Transmedia storytelling is such a new concept; neither a concrete economic model nor an artistic model exists yet. This is both exciting and terrifying for entertainment franchises. The emergence of new technologies and new consumers has created a market primed for cross-media stories, but how to exploit these opportunities continues to be a question, one that the entertainment industry has yet to answer. Transmedia storytelling is a high-risk, high reward business. Many media companies simply cannot afford the risks involved with launching such a demanding campaign, both economically and creatively. But those who do break free of traditional business constraints, armed with an idea for a compelling world and a manner in which to present it, are often rewarded with a long lasting, flourishing franchise.
1.) Advantage: The domination of mainstream media outlets by corporate conglomerates makes maintaining a crossover market relatively easy. Through media consolidation and synergy, entertainment franchises have become increasingly marketable and sustainable. Large companies can attract diverse audiences into their franchise through various entry points – films, magazines, TV shows, news programs – and continue to barrage them with content in virtually every other medium. But rather than using this power for promotional purposes, why not encourage ‘hunting and gathering’ by distributing original content across platforms? That way, the ancillary content would not only promote the primary property, (film or TV show) but it would add depth to it as well. Fans are less willing to dismiss ostensible marketing content if they know viewing or interacting with it will add to their experience of the world. In short, the horizontal integration of the media lends itself to producing transmedia stories.
1.) Disadvantage: It is extremely difficult to coordinate and collaborate with individual sectors of a media conglomerate. Rather than working together to form a unified story, the major TV networks and movie studios place limits on what other media sectors can create. These constraints often do not take advantage of the capabilities a particular media form can offer. As Jenkins describes:
Even within the media conglomerates, units compete aggressively rather than collaborate.
Each industry sector has specialized talent, but the conglomerates lack a common language or vision to unify them. The current structure is hierarchical: film units set licensing limits on what can be done in games based on their properties. At the same time, film producers don’t know the game market very well or respect those genre elements which made something like Tomb Raider successful. We need a new model for co-creation-rather than adaptation-of content that crosses media. (Technology Review, January 2003)
Jenkins summarizes this nicely on his blog:
Most media franchises, however, are governed not by co-creation (which involves conceiving the property in transmedia terms from the outset) but rather licensing (where the story originates in one media and subsequent media remain subordinate to the original master text.)
It seems like media conglomerates don’t realize that a movie plot is not going to work well in a videogame. Each medium is designed to tell a certain kind of story. Using co-creation, each media sector can discuss what their medium’s strengths can do for a story rather than awkwardly fitting the story within the medium.
2.) Advantage: Transmedia stories cater to fragmented audiences, increasing the chance advertisers will reach their target consumer. Because loyals are willing to spend the time, money, and energy to investigate all kinds of media produced by one franchise, rather than casually explore many, advertisers increase the chance that they will reach their specific, target audience. For example, superhero merchandise can be advertised on the Incredible Hulk online comic. Or sports ads can be displayed before Friday Night Lights. Rather than pay 100,000 for a 30 second spot, advertisers can penetrate small interest communities. Thus, transmedia storytelling creates avenues for advertisers to increase control over who sees their commercials.
Of course, as a result of the fragmented audiences and the Internet, competitions arise not only between mediums but across mediums. NBC is not only competing against ABC for eyeballs but Google and YouTube as well. (Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium (pdf) Askwith)
3.) Advantage: Transmedia stories offers different entry points, expanding the potential market. One type of niche audience may be willing to experiment with a different type of medium because it involves their favorite character or story. A Lost fan, for example, who would otherwise never be caught playing an alternate reality game (ARG), might decide to try out The Lost Experience because the game promises to answer some of the show’s mysteries. Cross platform franchises have great power to draw fans out of their typical media ‘comfort zones.’ In doing so, “if each work offers fresh experiences, then a crossover market will expand the potential gross within any individual media.” (Jenkins, Technology Review)
2.) Disadvantage: While entry points may entice a range of consumers, they also provide many points to push consumers away. If one text does not fit with the others or if it is just bad, it may be enough to turn many people away. Especially for transmedia campaigns designed from the outset, one mistake (a redundant or inconsistent text) can lose massive fan support. A bad movie may be endurable, but a bad transmedia story is a nightmare.
