Monday, 10 May 2010

360° Festival Report 2: Nuno Bernardo – Sofia’s Diary and Writing Online Drama...

Hi guys

Following on from yesterday’s report on the first 360° Festival and the Tony Jordan session, here is something a little bit different…

And now for Day 2….

Hope you enjoyed the report on Day 1. I'm only doing the first session of Day 2 today because.... well, it's a long enough post as it is and I think you'll probably have had enough of me wittering on by the time you get to the end of it. BBC Writer's Room Roadshow thingy for tomorrow then.

In the meantime....

The first session of Day 2 was with Nuno Bernardo, from Be Entertainment, who gave a talk on “how to structure and write scenes for drama distributed via the net and its world wide audience”. Nuno created the original “Sofia’s Diary” in Portugal, an online drama with videos, blogs, interactive sms, message boards and a TV show. It was a huge hit in Portugal and went on to spawn versions around the world, including the UK. He then created a new show, “Flatmates”, for an older audience, but working along the same lines, and is working on other drama and non-fiction projects.

If you haven’t seen Sofia’s Diary, you can find (part of) the UK version here.


Nuno comes from a marketing background and this was his starting point for Sofia’s diary. The teenage audience was becoming difficult to reach, especially through TV, and was increasingly more interested in the internet – as both a channel of entertainment and information (music, gossip sites, blogs, etc) as well as a way of communicating, through messenger services such as msn. What set internet use apart from TV was the interactivity between users. This is also borne out by the fact that teenagers are the heaviest users of text messaging. Nuno quoted a figure of 200 texts a day for some teenage groups, which blew me away. I thought I was bad enough sending about 20!


From this, the idea for Sofia’s Diary was born. From a writing/storytelling point of view, the interesting thing is that it was about creating a whole virtual world for the character and audience, and making a lot of this real time. This included –

  • phone texts, sent directly to subscribed users, telling them about something that had just happened in the character’s life (and sometimes asking for advice).
  • internet diary blogs, updated every day at 8:30pm – “a daily experience” for the character, always leaving a problem for the next day and asking advice. For example, “I’ve just found out that my boyfriend kissed my rival. Should I forgive him?” Users were then invited to leave responses on message boards. This created debate amongst users, the “characters” also joining in at times. And there wasn’t just a blog for Sopia, but also for her friends, giving different points of view.
  • There were weekly/monthly magazine diaries, published in teen mags.
  • There was a radio soap, available for download, again “a daily experience”.
  • A mobile alert service.

The idea for this mix of ideas was to connect with the teen audience by creating the world of Sofia in terms/media they themselves use, to communicate with them in ways that they communicate with each other. And all of this through a story which reflected/mirrored their lives/concerns.

Launched in Portugal, it was an instant success, and in 2003 it was extended to a television show on the Portugese PBS. 5 minute episodes where produced each day. There was also a weekend 30 minute episode. This debuted to some of the best ratings on Portugese TV. Unlike all other aspects of Sofia’s Diary, the TV show was not a year-round experience, but ran for 26 weeks.

The brand also moved into books, DVDs, a Sofia’s Diary magazine, sponsorship and product placement deals, and product licensing.

Sofia’s Diary then went international, adapting to the local audience and culture. For instance, the South American version had a more sexually active teenager than the one in Portugal. In the UK, instead of Sofia’s family consisting of mum, dad and brothers/sisters all living together, we had a more dysfunctional UK family. Go figure…

The show launched in the UK with 5 million hits in its first week. After 6 months that was up to 30 million. The show then began running on Channel 5.

