Our recurring series The Fourth Wall is a platform for creators, actors, and industry insiders to take the readers behind the scenes of the production process. The latest installment is an inside look at the cross-platform easter eggs of USA Network’s hit series Mr. Robot. Illustration by Hannah Kneisley.
In the early days of the internet, Jeff Kaufman’s job title and description might have sounded vague. SVP of “Digital?” What’s “digital” – just all the stuff that couldn’t make it to “real” TV? Now digital is the oxygen that surrounds all of visual entertainment and Kaufman’s duties have understandably expanded. One of the architects behind Hulu, Kaufman has been tasked with keeping USA Network ahead of the game in the cutthroat digital age. Thankfully, he has one of the most “digital-friendly” shows possible in his arsenal in Mr. Robot.
When we first caught up with Kaufman, we were immersed in one of San Diego Comic-Con’s most thrilling off-site experiences, a clue-based Mr. Robot easter egg game that took fans around the city and into the show’s iconic Wheelbarrow BBQ and the Bank of E. As he walked us through the SDCC experience, Kaufman gave Den of Geek a glimpse into how he helps enrich the experience of the audience by using USA’s digital resources to cross over from the show into the real world.
It’s a job that blurs the line between reality and entertainment and suggests bright and maybe scary futures for how we interact with our TV shows. We sat down with Kaufman earlier this fall to discuss the intricacies of his job, Mr. Robot season 3, and where this whole TV thing is going anyway.
Den of Geek: Thanks for sitting down with Den of Geek today. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Jeff Kaufman: I started my career with MTV and worked there for a little over a decade. I worked in strategic planning, brand strategy and research and I was there during a time when a lot of new media was emerging….the internet, broadband, digital music, video games, and so on. After leaving MTV I came over to NBC Universal to help launch a startup that was funded by NBC and their affiliates and that eventually kind of morphed into what is now Hulu.
I spent the second half of my original round of time here getting Hulu out the door, helping design hulu.com and the deployment strategy, which was all a very new thing at the time. I then went into the pure start up world, I worked at a place called HowCast for several years which was one of the first digitally distributed media companies and then a place called Alloy Digital which was kind of like a Viacom for internet brands, Smosh games, Clever, all of which are Alloy brands which has since joined with Break to become Defy. Then I came back here, to NBC, joining USA in 2014 and I’ve been here for the last 3 ½ years.
You’re the SVP of Digital for the USA Network, what exactly does the SVP of Digital do?
I oversee the places and platforms in which we engage with our audience around our shows and IP, the sort of transmedia space, everything that’s digital but not social; nbc.com, our apps, our TVE, distribution to places like YouTube, Apple TV, Xbox and then the sort of special companion experience projects that go along with our shows like all the things we do with Mr. Robot. So really all the different ways you can use digital to either encourage people to watch our shows or deepen their connection and engagement with them so people can evangelize, create fan communities in partnerships with social.
When we first met you were talking about your love of codes and puzzles growing up and how that enriched your experience working on the show.
I grew up playing Infocom games obsessively, in fact I was laughing on my way into work this morning when I saw this on the calendar as I was literally listening to a podcast of two guys that are systematically playing their way through all the old Infocom games and commenting on them and so now I’m listening to a podcast about the games that I once played. This is a nerd cubed situation.
As much I was obsessed with anything growing up I was obsessed with text adventure games that meld puzzle solving with storytelling and are themselves really, before there were graphical adventures and before there was the technology of gaming today, the forbearer of the idea of a really immersive story world where you can affect the world of the story…. you’re being told the story but you’re also creating it.