3.) Disadvantage: A.) With so many creators of content, it’s hard to understand the entire dynamic of a franchise. Creating a time frame for each touch point of a property becomes problematic since TV shows, movies, and videogames have such different production and distribution models. For example, producers must carefully plan when the video game will be released: either before, during, or after a movie’s time in theaters. Designing transmedia stories around television shows is even more dangerous, since the lifespan of a show is so unpredictable.
B.) With so many creators of content, it’s hard for fans to understand the dynamic of a franchise. Understanding a franchise is not only difficult for the producers, it’s hard for the fans as well. How can they distinguish between content that is canon with the franchise and content that is fan fiction? It is awfully difficult to keep track of what stories are official within a world and which aren’t, especially with all the inconsistencies out there. (Think Batman. How do the animated cartoons fit within the world vs. Christopher’s Nolan’s interpretation?)
Geoffrey Long, in his MIT thesis Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company (pdf), proposes that there be a “Hub” which allows people to download and organize various aspects of the transmedia world, all in one place:
An official website would provide consumers with tools with which to track each component in the franchise…there would be software which digitally manages how each extension relates to every other extension, and where each one fits into the larger story world. (143)
He continues: “Being able to download even the most obscure content quickly not only removes the stigma that is often attached with comic shops (giving people anonymity), but also opens up rural markets that might not be able to get that content from a local store and facilitates impulse purchases that trade on the instant gratification principle. (146)”
It may seem that having a central website is anti-thetical to the consumers’ desire to hunt and gather story information. Perhaps, there is some truth to that. Some people want that sense of discovery, as many ARG players do. They don’t want all the content to be placed in their lap. Nevertheless, I think Long’s Hub idea would work well for most consumers who want to work for their story information, but not work so hard they might miss out on crucial story information. Such a development would certainly fit well within the digital age.
4.) Disadvantage: “What counts the most is what can be counted.” – Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture.. As I have previously mentioned, executives who resist transmedia storytelling point to the lack of a consistent and dependable business model. How do you monetize a property with so many touch points? The complexity involved with formulating a transmedia experience makes dividing return of investment (ROI) difficult. How do you decide who deserves the credit for a franchise’s popularity when the content is all so interconnected?
In addition, no one knows what constitutes a successful transmedia project. Is it purely generated income? Is it fan enthusiasm? How do we know what works and what doesn’t?
4.) Advantage: Expanding platform for content also brings in a larger global audience. The Internet allows for people abroad to stay connected to their favorite TV shows, movies, and videogames.
5.) Disadvantage: A.) It is difficult to create a world suitable for transmedia storytelling. As I mentioned before, not every story can be transmediated. There is no artistic model in how to create a world, one that consumers will engage with. There must be a sufficient amount of open-endedness, however. Long draws on literary theorist Roland Barthes to describe the intertextual bonds between extensions. (I will provide definitions in italics)
In transmedia narratives, the key is to leave a number of the hermeneutic codes (elements in a text that introduce, further, and conclude mysterious elements running throughout the text) unresolved to serve as potential migratory cues (signals towards another narrative path in another medium) , relying upon the audience’s capacity for negative capability(gaps in the story to generate mystery and imagination), to fill in the gaps until an extension actualizes one or more migratory cues. (67)
By using these devices which invoke mystery, a transmedia story has many narrative options, many potential story lines. These stories can either be developed after a successful TV show or film (Long calls this soft transmedia) or planned out before the release of the central media text (hard transmedia). Hard transmedia often has more consistency but soft transmedia is less risky because it does not depend on the success of the primary media text.
B.) Balancing between hard core fans and casual fans is a daunting task. Transmedia storytelling has the potential to appeal to both, but it is not easy. The primary media has to stand on its own while simultaneously allowing for migratory cues, negative capability, and hermeneutic codes. The story must include enough for casual fans to understand but mysterious enough for loyal fans to want to know more. This is indeed a tricky balance.
5.) Advantage: Transmedia storytelling facilitates collective intelligence and enhances fan involvement. Because it inherently leaves gaps in the world, fans actively seek other forms of media to fill them in. They work together to solve mysteries and no one fan knows enough that he/she does not need to discuss their findings with others. I discuss the behaviors of these new kinds of consumers in Chapter 1.
As I will discuss in future posts, a transmedia story must incorporate certain aesthetic and logistical elements to be effective. I have touched on the basic advantages and disadvantages of transmedia storytelling but it is by no means all encompassing. If I think of any major ones, I’ll edit this post. All and all, one thing is clear: it is an exciting time to see transmedia storytelling develop in the digital age.