There were two aspects I found particularly interesting. First Sofia's Diary was an ongoing, “live” experience – 7 days a week. Radio, blogs, “live” texts, magazine articles, comment boards. It was all a constantly developing story, “living” the story, like a great big multi-platform soap. Elements were created to interact with each other (the radio show fitted in with the blog, which fitted in with textss) but could also be viewed/experienced alone. In other words, most of the audience would listen to the radio show one day, receive texts another day, read the blogs for a couple of days, spend an hour on the message boards at the weekend exchanging views and advice. It wasn’t necessary to “view” everything to understand the story. However, all the different platforms were supporting and cross-promoting each other. A really interesting concept for writers to think about. I think a lot of people are very wary of the whole idea of writing for Online drama, or are simply not that interested (“it isn’t “real” writing”), but viewed in the above terms, it suddenly seems like being given a big box of tricks, in every medium and platform possible, to tell your story.

The other interesting thing was the extent to which the whole thing was hugely interactive. The audience’s view and opinion with what was happening to Sofia (and her friends) was actively sought. And as that opinion came in, it could affect the story. This is where there we got into a bit of a debate with Nuno about story ownership (we’re writers! waddya expect?). It’s a fine line, but as Nuno explained, the audience felt ownership of the show, but they weren’t writing it or dictating where it went. This was especially true when it came to adding the TV show element, which was filmed way in advance so could never have reacted to the views of the audience anyway. There was also another very particular reason Nuno gave for NOT giving the audience power over the direction of the storyline. The audience will always protect the protagonist (if you are telling your story correctly!) and punish the antagonist, leading to boring stories without conflict or drama.

However, the use of interactivity became obvious when it became clear through the online discussion boards that the audience hadn’t understood very clearly why a character had behaved in a particular way, or had misconstrued their motives because the story, in that instance, had just been told too fast, the writers were able to go into the blogs or send out texts the next day and clear those kind of issues up (in character of course), reassuring the audience.

Therefore, and this is an interesting for writers, the fact that this rolling multi-platform highly interactive story (and not only the audience interacting with the story through message boards, but it interacting with them, “interrupting” their lives with unexpected and unplanned text messages from the characters, “Oh my god, I’ve just found out Dave kissed Francesca!”) means storytelling which apes life-like experiences, blurring the story/reality lines. Not that I believe that the audience isn’t capable of distinguishing the two. Of course they are. But it questions HOW we tell stories. Anyway, Nuno’s next project would take that even further…


For “Flatmates”, again created originally for Portugal, Nuno took a group of 3 flatmates (and therefore 2 protags) and an older age group. From a storytelling point of view, this complicates the relationship between the audience and the characters. The audience has favourites, and the three flatmates can “fight” it out online with their blogs, the users then “fighting” on the message boards. This obviously leads to a different, and potentially more interesting, dynamic between audience and characters.

Another thing they found was that teenagers didn’t like the usual websites associated with TV shows. They seemed tacked on, with no interactivity, and histories and blogs which started the day before the show’s debut. Therefore, when creating the blogs for Sofia’s Diary and Flatmates, the team created a past for the characters, even using the actors family photos, etc to fill that past out.

The audience chose the actors for Flatmates through online auditions which the audience voted for. This had also happened with Sofia’s Diary.

The community/fans were invited to come along to the bar featured in the show, to mill around as extras, but also to interact with the actors, who stayed in character the whole time.

The actors appeared on a daytime talk show as their characters, and the show introduced them as such, blurring the lines between reality and fiction, or at least playing with them…

And that’s it. Nuno then took lots of questions from the audience, a lot of which were related to the business model and marketing aspect of the show. A writer from Sofia’s Diary UK also gave a short talk about her experiences writing the blogs for all the different characters each day.

I found the talk, and the whole idea, fascinating. Before, writing 3-5 minute episodes which fit together like a big jigsaw with blogs, radio, magazine articles, etc and which interact with the audience, seemed like a huge unmanageable… beast to me. But I suddenly realized it’s potential. It’s not TV. It’s not meant to be. It’s something else. It’s a hugely different and exciting way of telling a story.

Get writing!

PS Mr Danny Stack wrote for Sofia's Diary, and blogs about it here. Anyone out there done any writing for online drama?

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