In July 2009, dozens of people attending the Comi-Con in San Diego volunteered to take part in FlashForward’s promotional campaign by recording a short video where they talked about their “flashforward”. The campaign, that was modeled on Lost’s alternate reality game (ARG) “The Lost Experience”, lasted five months and preceded the show’s premiere on September 22, 2009. It unfolded mainly on the Net where users could collect and compare information on the upcoming show by reviewing five cryptic micro-commercials that ABC had broadcasted during the breaks of Lost’s episode “The Variable” (see video on the left), visiting the page of the “Mosaic Collective”, the message board “We FlashForward” and the blog and Twitter page of one Oscar Obregon who claimed to be a journalist investigating (and disseminating clues on) the causes of a “global black out”.
FlashForward (FF) is, like Lost, about time-travelling, destiny and free will. In the course of a mysterious black out everybody on the planet loses consciousness and is projected to April 29, 2010 to have a glimpse of the future. According to what the participants at FF’s panel at the Comi-Con were shown (the first two acts of the pilot episode “No More Good Days”), not every character is happy with what she/he sees and most of them don’t know how to make sense of their visions considering that these only last 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), the lead character, is desperate when he finds out that, by the time his flashfoward happens, he will have jumped off the wagon and been left by his wife Olivia (Sonya Walger) for another man, whereas his colleague Dimitri Noh has no flashfoward and fears he will soon be dead.
From the short preview circulated at the panel it emerges that the show is not about facts but speculation and expectation, as the black out makes everybody a stranger to themselves. This narrative premise structures the plot as an open-ended story whose unfolding is linked to the unforeseeable twists-and-turns caused by the characters’ new knowledge of themselves. Although these elements suggest that the show is about free-will and destiny, none reveals how it will actually unfold. Ambiguity and vagueness are at the emotional core of the campaign. Disseminating clues on the Net, print press, and television, FF built expectation and intrigue into its fabric, bidding on the audience’s disposition to be taken by a compelling narrative.
The clips recorded at the Comi-Con suggest this promotional strategy was successful. The users’ credit provided ABC with the necessary ratings to commission a whole season. The campaign began at a moment when ABC had not commissioned the series, which means that what circulated as promotional material was based only on the producers’ idea of what the show would be.
My interest lays in the dynamics of engagement generated by this promotional campaign, highlighting how the success of the show did not depend solely on its codification as “the new Lost”, but on how people, especially the 18-34 demographic and science fiction fans, experienced the campaign. Participants, and increasingly users and science fiction fans, were intrigued by the chance of engaging with a story that wasn’t there yet but that, because of its premise, could be appropriated and manipulated. As the flashforwards are personal, everybody could draw from their experience and make up a different story.
In his flashforward available on the YouTube channel “Join the Mosaic” (see video on the left), “Batcroz”, for example, sees himself in China, making inspections and measuring the ground for what seems to be a constructor job. He is pleased with his vision and willing to embrace it. By the end of the 1-minute-long clip he actually wonders how to secure the flashforward and “make that happen” because it sounds like a good opportunity and he is “hoping that it comes true”.“Batcroz”’s enthusiasm is not shared by the rest of the participants. Some are puzzled by what they saw in their flashforward, whereas others refuse to believe it because it revealed something unexpected and/or unwelcome. However, what made their contribution valuable to the promotional campaign is not what they saw but their desire to make FF part of their lives and televisual experience. The logic behind the initiative was to let the news about FF spread “virally”, that is by word of mouth and it happened. An article that appeared last October on the Guardian reports that FF is “the fastest-selling series” in Disney’s history, meaning that foreign markets bought it on the sole basis of the promotion’s results, that is according to people’s reaction to the campaign.
Although the show has eventually sunk in the ratings, the five-month campaign that was mounted to promote it reveals the increasing reliance of the cultural industry on audience productivity. Studies suggest that the “fan” is the ideal model of contemporary television, someone who engages in a prolonged and interactive relationship with a show and is willing to promote and be loyal to it. While up until a decade ago audience creativity was approached suspiciously and fan activities were seen as manifestations of an alienated personality, the globalized, increasingly digitized space of today’s transnational capitalism cannot do without them. Audience research has to acknowledge that what was once a “subculture”, something that had to be incorporated by the industry, is now a part of its structure. FF’s stealth campaign offers a way to reflect on how today’s cultural industry approaches spectatorship. It does not appropriate its manifestations as the fruits of a process of consumption but engages them as a source of income, channeling and structuring what appears to be free-given labor into a process of increased and intensified production.