Inside the library of a Hollywood Hills home, actress Tiffany Chu gazed expectantly at the camera, waiting for guidance from the audience. Should she greet the neighbor with a handshake, a hug, or a kiss?
“I will do what they say,” Chu said in a monotone voice as the character of Sophie, a robot who yearns to become human. “I’ve come to trust the wisdom of the audience.”
After scanning the results of an online poll from viewers, the actress puckered her lips and awkwardly kissed the neighbor on the cheek as he entered the room.
The scene was from a recent episode of “Artificial,” an unusual science-fiction series broadcast live on the streaming platform Twitch, where viewers help decide the plot through online chats and polls.
Since its founding in 2011, San Francisco-based Twitch has operated a wildly popular livestreaming platform for video gamers, drawing 15 million active users a day. Now, the Amazon-owned company is venturing into the risky and highly competitive world of scripted programming — with an interactive twist.
“Artificial,” which is free to watch, represents the first of what could be a series of shows that aim to bridge the divide between Hollywood and gamers who don’t watch much network television. More than half of Twitch users ages 18 to 34 spend an average of 95 minutes a day watching live gaming on the platform.
“It’s a young audience (on Twitch) and it’s an audience that may not be reachable on other channels,” said Paul Verna, a principal analyst with research firm EMarketer.
Twitch provided technical and promotional support for “Artificial,” but did not finance the show (its budget of less than $1 million was funded by investors and private partners). The series could mark the beginning of a new type of television-like content that’s interactive, said Kevin Lin, Twitch’s cofounder.
“This is the first of its kind for us,” Lin said. “We’d love to see more innovation like this.”
Lin said he has had discussions with studio executives on what types of interactive content could work on Twitch. Genres that could do well on the platform include science fiction, horror and anime, but Lin said he’s open to other possibilities.
Twitch earns money through ads, game sales, subscriptions, merchandise and virtual goods called “bits.” The company shares the revenue with partners and affiliates.
Some advertisers bypass Twitch because they think its audience is too narrow. Shows such as “Artificial,” however, could change that perception, said Cliff Atkinson, executive director of digital media at Santa Monica advertising agency RPA. “It does create opportunities for Twitch to attract new and different advertisers as well as new audiences,” he said.
Twitch’s foray into non-gaming content began three years ago. The company created new categories to make it easier to classify non-gaming topics such as travel and food. Twitch also experimented with streaming marathons of licensed shows, including anime and the late artist Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting.” The Bob Ross marathon attracted 5.6 million viewers in 2015, and many engaged in the live chat. The popularity of the show planted the idea of doing more original content.
“People like watching this old show in this live format, where they can talk to each other while they are watching,” Lin said. “That was our genesis thought (that) this could become something. Wouldn’t it be great if people made shows that spoke to the Twitch audience?”
Enter Bernie Su, a producer known for innovative storytelling on Emmy-winning projects such as “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Emma Approved” on YouTube.
“Artificial,” a show about an engineer who creates a robot and aims to make her more human, was created by Su and Evan Mandery, a writer and law professor. The series, which rolls out in weekly, 35-minute episodes, just finished its first season, drawing an average of 9,000 viewers an episode.
The program uses Twitch’s livestreaming capabilities and chat box feature to allow audiences to interact directly with the show. Actors are fed questions from selected audience members who share comments on the story. The script can change minutes after the audience responds. There are flashbacks and scenes that are prerecorded, but each show has a live broadcast element.
“The audience is impacting the journey as part of the collective,” Su said.
Twitch user Chris Strange, 28, said he was fascinated by how quickly the Sophie character responded to the audience.
“It definitely made me feel like a participant,” said Strange, a programmer and tech consultant in Florida. “It looked like a television show, and I was like ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’”
Lin said people tune into Twitch for a “participatory experience” and enjoy talking to each other while videos are streamed live and discussing what happened afterward. That’s something that binge-watching TV can’t really provide, because not everyone is tuning into the show at the same time, he said.
Still, it remains to be seen whether Twitch’s users will fully-embrace non-gaming content.
“The audience that goes to Twitch for a specific reason — whether Twitch can morph them into an audience that has a broader expectation — is still an open question,” said Fred Seibert, a former MTV executive and founder of animation production studio Frederator Studios.
Other platforms including Facebook and Netflix are also exploring more ways audiences can interact with shows. For example, a reality dating show on Facebook lets viewers vote in which women get access to the bachelor. In the Netflix show, the “Puss in Book,” viewers can choose what Puss does next.
But Su said “Artificial” stands apart from the competition.
“No matter what you think of what our show does, or if you even like the show, we have no doubt invented a format,” Su said. “We have invented something here in live, scripted, interactive, serialized narrative.”