Does ‘Heroes 360’ Represent NBC’s Blistering Vision of the Future?
Denise Mann / University of California – Los Angeles
THE ORIGINAL IMPETUS BEHIND THIS ESSAY (and a forthcoming book) was a desire to understand the cultural-industrial circumstances that prompted NBC to replace the fantastically original and visually exciting 9th Wonders official/unofficial fan site conceived by the Heroes’ writers with the corporately-managed, official Heroes 360 website (later renamed Heroes Evolution). The kitschy, pink, hand-drawn 9th Wonders website celebrated the TV series using Tim Sales’ “metaphysical comics” and J.G.Roshell’s (aka “Mr. Fontastic”) quirky comic book fonts.1
The 9th Wonders site displayed an artfully-designed visual aesthetic that bridged the gap between prosumer-style fan art and professional comic book art with every page—the product of Sales’ eye-popping comic renderings, Roshell’s inventive fonts and design, and former Smallville Webmaster Craig Byrne’s insightful, appreciative interviews with cast and crew.2
THE 9TH WONDERS SITE WAS THE BRAIN CHILD OF showrunner/creator Tim Kring and his senior executive producers (e.g., Jesse Alexander, Jeph Loeb, Greg Beeman, and Dennis Hammer), seen as a way to stimulate fan interest in the series just as J.J. Abrams’ Fuselage.com had previously fueled early interest in Lost. 3 After seeing the 9th Wonders site for the first time during the Comi-Con convention, excited fan and forum member “Ursa” posted the following blog on July 20, 2006: “…got to San Diego tonight and there were folks there who got into the Preview Night [of Heroes] at Comi-Con. They had HEROES buttons that said 9th Wonders.com. It looked like the “official site” for Heroes writers—so much stuff that I haven’t had a chance to read it all…” She continues: “…it’s a heck of a site, using a comic book theme throughout.” 4
HOWEVER, THE HEROES FRANCHISE was far too valuable to the network to leave its digital future to others. Under the recently expanded NBC.com group headed by Vivi Ziegler, the 40+ members of the team produced an award-winning new website in Heroes Evolution, and, in the process, greatly expanded advertiser interest in sponsoring multi-platform entertainment at NBC. 5 Furthermore, if one measures the success of the official website according to the volume of user generated content it spawns, which in turn provides advertisers with a more engaged viewer, then Heroes Evolution is an unqualified success, as the chart below indicates.
However, raw statistics and quantitative analysis alone may not be enough to measure the qualitative impact of ardent fans’ obsessive fascination with the comic book aesthetic and credentials of Sales and Roshell, whose work is featured on the 9th Wonders site. For instance, Heroes Wiki interviewer Ryan Steward tells Roshell about a 9th Wonders thread devoted to brainstorming ways for the website to “evolve” and asks if “The Powers That Be [NBC] will have plans for 9th Wonders to grow or change along with the show in ways similar to those suggested in that thread?” 6 This revelation that the fans want to influence NBC’s plans for the 9th Wonders site startles Roshell, who responds: “Wow, you guys are dedicated! That’s awesome.… [W]ith the popularity of the show, fans (like you with this Wiki) came along and took care of [the things the writers originally had in mind for the site].7
NBC.COM HAS NOT REMOVED the 9th Wonders site altogether; however, its once fanciful pink banner (now a more staid blue) is now a mere speck in the Heroes Evolutions site, lost in the sea of webisodes, games, comics, widgets, contests, ARGs, and other interactive elements managed by the NBC dot.com group. In NBC’s defense, the whimsical 9th Wonders site probably would not have inspired the lucrative product integration deal that NBC’s sales department and Tim Kring forged in support of the Heroes Evolution site. Furthermore, comic book artists and writers typically do not have the seasoned salesmanship and merchandising and licensing chops to envision such deals. According to web-blogger Dan Taylor, by 2007, there is a new poster child of multiplatform media “in the form of Heroes which has taken Lost‘s exploitation of interactive platforms (and the web in particular) to the next level.”8
THE 9TH WONDERS FAN SITE WAS BORN of a desire by the latest members of the “Hollywood’s Geek Elite,” composed of “transmedia TV” authors like Tim Kring, Jesse Alexander, and Jeph Loeb, to emulate Whedon’s strong relationship with his Buffy fans.9 However, on a corporate level, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker and company were looking at former agent Ben Silverman and former marketing executive Vivi Ziegler to create a new regime at NBC—one that understood how to marshal the resources of analog TV dollars associated with the creative work of talented writer-producers like Heroes Tim Kring, while at the same time satisfying advertisers’ desire to engage with audiences through a myriad of digital platforms. Of course, the event that really rocked the broadcast TV industry to its core was the 2007 WGA strike when the writers squared off with the networks over digital—specifically, over whether web-extensions of expensive, broadcast series like Heroes constituted “content” or “promotions.” However, this hot potato will have to be the subject of a later installment of this meditation on the meaning of Heroes 360 for the future of entertainment.
TO BE CONTINUED…
1.) 9TH WONDERS OFFICIAL/UNOFFICIAL FAN SITE FOR HEROES CREATED BY THE WRITERS (2006-2007)
2.) 9th Wonders Artistry
3.) 9th Wonders Visual Aesthetic
3.) USER-GENERATED VS. OFFICIAL GENERATED CONTENT
4.) HEROES 360 (2006-07), RENAMED HEROES EVOLUTIONS (2008-present), IS MANAGED BY NBC.COM GROUP
Please feel free to comment.
- In a Heroes Wiki interview, J.G. Roshell is asked to discuss the origins of 9th Wonders site. Q: Who else worked with you to create 9thWonders.com? Was the site your idea? When did your participation in the site end? JG: “We were teamed with Craig Byrne, who Jeph knew through his Smallville fan site. Craig conducted the interviews and compiled the content, and I designed it, with pretty much free reign from the writing crew and NBC. It was kind of just the writers’ pet project, so NBC wasn’t too concerned—they were busy enough with the official site. 9thWonders.com launched just before Comic-Con that year , and the traffic just rocketed. The following year , we were asked to redesign the layout so they could incorporate ads. We haven’t been contacted to do anything since. http://heroeswiki.com/Interview:JG_Roshell [↩]
- Craig Byrne, webmaster for HeroSite.net, first met Heroes executive producer Greg Beeman when both worked at Smallville. Announcing Beeman’s departure in an April 27, 2007 posting, Craig expressed his appreciation for Mr Beeman and “his support over the years with HeroSite and with the years before with Smallville and KryptonSite. He’s always been supportive of fan interaction…. http://www.herosite.net/ [↩]
- A Chat with J.G. Roshell, Craig Byrne, 9th Wonders official/unofficial fan site (posted July 26, 2007). [↩]
- www.heroestheseries.com/nbc-launches-9th-wonders-official-site/ [↩]
- Heroes Evolutions has twice been a finalist for the Emmy in Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and has also been recognized by the Webby Awards and TV Guide Online Video Awards. http://www.sliceofscifi.com/2008/08/29/heroes-landmark-100th-graphic-novel-released/ [↩]
- http://heroeswiki.com/Interview:JG_Roshell [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- Dan Taylor, “Why ‘Heroes’ raises the bar for multiplatform media,” Fabric of Folly.com (April 12, 2007). http://www.fabricoffolly.com/2007/04/why-hereos-raises-bar-for-multiplatform.html [↩]
- David Kushner, “Rebel Alliance (How a small band of sci-fi geeks is leading Hollywood into a new era),” Fast Company.com (April 11, 2008). http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/125/rebel-alliance.htm [↩]