Tim Kring remembers the day in third grade when an overseas letter arrived for him through a school-sponsored pen pal program. "It was from a little boy in Indonesia, written on that flimsy airmail stationery," he recalls. "It was like getting a letter from Mars. I couldn’t believe I was holding the same envelope that boy had written on 10,000 miles away—that we were somehow connected."
As an adult, Kring didn’t lose that sense of wonder and explored global connectivity for social good in his transmedia projects—NBC’s Heroes, the hit 2006-2010 sci-fi drama about a group of people negotiating their superpowers; its digital extension Heroes Evolutions; the 2010 novel Shift, a conspiracy thriller with additional clues offered online; and the 2010 Conspiracy for Good, an online/real-world street-theater game with a real-life cause.
His new Fox series, Touch, which premieres March 22, continues that exploration of spiritual and technological connectivity. (The pilot, initially teased in January and available on iTunes, will re-air March 15.)
The series revolves around the relationship between a single father (Kiefer Sutherland) and his silent, emotionally challenged 11-year-old son, Jake (David Mazouz), who possesses a singular ability to see mathematical patterns and fractals that connect disparate people. The father comes to accept his mission as giving voice to his son’s abilities.
Although Kring and executive producer/director Francis Lawrence consulted autism experts to help make Jake’s behaviors credible, Kring notes that the character trait is more of a vehicle for a narrative structure. "Jake presents as autistic to the world, but I did not think about [his condition] as autism," Kring says. "It came from wanting to create a character who could see patterns and how they connected in a mathematical way, but was somehow disenfranchised and couldn’t make that known to people. At first I thought of a homeless person, and then I thought maybe someone who was small and frail, which lead to a little boy locked in a state of being a special needs kid. It was more about that than wanting to say anything about autism. I’m aware of the sensitivities to this and am treading lightly in that area."
In a nod to that real-life connectivity, as well as the show’s globe-hopping storylines, Fox is undertaking an unprecedented global launch of the show in 100 countries near-simultaneously. An international media tour will culminate March 18 with a worldwide premiere in New York and launch party satellite hookup in London, Madrid, Berlin, and Moscow.
"Nowadays, it’s almost a necessity to launch on a scale like this, because it’s very hard to keep things under wraps," says Kring. "In the first season of Heroes, we went to Paris for an event. There was a line down the block of screaming fans. This was in April, but the show didn’t officially launch in France until June. They had found the show regardless of boundaries and borders. Premieres in different territories didn’t seem to make sense anymore."
The Evolution of an Idea
Having grown up in an analog world, Kring was increasingly sensitive to how technology was fueling connectivity, but didn’t set out to address it as a theme in his writing. "I had a foot in both worlds, and the appreciation of a [technological] immigrant," he says. "But I didn’t realize I was building on a theme, until I looked back."
In Heroes, interconnectivity was the vehicle for disparate people with extraordinary abilities to come together and save the world. But the message became the medium, sparking Conspiracy for Good—an experiment in "social benefit storytelling," a kind of real-life MMO with online and real-life clues, street theater, underground concerts, and a real-life cause: donating 10,000 books to Zambian libraries.
"At [San Diego] Comic-Con, I’d see this vast sea of people come from all over as a fans of a show and an idea," he says. "They were looking for a reason to get involved with a narrative that they loved." Two years in the making by roughly 130 staffers in five countries, Conspiracy culminated in the summer of 2010 in London. "The game had the underlying message of living life in a socially conscious way," he says.
A similar project will launch sometime this year, which Kring can’t talk about—yet. "It’s a quest to stay relevant," he says. "As the future moves from traditional media to new frontiers, like YouTube channels and Apple TV, and second screen companies try to figure out how to create content for an audience that’s moving very quickly, I want to be ready to move with the audience, and not be passed up when the revolution comes."
Ramping Up the Interactive Dance
The evolution of social media in the ensuing two years has not only altered Kring’s approach to storytelling, but his method of engaging fans. The rise of shared information and reference points means stories require less exposition. "You need less detail to tell a story," says Kring. "I call it haiku storytelling."
Fans are also now able to connect to each other more easily. Although launching Touch as a traditional TV show, Kring is already ruminating on how to expand it into "the mothership of a 360 experience" that could include mock documentaries, games, digital comics, and webisodics, to name a few. "I’m very interested in how viewers connect to each other," he says. "We’re exploring an application that creates a social network around the show. You not only see how two characters are connected, but how fans are connected to each other."
Kring is hoping Touch will inspire its newfound fan communities to help raise awareness of, and ease or solve problems. Setting the show in far-flung locations, using different languages, and self-contained episodic stories within the overall season arc will enable Kring to subtly call attention to various causes and plights. "We just did a story about two Saudi girls driving cars [which is illegal in that country] and the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami," he says. At some point, he hopes to establish a website for the issues highlighted in the show.
"It’s a global narrative that puts forth the message that, in a world of interconnectivity, small actions that you take on in life can have a greater meaning that impacts people around the world."