- The Simulation, an offshoot of Fable Studio, recently showcased its Showrunner AI system by releasing AI-generated episodes of “South Park” online, prompting debate about the role of AI in Media & Entertainment amidst ongoing WGA and SAG strikes.
- Showrunner AI, through the integration of large language models and diffusion models, can independently write, animate, direct, voice, and edit an entire episode of existing TV or film property.
- Demonstrating Showrunner AI’s speed and flexibility, Fable also created episodes featuring tech writers as characters. The preparation involved recording audio of the participant’s voice and providing a picture and a two-sentence prompt to generate the episode.
- Fable’s CEO, Edward Saatchi, sees Showrunner AI as an opportunity for striking creatives to negotiate stronger protections in the use of their digital likenesses and believes that the system can give writers more power by enabling them to own the means of production.
- Saatchi foresees potential for Showrunner AI in fan personalization, with fans creating personalized content from their favorite shows, which he calls “generative TV.”
Amid the ongoing WGA and SAG strikes, both of which have Hollywood on edge, a number of fake AI-generated episodes of South Park have been released online, sparking controversy and fueling fears about the future of creative work. The videos are from The Simulation, an offshoot of San Francisco-based Fable Studio, using the company’s Showrunner AI, a technical marvel that has reignited the debate about the role of AI in Media & Entertainment. As we delve into the particulars, we must ask: Is this the future of TV, or a step too far?
Fable announced its white paper, “To Infinity and Beyond: SHOW-1 and Showrunner Agents in Multi-Agent Simulations,” in a post on Twitter. Embedded in the post was an 11-minute proof-of-concept video entitled “The Queepi Quandary,” which featured Cartman’s bid to launch a new deepfake streaming service called Queepi that uses AI to place any actor in any film or TV show ever made. Despite teaming up with the likes of Elon Musk and a large media conglomerate named “Bisney,” the undertaking sinks like a lead balloon.
The paper outlines Fable’s approach to generating what it calls “high-quality episodic content for existing IPs” using large language models, custom state-of-the-art diffusion models, and the company’s proprietary multi-agent simulation for contextualization, story progression and behavioral control.
In other words, Showrunner AI has the ability to write, animate, direct, voice and edit an entire episode of an existing TV or film property, from start to finish. Cool cool cool.
“The technology, it should be said, is fairly impressive: Although I wouldn’t say the episode is funny, it does have a beginning, a middle and an end, and distinct characters (including lots of fake celebrity cameos, including fake Meryl Streep),” Devin Coldewey writes at TechCrunch.
Yet to many observers, and Coldewey himself, the move seems opportunistic at best.
“The ongoing strike of creatives in TV and film, plus the nascent threat of AI-based writing and effects, make it a complicated time to work in show business,” he notes. “But little savvy is required to see that this may be the worst possible moment to soft-launch an AI that can ‘write, animate, direct, voice, edit’ a whole TV show — and demonstrate it with a whole fake South Park episode.”
Ultimately, “the whole thing seems monstrous,” Coldewey concludes. “Cue Jeff Goldblum talking about how just because they could doesn’t mean they should. Especially when half of Hollywood is striking and many of the rest are doing their best not to cross picket lines.”
READ MORE: Maybe showing off an AI-generated fake TV episode during a writers’ strike is a bad idea (TechCrunch)
Pushing the concept further while also showcasing the speed and flexibility of its Showrunner AI system, Fable enlisted several tech writers to participate in fake South Park episodes as characters based on themselves.
“It was just another day in South Park. The kids were making fun of each other on the playground, while the parents were all doing their best to maintain their sanity in the small Colorado town,” he starts. “And then there was me, a tech journalist going door-to-door warning about the impending AI apocalypse. No, I wasn’t actually guest starring on the long-running TV series — I was thrust into an episode entirely produced by the Showrunner AI model from The Simulation, the next iteration of the VR studio Fable.”
The preparation minimal, Hardawar said. “All it took was some audio of my voice (recorded during a call with The Simulation’s CEO Edward Saatchi), a picture and a two-sentence prompt to produce the episode.”
The results, he found, we surprising. “While it wasn’t the best South Park episode I’ve seen, I was shocked by how watchable it was,” he admitted.
“Watching this episode made it clear that generative AI can actually produce watchable content (certainly more so than that AI Seinfeld project), but it also made me even more worried about the role of AI in media,” Hardawar said.
