Screening Prompts: FlashForward

We’ve seen a range of ways in which media texts use invitational strategies to engage viewers, and we’ve seen what viewers do in response. In Gossip Girl, we’ve seen a representation *of* viewer engagement through technology (and that representation might be understood as an invitational strategy of its own…)

For FlashForward, I’d like us to now consider the impact of these invitational strategies (and the assumption of audience engagement) on the form of the media itself. How does the assumption of audience behavior impact the series’ narrative project, character development, formal language, and representational strategies?

10 thoughts on “Screening Prompts: FlashForward

  1. Mary-Caitlin Hentz

    There is a reason that episodic television shows are the most consistently produced and reliably profit drawing – they require very little commitment. This is not to say that character driven television is by any means less successful, but rather that complex, character driven shows like FlashForward face the delicate challenge of holding audience attention and energy for prolonged amounts of time. The very pilot demands more of its viewers than most, setting up visual clues and narrative puzzle pieces essential to the progression of the series, within the first 8 minutes.

    On the surface, FlashForward seemed to be reaching out to a more participatory audience, one with strong filmic intelligence and commitment to good content. However, it failed to solidify any feelings of independent audience participation in its over expository dialog and its over-structured story arcs: FlashForward actually limits audience participation by confining it to a designated and regulated path.

    Furthermore, in an exploration of the other media surrounding the release of the television show, ABC failed miserably to utilize a creative online dialog in promoting the release and perpetuation of the show.

    In all, FlashForward was far too obvious about the goals it had for itself. No one likes to be told how to interact with their content, their entertainment, or media – restrictions on creative participation create a feeling of contrived uniqueness that in many cases seems less innovative and edgy than condescending and formulaic. FlashForward should have worked harder to utilize the abundance of transmedia tools that the last decade has perfected.

  2. Ralph Acevedo

    The premise of Flash Forward is a very intriguing one. In a lot of ways, it’s very suited to the times we live in: post apocalyptic narratives of global disasters in light of 9/11, the War on Terror, and climate change have resonated with many in the past few years. The interplay of disaster with our modern condition in terms of technology is also interesting. In the pilot episode, people stand in front of a television store to watch 24-hour news network coverage of the disaster, which is revealed to be worldwide in scope. The FBI task force assigned to assess the strange phenomenon, somewhat conveniently, comes up with a way of cataloguing the flash forwards: a blog. The concept of a blog as a space where the expression of individuality can take place, here, fulfills its ultimate purpose: everyone in the world can write down their own unique and personal story and share it with others. In terms of an audience participation in a Flash Forward blog, there are two possibilities. One is to have a blog where viewers can create and write their own flash forwards. The other is to make available the actual blog from the story world and provide the audience with flash forwards created by the show’s writers. Both of these options have their ups and downs. Ultimately, for the sake of the narrative’s coherence, I would choose the second option, since the policing of the blog for narrative consistency and contradiction would be inevitable any way.

  3. Mark Whelan

    It has been very surprising to me how in class we have somewhat decided that Flashforward as the ultimate example of failed audience invitational programming considering, on paper at least, what potential the show seemed to have. In the realm of the fictional world the show has not one but two online networks where people can join and share and get information, and yet ABC and the show runners seemed to completely miss the potential that these two outlets could provide for their program and their audience. The “mosaic” website that they offered for fans to share their own fan-created flashforwards was uninteresting and ultimately provided no real enjoyment for anyone involved, and the site was non-existent. In thinking about how these two opportunities were underutilized it makes me think about what could have happened had they been utilized. What is the effect of invitational programming, on both the program and the audience?

    I begin by thinking about what mosaic could have been. I think that the ideal use of the website (in the real world) could have been a give-and-take forum where fans could both get extra content about the show while also submitting their own. Instead of having only fan-made flashforwards the show runners could have posted flashforwards from fictional characters in the show so that fans could read them and get the extra content, as well as relate their own fan-made flashforwards to the story world. This would be an interesting approach in that it would provide a semi-read/write environment where fans could take content from the show and work in their own creativity to it, while giving the creators of the show some control over the way fans were participating with their programming.

    In thinking about how this invitational programming affects the content of the show itself I think it is a tough balance. In trying to make a show that encourages fan participation, you are essentially gearing your show to a smaller demographic of audiences. By creating a show that encourages people to go online and participate it is very easy to alienate the more passive audience that do not wish to participate in the same manner. My guess is that this was one of the causes for the eventual cancelation of Flashforward. I also think back to a reading we did earlier in the semester about Lost writers and how while they appreciate the fan involvement and discussions about the show, that it is impossible to please everyone and that taking their insight too seriously inevitably ends badly. This might be a inherent flaw in invitational programming.

