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The Babylon 5 Phenomena

by Glen Emerson Morris

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The marketing and advertising Industry could learn several valuable lessons from the syndicated science fiction series Babylon 5. The series is breaking ground in areas that didn't exist five years ago, and offers advertisers new ways to reach some very affluent and desirable market segments.

B5 offers the best example today of what media will be like in the future. B5 is product of the digital age, for the digital age. It's a far different marketing model than any other series today, including Star Trek, the only series it can remotely be compared to. Star Trek is episodic and open ended, B5 is epic and is limited to five years of new episodes, then the story concludes. And B5 is epic in every sense of the word.

Just consider the production values. The entire series is being shot in wide screen (or letterbox) format, making it the longest wide screen production in the history of film, let alone television. B5 is custom made to be broadcast over the planned high definition wide screen channels from DirecTV, and it may well be the only series in wide screen format --with commercial breaks built in--available for the rest of this decade.

The series is also ground breaking in the way it uses computer based 3D rendering to create space ships, special effects, and the Babylon 5 space station itself. This puts the B5 production company in the position of being able to sell the 3D metafiles of the space ships and space station to viewers to run on their home computers. In a few years, B5 fans will be able to put on Virtual Reality goggles and fly through a 3D image of the five mile long space station.

Games based on B5 will be able to use the original space ship 3D files, so the action scenes will look as good as on TV, and the development cost has already been paid for. The space ships 3D files themselves could also be marketed, much like plastic models of Star Trek's Enterprise are today. The B5 advantage is that plastic models require a mold which starts at $250,000, and B5 computer models don't need molds. A plastic model wouldn't quite capture the essence of the ships anyway. The hulls of alien space ships in B5 have patterns that change constantly, thanks to animated texture mapping. These ships are also designed to be seen on a big scale for maximum effect. The enemy space ships don't just look evil in B5, they look like they come from Hell itself. (As another put it, "a cross between a spider and your worst nightmare.)

Another marketing avenue from B5 will be the screen savers. These are stills from the series sold to be used as background scenes on personal computer screens. B5 is a natural for this kind of product because of the excellent cinematography and Imagery in the series. A scene in the episode "Coming of the Shadows", where a central character looks up to see a sky full of thousands of enemy ships, is one of the most haunting images in science fiction.

B5 is also exceptional in the way that it uses the Internet to pull viewers into the B5 experience. A Web site, "the Lurker's Guide to B5", posts not only a detailed synopsis of each episode, but additional background information that helps put the events into context. Currently, the B5 Web site isn't running ads, but it's easy to imagine a time when viewers can download any script they like, in exchange for downloading an ad or two as well.

The Web site also posts comments by the author of B5 on that script, how current shooting is going, and how new scripts are developing. This is particularly interesting because Babylon 5 is the creation and largely the work of one writer, J. Michael Stracynski. He is the only writer who ever wrote an entire year of a one hour series by himself.

Like the best work of Francis Ford Coppola, B5 works well on many levels simultaneously. But while Coppola chose mediocre material and elevated to brilliance, JMS is brilliantly retelling one of the great myths of Western Civilization. The theme is the story of a man who sells his soul for the sake of ambition, and sets of a galactic war between good and evil in the process. It is easily the most artistically and commercially ambitious production in the history of science fiction, television, and for that matter, film. Even now, it is clear B5 will be successful artistically. The commercial success of B5 will depend on how well advertisers come to realize how much B5 really offers them.

B5 is Star Wars for adults, and adults with money.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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