In some ways this is a chance to do that on a really grand scale. I’m not taking any credit, I think it speaks to the commitment of Sam [Esmail] and the show that they really feel strongly that the story of Mr. Robot can and should unfold across a lot of different access points. We take these extra little pieces as seriously from a story point of view as we do whatever is on your television set. It’s a credit to Sam and the show for caring about these aspects because we have a huge amount of work to do where the things we’re doing on the websites or in the puzzles and games are serving the story not contradicting it so there’s a lot of details that must be incredibly accurate. This is a hypothetical, but as an example we will create a game where you’re a character in it and at some point you’ll realize that this character is that character from, like, season one where you never saw what happened to them, you’ll suddenly realize ‘ah, this is that character!’. That’s really important to the show and requires a considerable amount of collaboration and partnership. Again, it’s a credit to them that they take that so seriously, they’re willing to support that as it just wouldn’t work unless it felt real. We sort of look at it like we’re building out the story world of Mr. Robot in the same way it’s going out on television.
When producing shows for TV everyone wants a hit and these days there’s more choice than ever. Using Mr. Robot as an example, where you’ve done a great job of offering audiences that deeper experience, how important is it to be immersive?
For Mr. Robot I just think it’s a case of the show itself, and the immediate passion and connection people felt with it, lends itself towards a leaned in, connected viewing experience. We really wanted to honor that and support it, to try and provide as deep a rabbit hole as we could. I think it’s important all round, but Mr. Robot is the perfect show to create an immersive story world around.
When the next Mr. Robot size show comes along what are the go-to digital elements you’d look to include?
The specific answer to that question changes on a show-by-show basis, I would say there are certain tenets that I think Mr. Robot has really underlined. Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence or passion or desire to engage, serve that desire and if it’s done smartly they will respond. These are crucial elements for Mr. Robot but I think can be applied in a general way.
When the Mr. Robot season 3 marketing was out there this year you had fans crack codes to discover when the season would start. In terms of offering an immersive experience how far could you go?
I think one thing we’ve learned, and I can’t speak to other shows, but at Mr. Robot we always think wow, we can go much further with this. We’re constantly and pleasantly surprised of the depths to which the fans of Mr. Robot will follow us and take that journey, which is one of the most gratifying things about working on the show. There are two categories, there’s the stuff that’s part of a larger, I’ll just call it an ARG (Alternate Reality Game); we’ve started calling it that as that’s how the fans refer to it, you can argue that technically it’s not an ARG as much as it’s an interactive experience or an immersive story but the fans call it an ARG so we do as well. There are things that are officially part of the ARG and then there’s the stuff we’d do anyway and of course for Mr. Robot there’s the expectation that we do it in a cool way. The thing we did that you’re referring to we just put out the season 3 trailer with this crazy Twitter scavenger hunt that wasn’t a piece of the ARG it was just a cool way to unveil that trailer, so even the stuff that is more straightforward ‘marketing’ I think there’s this feeling that if it’s coming from Mr. Robot it’s going to be something a little bit different and more creative. We’re always trying to defy expectations and do something we haven’t done before; to subvert what you would expect from a corporation promoting a TV show.
Kor Adana (Mr. Robot writer) has spoken a lot about his love of Easter Eggs in shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, are there any shows or specific Easter eggs that particularly stuck out for you?
It’s hard not to talk about Lost when you’re talking about this as in some ways it’s the progenitor of what we’re trying to do here, and you can argue about how effectively it held together but yes Lost stands out. I was at MTV at the time and I saw it in its two-hour pilot form some time before it went on air and I remember thinking this is the most insane pilot I’ve ever watched. As it unfolded I was absolutely one of the people that was trying to work out what the string of numbers meant. The flashback that looks back to John Locks character working in a toy store and someone asks him ‘where are the footballs’ and he says, ‘real ones in aisle 8, Nerf ones in aisle 15’, because those are the first two numbers…the range of ways they tied those numbers in, that was genius.
With the use of Easter eggs in Mr. Robot there’s a whole other layer of challenges as the viewer is trying to work out… do these things exist in the reality of the show or just in Elliot’s head?