  4. Sofia Zinger

    As an audience, I think one of the things that we expect to get from watching a TV show or movie is answers. We have many questions, particularly in a show built around a question: what happened? This is why a show like FlashForward is so successful at pulling us in. The audience becomes intrigued by a question that is asked in the first episode and isn’t fully answered or explained until one is fully invested in the characters and subplots. Besides asking ourselves what exactly happened during those couple of minutes when everyone had their flash forwards (or didn’t), we have other questions as well within episodes and on a series arc. For instance, we want to know if it is possible to change the future as it is written. We want to know if marriages will last, and if people will lose hope.
    So how does the show make us ask these questions? FlashForward uses flashbacks of people’s flash forwards for two purposes: first of all, it catches viewers up and reminds them of what happened in previous episodes. Second of all, it adds more information every time and gives the audience just a little more to work with, dangling the answers in front of us without giving them away. The flash forwards are always differentiated because of the blurry vision and dreamlike cinematography.
    By getting images of people’s flash forwards we also become more invested in their personal stories. Not all of the flash forwards were about the Mosaic investigation. Some were about the personal lives of the characters, which helps us become emotionally involved as well. The combination of twist intrigue from the start of the series and character development draw the audience in and make us want to watch more.

  5. Brendan Mahoney

    In the pilot episode of ABC’s Flashforward, the character Christine Woods (Janis Hawk) tells another that they should create a website. The website, which is eventually called The Mosaic Collective, becomes an efficient way to amass information about the cataclysmic flashforward event. Mosaic a good example of “crowdsourcing,” which is one of the newer ideas in technology and information communication. Wikipedia being the prime example of “the commons” working together to amass large amounts of information. It should come as no surprise that ABC created a real life version of The Mosaic Collective as part of the show’s marketing. Users who visited the site had the opportunity to upload their own “flashforward,” just as if they had lived through the global blackout event. ABC had already demonstrated how successfully Alternate Reality Content could engage an audience with their groundbreaking hit Lost. was created and produced by the fans, and is used to disseminate information about the show. More importantly, however, fans used Lostpedia to publish facts and theories from The Lost Experience, Lost’s alternate reality game. Now almost every television show has its own wiki and many use similar “games” like online scavenger hunts to promote their show and foster a dedicated audience. While Flashforward’s heavily episodic structure and mysterious plot certainly inspires audience engagement, their overt invitational strategy through The Mosaic Collective mimics that of Lost and assumes a similar, highly involved, audience behavior.

    However, a show’s invitational strategies cannot be too overt. A show like Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer can have the direct address, but a primetime drama cannot without alienating some viewers. The genius of Lost was that the alternate reality games and websites needed to be discovered, and were not mentioned within the canon. When Janis Hawk mentioned the website, it would not surprise me to hear groans from Lost fans, who saw the dialogue as an obvious hint that a website would be created.

    Like the Internet, the blackout event of the show’s namesake was worldwide, interconnected, and indescribably significant to the future. While the show can only focus on so many people, the show’s invitational strategies broaden the scope to better fit the scope of the show’s universe. By creating a website, accessible the world over, Flashforward can mimic the show’s global scope online. Furthermore, the website was not revealed in an obvious manner. The URL for The Mosaic Collective was revealed through five-second flashes on Lost. If we can assume that not all Flashforward viewers watch Lost, then we can assume that many people discovered The Mosaic Collective through social media and interactivity outlets like the Flashforward wiki and fan forums.
    Through advertisements on Lost and using many similar invitational strategies, Flashforward created distinct expectations in their audience. Viewers of Flashforward expected mythology, mystery, and resonant characters. Unfortunately, Flashforward could not live up to its big brother’s clout. One wonders if the show made more attempts to strike out on its own, whether it would still be on the air.

    Fan engagement involves commitment. Even a small response to an invitational strategy, like creating your own flashforward on The Mosaic Project strengthens the relationship between viewer and creator. However, this relationship must be reciprocal, and a show cannot rely too heavily on online portals of interaction. The show itself must be complete, and any extra content found online must work to broaden the scope of the show in a satisfying yet extraneous fashion.

  6. Kenneth Grinde

    Since watching FlashForward last week, I’ve been trying to figure out why it failed so miserably in the wake of Lost’s success. The show was made fun of for its emulation and, at times, outright theft of J.J. Abrams’ global phenomenon, but it seems strange that this show should be singled out for copying another’s premise when standard television practice has mandated such duplication for decades as the media’s norm.

    The failure, as I see it, stems not from what was copied, but from what was expected. Namely, the audience’s engagement with the text. Where Lost launched with no pretense and found a loyal following in the process, its engaged audience was allowed an immense amount of freedom. Even if the show eventually took note of the incredible extratextual presence it had fostered and began focusing more actively on leaving clues within episodes, the original intention of the show was not to launch an online fan community, it was to make an interesting show.

