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Sept. 13, 2019, 9:03 a.m.
Audience & Social

Can a science escape room livestreamed on Twitch help bring viewers to public media?

“What made us want to watch this for an hour and a half? Their ability to talk through the puzzles made me not only understand the puzzles but find out the answer and get invested.”

Twitch. An escape room. YouTube influencers. Outer space. And public media.

You never know what concoction of trends will make an experiment successful. And that’s the job of WGBH’s emerging platforms initiative: finding mixes that help the Boston-based public media station reach younger audiences (Gen Z and millennials) through newer platforms (Instagram, Twitch, Twitter, Snapchat Discover, YouTube, subreddits, and TikTok). And so on Monday night, the team put a handful of siblings with a popular YouTube channel into a custom space-themed escape room and broadcast their attempts to break free on gamer-friendly, Amazon-owned livestreaming service Twitch.

Two years ago WGBH, the largest producer of PBS content broadcast and online, had the tenth largest weekly audience among all NPR stations, though that has dipped more recently. And while the station has been more adventurous than most in testing new media types, public media outlets are still broadly facing the challenge of adjusting to a digital world while having radio and TV broadcast baked into their models. (Last year WGBH experimented with getting supporters to transcribe its archives in a game.) In a recent survey of public media from eight European countries, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that public media audiences skew older, more educated, and less online, with the stations at risk of “continued decline and ultimately irrelevance to much of the public.”

The emerging platforms initiative, and its Twitch/escape room experiment, are WGBH’s counter to that. “WGBH has a 65-year history. This is about how to future-proof ourselves for these new platforms,” said Tory Starr, WGBH’s director of social media and head of the initiative. The specific goals of its projects, she said, are externally increasing awareness of WGBH’s programming in audiences between the ages of 13 and 25 and internally developing the station’s ability to produce material for these formats. It’s funded through an internal grant from WGBH’s $175 million, five-year fundraising campaign.

Watch Highlight: Escape Lab Production Meeting || Sneak Peek of the WGBH studios and sets! from EscapeLab on www.twitch.tv

Escape Lab, the official name of the spacey escape room stream is not about broadcasting hard news but is instead focused on communicating a science curriculum developed with educational advisors. (Any of the emerging platforms initiative’s experiments have to relate to journalism, education, science, history, or arts and culture; one recently relived Woodstock and the moon landing through Instagram Stories in the style of The New York Times’ Holocaust revisit.) The plan for Escape Lab started with the idea of a science-themed educational escape room, then expanded to include Twitch as an interactive livestream.

“I see content, especially video series, on social media platforms much the same way as our country’s leaders saw broadcast television in the 1960s: as a battleground for unregulated, commercially driven content filled with violence, crime, celebrities, gossip, pranks, and sensationalized politics — with public media as the antidote,” Starr said.

The two-person team — senior producer Joanie Tobin and producer/editor Rob Tokanel — researched the puzzle-happy communities on Reddit and Twitch and discovered the Skorys, four siblings whose YouTube account grew to 1.4 million subscribers with videos focused on puzzling games and challenges — including, conveniently, escape rooms. WGBH also brought Twitch space streamers EJ_SA and DasValdez (and their audiences) to the main event.

“We watched some of their videos and figured out we’re not just doing an escape room here. It’s an escape room for an audience on camera,” Starr said. “What made us want to watch this for an hour and a half? Their ability to talk through the puzzles made me not only understand the puzzles but find out the answer and get invested.”

So what did the Escape Lab actually look like? (And did they escape??)

Watch Highlight: LIVE ESCAPE GAME EXPERIENCE PART 2!!! Help our astronauts get back to Earth safely! from EscapeLab on www.twitch.tv

It was built by Trapology Boston, a local escape room company, at WGBH’s studios with pre-escape streams explaining the development process. The Skorys agreed to come to WGBH for the escape room from Phoenix after a cold email and WGBH got a host and Twitch livestream-liasion in Mr. Fascinate/Justin Shaifer, a Columbia science communications PhD student and STEM educator. Twitch enabled the team to build interactive components into the escape room, like a heatmap for viewers to click on the stream and help the players figure out their next move and let them vote on which astronaut player should get left behind.

WGBH is not the first media outlet to test out Twitch; The Washington Post has played around with the platform, and so have BuzzFeed and Cheddar.

I won’t spoil too much of it — you can go back and rewatch the stream. The siblings paired off to battle against not only the escape room but also each other’s time, with Mr. Fascinate giving them hints, nudging the chat along, and dropping scientific fun facts along the way. As with any pilot, there were minor technical difficulties when the stream slowed and then dropped off, but viewers still followed along in chat. WGBH said more than 30,000 unique viewers have watched 185,000 minutes of the livestream, and almost 400 people participated in the chat sending 9,500 messages.

And there are, of course, already suggestions from chatters for how to improve the next rounds: “Like this was a really cool idea, streamed escape room race with chat help, but doing it sequentially, and then not shuffling any of the puzzles where the chat helped? Bleh. Really great but then that implementation fell short”; (in response to the Escape Lab account discussing closed captions on Twitch and the fact that WGBH invented closed captioning) “Whoa, that’s neat! I remember watching PBS as a kid and always seeing that ‘Captions provided by WGBH’ thing at the end and not knowing what it meant!”; and “continuing the story for 3 runs before changing story would be a great reason to keep coming back and watching more.”

(And yes, they escaped.)

Screenshot of the Escape Lab stream on September 9.

POSTED     Sept. 13, 2019, 9:03 a.m.
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