Sure, we think about that a lot. We are always thinking about through whose eyes are you seeing what we’re showing you, and we don’t always reveal that truth about who’s voice it is. It’s an unknown entity you can interpret in various ways. When we started a lot of people assumed it was Mr. Robot, then fsociety, we purposely don’t state whose perspective you’re seeing things from. E Corp has a website online and email addresses and we’ve had to build all of those things out. So E Corp has a homepage that is continually under maintenance but if type in www.e-corp-usa.com then the page looks one way but if you type in www.evil-corp-usa.com then the whole page looks darker and more sinister which is how Elliot would see it, again, we’re trying to keep to a set of rules that we’ve established that this is all happening in the universe of the show so we can’t contradict any of our rules.
If you look at the very best genre entertainment, right, you know Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so on, the very best ones, they all have one thing in common they come up with a world or universe and they establish a really clear set of rules and they play around as much as they can, and subvert your expectations as much as they can while trying not to break those rules. Sam does that incredibly well; he’s created a universe. Things will happen in season 3 or season 4 that pick up a thread you think is long abandoned and has been there since season 1 but Sam knows exactly where he’s going. So we make sure that everything works within this universe that he’s so brilliantly created. That’s a lot of work but it’s really gratifying and fun and when you run into something like the time difference where it initially seems like it’s a hurdle, it just leads to something even cooler as you’re forced to think around it, we need to find the most creative way to stay within that world.
I read, with regards to Mr. Robot and keeping it real in terms of hacking that if something can’t be done in the real world it won’t be included in the show?
Right, I don’t want to speak for the core of the show too much, but if they’re depicting something in the show a tremendous amount of research has been done to make sure it’s a legit thing. We can sometimes be slightly more magical with some of the stuff we do online… you might be able to access a site that technically you wouldn’t have permission to access for example. Maybe you can get to a page on E Corp’s website that in reality a member of the public wouldn’t get to, right. Things we always make sure of are things like we wouldn’t have a later version of Windows on a page if it should be Windows 95 or something, those are things we make sure we don’t get wrong, it has to feel authentic and that it’s tracking true.
We spoke about the challenges in keeping these steps into the real world authentic and working to the rules of the show. Hacking has cool brand values as a subversive activity but there are very few people who might have the level of skill to be dangerous with that, do networks have any responsibility in terms of how immersive their offering is?
I’m not really the best person to speak to that on behalf of the network or the show, but I think the responsibility I feel is to respectful at both ends of what you’re talking about. You’re right in that it’s a serious thing that the show has shined a light on. Even a few years ago people were not really aware of this world and that’s part of the impetus of the show and why it’s really connected as it’s revealed something that’s been creeping up as a cultural truth for some time that a lot of people hadn’t realized. I also think it’s true that the community of people that could be considered hackers has been badly portrayed and much maligned, so my goal is to be respectful towards all of that entire tapestry.
Are you trying to rebrand hackers?
I would not presume to say anything that I am doing is branding hackers. I have way too much respect for them to say anything like that, but we certainly don’t want to communicate any disrespect to the hacking community and what sets Mr. Robot, the show and what we do for it, apart is the tremendous respect it has for the reality of that world.
At Den of Geek we’ve been writing for years about the golden age of TV, what does TV even mean anymore?
I mean look, if I could predict the answer to that in the next few years I wouldn’t be talking to you guys – I’d be on a beach somewhere right, but at its core it’s the same value proposition it’s always been, people want to be entertained and they want to engage, they like stories and characters they can follow and connect to and connect with their friends around. That value proposition hasn’t changed, and it isn’t going to, I don’t think. How you access it is evolving, and we try as hard as we can to be a major part of that evolution because we’re excited by it and we believe in it but you know, TV is no longer only connected to that thing [Jeff points to the TV on the wall] but the value proposition of what TV is I don’t think has or will change. Digital media represents the opportunity for people to connect and that’s what TV is all about at its core. What we’re doing here with Mr. Robot is 100% about that, allowing a deeper connection and immersion into the story that Sam is trying to tell.