keeps us growing starts to become the focus. If we leave this perspective unchecked we derail the actual point of our work.

We develop a counterproductive and unhealthy bias that work is either full truth or it’s shit.

That’s a problem. Turn on the TV. If you REALLY look at it, there ain’t much ‘truth’ there. Everything is skewed in some way or another – made lighter, fuller, more outlandish, more deadpan, etc. It’s not OUR truth, which we have worked so hard to inhabit over years and decades. Rather, it’s the truth of the show and/or network. It’s stylized.

I’ve learned that the process of arriving to truthful, full work within a stylized universe always presents the ‘this feels like bullshit’ voice that I believe we carry from our years of growth as actors. We need to work through the resistance and find ourselves truthful within whatever ‘universe’ that style exists. No matter what stylings it has or who it’s intended audience is, we must make it real, unique, and interesting. WHERE IT LIVES is not necessarily where we feel it the most.

We have learned to become master chefs, now it’s time to make a ham sandwich on white bread for the kids and LOVE doing it.

I expanded on the resistance most of us have on this topic in a post I published a while back. To sum it up, if you are bringing an expectation of artistic validation to your TV auditioning, you need to reframe that expectation pronto or you are not going to be happy in this pursuit at all.

Once that perception is out of the way, it’s so much easier to recognize that the Audience Experience is really all that matters.

We must always remember that the entertainment industry is the Engagement Brokerage Business. The Networks are in the business of acquiring the attention of an audience and selling that attention to parties who have an interest in profiting through exposure to that audience (aka advertisers). There are terms to each engagement – “stylistic parameters” – which are defined by the business directives of the network. Business provides the space for the art.

We must answer the questions ‘Who is the audience this network is looking for and how are they communicating with that audience? What is and isn’t appropriate for that audience?’ This is the Audience Experience that is being created.


How is the audience being engaged? What sort of an experience is being created for them? At the simplest level, there are only two categories of experience into which all other experiences fall:

Audience Participatory Experience or Audience Observational Experience

In Participatory, the audience is empathizing with the characters, drawn in to feeling the conflict, the cost at a personal and specific level. In Observational the audience is excused from feeling that stuff, and are more observing what’s happening.

When we look at the work through this lens, everything starts to fall into place. Style, pacing, irony, depth, humour, danger, intricacy, intimacy, and how far to take it all… it all becomes obvious to us.

OBSERVATIONAL Experience Characteristics

  • Action with moments of Stillness

  • Plot-driven

  • Faster paced

  • Faster paced means: less complex character & story – no time to get deep with the audience about it!

  • Emotional depth tends to be lightened up. It’s often still there, but the audience is excused from fully experiencing it. Think “small talk at a funeral”.

  • What happened and who did it more than why it was done.

  • Heightened urgency, use of humour to lighten the mood.

  • “Character” as a vehicle for PLOT

  • A dumbing down and moving on, and often over-simplification of details.

  • “What”-based casting. Casting highly image-dependent. If you don’t look like a bank teller/cop/waitress etc it’s harder to cast you there.

It all adds up to a ‘sit back and enjoy the ride, don’t think, observe’ type experience. Harsh stuff may be happening, but the manner in which it’s presented excuses the audience from having to feel it or take it too seriously. It never gets too heavy. Think about it some time you’re watching an action adventure movie or most comedy for that matter. Slow things down, and take it truthfully and seriously. It usually becomes way too much to handle.

PARTICIPATORY Experience Characteristics

  • Stillness with moments of Action

  • Character and story driven

  • Slower pace – room to breathe and consider

  • More complex character and story – if the pace is slowed down there needs to be some fullness and complexity to fill the gap.

  • Why things are done is a bigger part of the equation

  • Natural, under-pushed, full performances

  • Plot is usually a vehicle for character growth.

  • Extreme attention to detail on all levels.

  • “Who” based casting. The essence/quality of your personality drives the casting more than just your image.

For a great comparison of the difference between Participatory and Observational, open up Netflix and watch the first 4 minutes of AMC’s The Walking Dead, then watch the first 2-3 minutes of SyFy’s Z-Nation. Very similar subject matter, comparable log-lines for the shows, but entirely different audience experience.

Watch The Walking Dead First. Classic Participatory: Not even a word spoken till about the 3:45 mark. So many question marks about who this person is, what is he dealing with, what is this world that he’s in – STILLNESS. Then an event that we built to for four minutes then ACTION. Followed by… stillness.

Welcome to an exploration of who this person is and how is he going to deal with the new world order.

Now watch the first two minutes of Z-Nation. ACTION from the get-go: we are hit hard with exposition in the first 10 seconds we know everything we need to know about the world. We are hit with gruesome images but denied time to process any of them, then more exposition followed by some soldiers being chased by zombies. Then a moment of reason – STILLNESS – hold your fire! Whew, quick breath before we cut to the urgent ACTION of a soldier at a control panel urgently barking out orders as his superior officer then pops in gives more urgent instruction and leaves.

This experience is about “sit back and let us take you on a thrill ride”. No time to think about who these people are, so there’s no time to really be in their shoes or feel what they are feeling.

I look at all the entertainment on a scale from Observational to Participatory. We’ve seen an increasing polarization of the extremes of each in recent years, and there’s now an interesting effect in front of us: there’s a middle ground that looks for both.

It seems like HBO, AMC, A&E and much of the Netflix/Amazon/Hulu (‘new’ media) content has been driving to Participatory. Gritty, real, heavy, complex content. The big networks haven’t followed. Why not? I don’t believe they can. ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX have huge, established bases that they risk alienating by going ‘too far’ with anything, so they can’t. That’s what left the door open for others to take advantage.

As the demand has grown for this type of content, audiences have filtered off. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, etc. They now have huge audiences that come to them for the “Grit”, the same way the Big Four have audiences that come to them for the “Polish”. The Participatory Providers can’t really do the Polish, and the Big Four can’t really do the Grit. You take yours and I take mine, everybody happy?

Yep… for a while. Until….

The new MIDDLE Ground

In the past couple years, there’s a new area really filling out. The same way that the Big Four networks left ‘Grit’ on the table for HBO and AMC, there is profitable space for a new audience experience and it’s coming up fast.

It’s the middle ground – the combo of the Grit and the Polish. I read a review of Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce (BRAVO Network) during the first season that summed it up perfectly. The author called the show Visually Flawless while all the characters were deeply flawed.

Lifetime’s Unreal is another example. It’s got the polish and the glitz, but we are watching the characters go through some heavy stuff truthfully, and invested in real-feeling character arcs.

They have an advantage because they can serve a smaller audience who wants the polish AND the grit.

More and more, you’re seeing this combo-entertainment – SyFy, CW, Lifetime, Bravo, and many more are competitively creating content that presents flawed characters in a visually flawless environment. The What AND the Who. BUT… overall, this experience still errs to moving things along. We’ll sit in something heavy in a full, truthful fashion, but then something will happen to move us along from it quickly. The final episode of Season One of SyFy’s The Magicians illustrates it very well. Find it and watch it. You’ll see what I mean.

As you go through any show you are audition for, try to think along those terms. Pay attention to what network each show is on, and if you’re unfamiliar with any given one, challenge yourself to predict how it is likely to be played out. It’ll probably be hit and miss initially, but if you keep it up, it will become a second nature adjustment.

For me, that is the goal. To know where the playground is before you even read the sides. This way you will spend more of your time exploring, discovering, and making the work your own in the insanely tight window of preparation for your audition.

You will be a collaborator, and by definition you will be working more and at higher levels.

Bookings will take care of themselves.

As always, thanks for reading. Here’s to a bountiful harvest for all!

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