“At this moment, writers in the WGA and performers in the SAG-AFTRA unions are striking for better residual pay and protections against potential AI exploitation. A tool like Showrunner AI, which can produce decent content without much effort, threatens creatives everywhere.”
The Simulation’s demo South Park episode, “Westland Chronicles,” uses The WGA strike and fears around AI-generated content as its main plot line, Hardawar notes. (You can watch the episode in the video at the top of the page.)
“Maybe it’s a mistake to release it, I’m not sure,” Saatchi told him via email, when asked if this is really the best time to launch Showrunner AI. “If our focus was becoming ‘the AI TV studio’ and gloating that we can make shows with no staff I’d feel very queasy — but we’re trying to build a simulation and we need infinite story to make that work.”
Saatchi suggested that Showrunner AI could actually help striking creatives by providing them with an opportunity to negotiate for stronger protections in the use of their digital likenesses. “Now is the moment, in the biggest strike in 60 years, before AI has achieved takeoff, to negotiate the most aggressive protections possible for writers and actors from producers’ use of AI — negotiations now so that these tools are in the hands of artists and creators only and not the hands of producers trying to become Griffin Mill [in] Robert Altman’s The Player,” he said.
Mill, as Altman fans might recall, famously said in the film, “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”
Charlie Fink at Forbes also participated in the experiment.
The “Westland Chronicles” episode made with Showrunner AI confirms “the threat of AI is a real, not existential, problem. Indeed, Showrunner’s creators say it’s too dangerous to release to the public,” Fink writes.
The Simulation, Fink notes, “has no relation to South Park’s producers. It chose to mimic South Park for its demo because of the series’ minimalist animation style, and the volume of existing content to train the models. The output, using basic prompts, is an episode complete with story, script, voice recording, animation, editing, and scoring all done by Showrunner. The company repeatedly emphasized that the episode has no commercial purpose, and is more akin to fan art.”
“Artists and storytellers are now discovering just how effective AI has become,” Saatchi explained to Fink in an interview. “It’s both exciting and extremely disturbing, which is why we wanted to share the results of our research in a non-commercial way to show both artists and Hollywood producers that the threat is real.”
Only available to researchers and journalists for now, Saatchi says the company has no plans to otherwise share Showrunner AI with the public.
But that doesn’t mean Fable isn’t in talks with other IP owners about the potential of Showrunner AI.
“We have simulations tied to many different TV shows including original shows,” Saachi told Fink, “and we’re in talks with several studios and also working with top creators to build original IP, with several original and IP-driven AI TV shows in the works.”
Showrunner AI, says Fink, “represents the sum of all Hollywood’s fears about AI, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.”
Instead of writers getting the short end of the stick, AI tools like Showrunner AI actually flip the script in a very meaningful way. “For the first time, writers can own the means of production,” he says. “Showrunner will someday enable them to upload scripts, storyboards, and actors, and pitch their movies as animated mock-ups created by AI. In other words, what may seem bad for writers, paradoxically may give them more power than they have ever had before.”
Another potential use case for Showrunner AI, as Saatchi explained to Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat, is fan personalization.
“Saatchi thinks that entertainment companies could adopt this technology to give to fans, who can generate their own personalized content based on their favorite intellectual properties. Traditionally, Hollywood has looked down on such efforts and even sued fans. But Saatchi thinks times are changing and that this could be a new revenue stream,” Takahashi writes.
“Saatchi said the technology could be used to create a world where fans can put themselves in their favorite shows, create new episodes, and compete to create the best episodes ever made.”
Saatchi calls this “generative TV.” The rise of generative TV will force studios and creators to build new business models for AI-generated content developed by IP holders, creators and actors, or even fans, Takahashi notes.
“When it’s their own IP, the creators come up with an IP, they build a simulation of that world, and they’re generating shows that they can monetize, that they can put that up on YouTube,” Saatchi told Takahashi. “They can have a channel or, if it’s a really good show, then they can sell it to Cartoon Network and make money from it. So this can be a sort of platform for generative TV.”
While the South Park production didn’t participate in the videos from The Simulation, (more of which can be seen on the studio’s Vimeo page), the long-running cartoon series may have given Fable the idea for creating Showrunner AI in the first place.
“A while back, South Park released an episode about what it meant to use ChatGPT,” Fable researcher Philipp Maas told Takahashi. “That made us wonder if we could generate a comprehensive episode with AI using a virtual being showrunner to prompt multiple AI ‘systems.’”
Life imitates art, art imitates life. And yet, as Cartman says at the end of “The Queepi Quandary” episode, “The show must go on.”