    This was not the case for FlashForward, which set up many of its own component forums rather than waiting for audiences to do so independently. Julia Lesage describes the show as having “anticipated, even mandated, such behavior and scripted it in.” FlashForward expected fans to come out of the woodwork in comparable numbers to emulate their work with Lost, but in the end there is something to be said for the success of organic engagement over anticipated engagement.

    Flash Forward did produce a community in the end, but the numbers were nowhere near that of Lost, which, not coincidentally, had a much wider array of explorable topics. That is to say, Flash Forward seeks to solve essentially three questions: “How did this black out happen?” “Why did it happen?” And “is it alterable?” The questions are focused and entirely based on the plot, on events and their implications.

    Lost, meanwhile, cast a much wider net with their initial questions. There were similarly plot-based mysteries, like, for instance, “why did the plane crash so horrifically and leave so many survivors?” But there were also much broader intrigues to be explored, like “why is this island special?” “What is the sound coming from the woods?” And “who is John Locke?” The text is richer with all levels of narrative, character, and environment, whereas Flash Forward essentially places a cast of somewhat mundane characters in a somewhat mundane world and focuses on one spectacular twist of story.

    With this narrowing, the audience is limited to what it can predict or engage with, and I believe the resulting cancelation indicates the inherent difference between Flash Forward and Lost: it is the difference between an audiences engaging with a mystery versus an audience engaging with a world.

  7. Jamal Davis

    Flashforward tried to use new audience modes of engagement with television series in order to create a serialized narrative that encouraged viewers to watch every episode in order to figure out the clues to what caused the world to lose consciousness. They would take this engaged audience and lead them to the answer through character and plot development.
    This show wanted to tease viewers by leaving them asking for more. The relied on viewers that will stay with the a show even though they are left asking for more when they are given a small answer to a question that opens up another set of questions in hopes to finding out why the world black out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Lost, a popular show, featured on the same network, made a tremendous impact on creating a mysterious plot that had many lose ends that were answered slowly throughout the seasons. The viewers that watched Lost are the type of audience that this show would like to have. As Lesage mentions, “we are being trained to watch television”. The show is counting on their audience to train themselves like they may have with Lost and learn how to stay engaged with a story that test your curiosity to find out what caused this travesty.
    Learning about what happens is important and the characters are what will drive us towards that goal. In the first episode we are introduced to at least 10 characters that will be remain throughout the season and more will enter later. Getting to know the characters throughout each episode allows the audience to gain an emotional connection to the show or else it will fail (As Lesage mentions, Mark Benford was a jerk, which is one reason why we didn’t feel bad or connect with him). There are many characters in this show and viewers attention spans were forced to remember each ones history and thus continue to build a biography and relationship with the characters.
    Lastly, the show tries to take both of these aspects and mesh representational clues into the script and objects that will engage the viewers into alternative modes of watching such as talking about it with friends, online communities, and more. Having two Lost actors in the show alone will spark alternate perspective modes of viewing. Instances such as a kangaroo hoping down a street, bizarre bus posters such as Red Panda and then it briefly appearing on Mark’s board in his flashfoward are all examples of the show engaging what they view as an actively dedicated and curios audience into looking into these clues and seeking ways to find out what they mean through different mediums.
    The combination of a mysterious plot, multiple characters, and engaging clues demands an audience that will actively engage with the television show through close and multiple watchings of episodes. Through this type of viewership Flashforward tried to generate and audience that wanted to figure out the mystery, care about characters, and played detective with Mark Benford as we tried to figure out what caused the world to black out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds.

  8. Rajwinder Kaur

    If you build it they will come. FlashForward opens with a massive accident on the freeway. People are injured left and right and the chaos elicits the viewer’s attention through a combination of rapid editing and pans of the human devastation. Immediately, you want to know how this happened to all these people and when you find out this was the result of a world wide blackout where everyone (well, almost everyone) saw a glimpse of their future, it’s hard not to be hooked.

    The show then attempts to keep the audience engaged both on and off screen by using the plot and online content as mutual facilitators of engagement in each arena. Specifically, the alternate reality, detective story plot is ideal for adding plugs in the narrative for the show’s interactive media. For example, once the investigators realize flashforwards are potentially real and can fill in the blanks as to what caused the blackout, the first suggestion was to create a database where everyone could write what they say in their 2.17 minutes. How would every single person who had a flashforward tell what he or she saw to the rest of the word? Naturally, the internet is the fastest, farthest reaching form of communication. They create a site on the show, Mosaic (Lesage). At the same time, there is a website for those who did not have flashforwards, Using the internet as a resource on the show, blatantly suggests fans to use the web to engage with the series and each other just as they have seen on screen. Lastly, the brief glimpse of the lead character’s investigation board allows for viewers to freeze the frame and attempt deciphering the contents.

