A new modern fantasy television series premiered on the Syfy Channel (née Sci-Fi) Monday night. "The Magicians" debuted with an interactive companion website that digital production company Unit9 hopes will continue to engage viewers long after the broadcast ends.
Unlike the show’s official site attached to the Syfy domain, BrakebillsU.com — named for the school of magic located in New York that is the setting for much of the series — approaches the material from an in-universe perspective, addressing viewers as if they are prospective students who live in the same real-life-adjacent world that the characters inhabit.
The site is interactive, inviting fans to learn more about the institution and the students (the handful that form the main cast of the show, anyway), with detailed dossiers that provide more information with more specificity than can be provided in an hour-long character drama. It’s a move that appeals to viewers who have read the series of novels on which the series is based.
After each episode airs, new content is unlocked in hopes of driving viewers to the site each week. "The idea is to bridge the storyline between the site experience and the TV show so that viewers can continue to engage with the episode beyond its air," said Rebecca Hudson, executive producer at Unit9. That update format also allows showrunners and the production company to make changes to the material planned for release in response to fan feedback. "This means being prepared to add new content after each episode that lives up to their expectations as they become more involved with the show's plotlines and characters," Hudson added.
Unit9 specializes in these kinds of digital interactions. The company produced the recent Star Wars: Lightsaber Escape online game, in which players used their own mobile phones to control their character’s lightsaber and deflect blaster bolts from stormtroopers. In 2012, it won acclaim for the Slavery Footprint website and mobile app, which let users calculate the number of slaves around the world who produce the goods they use.
Unit9 and Syfy worked together, without an intermediary agency, to create BrakebillsU.com as a one-off project. The initial content of the site consisted of an "entrance exam" that asks readers to answer magically themed questions like, "Select the type of magic most prominently used in the Napoleonic Wars." Those with text anxiety need not fear; a poor showing still allows access to the site, after a bit of condescending copy.
Syfy created 13 episodes of "The Magicians," and Unit9 produced the same number of tie-in lessons. Currently, there are no plans for post-season content, but that may change if the series is renewed. But Unit9 did get access to the entire run of the first season, in order to make the content applicable to the current storyline for each episode and maintain adherence to canon.
BrakebillsU is reminiscent of another, long-running and immersive site dedicated to a fictional magical world — Pottermore, the Harry Potter fansite run by author J.K. Rowling, which has proven that even a series that ended years prior can maintain an active and enthusiastic fan base as long they are being presented with the right kind of content.