    The show asks viewers to watch FlashForward, then go online as a fan community and begin their own investigation alongside the characters on the show. The failure of the series could be credited to the very obvious way in which fan participation is hailed or because FlashForward was riding too long on Lost’s coattails. Nonetheless, the strategies used to get fans online were interesting and are telling of how industry movers and shakers are attempting to utilize the internet in the promotion of their work.

  9. Joshua Aichenbaum

    The primary link between Gossip Girl, FlashForward and their invitational strategies would be the use of extra-textual extensions of the story-world. Both shows reference the existence of these extensions. They both establish that the characters on the shows use online sources to aid their construction of truth, be it through gossip or corroboration of prophetic visions. The characters on Gossip Girl send texts to the online site Gossip Girl and the characters in FlashForward use a Facebook networking site called, “Mosaic” to figure out why the world underwent an apocalyptic catastrophe. The difference between these two invitational strategies is that one encourages the viewer to mimic its characters and gossip online, while the other fails to do so due to lack of character and viewer involvement in creating said outside source material. In Gossip Girl, both the characters and the viewers are actively writing and crafting the gossip they send to Gossip Girl. Texting is their central tool in influencing their surroundings and manipulating peers’ and parents’ opinion. It empowers the characters and equally empowers the show’s fans. Gossip Girl fans not only use online Gossip Girl sites to influence others’ opinions of the show, but also to discuss, comment and gossip upon the show’s actors and their actual lives. Through this gossip, the show’s fans create an inextricable parallel between the show and its actors. In FlashForward, on the other hand, not every character uses Mosaic and fans can only use it passively, by viewing and not contributing videos to the site. In Gossip Girl, the Gossip Girl website was popular and pervasive in the story-world starting from episode one, whereas in FlashForward the site is invented in the pilot and only gains steam as new episodes are developed. “Mosaic” is not even important enough of a tool to name the show’s diegesis after it, as Gossip Girl does with “Gossip Girl.” Therefore, FlashForward presents “Mosaic” as an investigative tool used by very few, primarily by FBI agents and then later by their enemies hoping to find and kill people who did not have these prophetic flashes. Perhaps, my limited scope limits my understanding of the show’s use of Mosaic. But even so, the creative input allowed to Mosaic users is limited by its video nature. Outside of sharing their own flash-forward, characters cannot contribute anything else and must resort to being viewers to gain knowledge. Likewise, to my understanding of the site, fans cannot contribute anything whatsoever to the site and can only use it to experience a larger proportion of the story’s world and characters. I would suggest this limited viewer involvement in the act of creation is why FlashForward does not successfully invite its viewers to participate, whereas Gossip Girl does a much better job. It turns a strict “viewer” into an active creator and shaper of gossip.

  10. Toren Hardee

    In previous film classes we’ve talked about “puzzle films” – Run Lola Run; Chris Nolan’s Memento, The Prestige and now Inception; much of David Lynch’s work; The Sixth Sense; Fight Club; the work of Charlie Kaufman, etc. The list of films (all made in the past 20 years) goes on. They take for granted the power of repeat viewing and place trust in the audience’s ability to follow narrative complexity; some meaning won’t even be revealed until a second or third viewing, because of a twist or because it’s just too damn complicated to understand the first time.

    As a television series, FlashForward functions in a very similar way. I felt it often made things a bit too easy for the audience, both in plot and theme, with characters sometimes stating things explicitly that an intelligent audience certainly would’ve caught onto anyway. But it still shares something with the logic of puzzle films, down in its DNA. It has a high-concept premise and suggests volumes of information, existing in the diegesis but just not onscreen, that might reveal more about the premise of the text and its world. It implicitly encourages repeat viewing to pick up on “clues” that might’ve been missed in the bombardment of information the first time around.

    The key difference is that FlashForward exists much less as a stand-alone object than any of those films do; obviously, as a television show, it could not be watched entirely in one sitting like the aforementioned films, but even moreso, the extratextual information that it implies actually existed, in a strange way. I can’t speak to how successful any attempts by the producers to create web content were, but in a show that features user-oriented, community websites so prominently (, and more importantly, the Mosaic site), of course some similar sites, modeled after the ones on the show, are going to pop up (they did). Not to mention it had more traditional fan sites, such as forums and a wiki (though I must it pales in comparison to Lostpedia, which will be the gold standard for series wikis for years to come).

    It’s possible, and even likely, that the producers of FlashForward were keyed in enough to their show’s online fan communities (as many good TV producers are nowadays) that activity and opinions in these communities could’ve influenced the directions the show took; without watching more of the series, I cannot say. But it is undeniable that FlashForward was a show created with the explicit intent of inviting participation that extended beyond the mere act of watching on the television. Unfortunately, it seems they did not prove adept enough at juggling all these aspects of a fairly ambitious series, and we’ll have to wait for the next similarly-motivated show to study the intersections of television, digital technology, and fan participation.

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