Transmedia Storytelling


Producers of content have used many storytelling methods on television, seeking to differentiate their shows and attract fans through narrative spectacle, as Aristotle would say.  Not only have these producers explored different narrative strategies on traditional television, they have also added value to their shows by showcasing their series on other technological platforms such as the internet, mobile phones, and in video games.  For example, the television show Lost has an entire “university,” where fans can learn more about the franchise, characters, and overall mystery that the show features.  ( Most, if not all, executives and scholars agree that audiences are changing their consumer habits to view content on multiple platforms.  This shift to transmedia narratives has intensified in the last two decades as technology has advanced.

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins explains, “A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics…Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game or vice versa…Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption.” (Jenkins, 95-96)

The primary benefit of having a transmedia narrative is to offer multiple points of entry for new consumers to participate.  No matter where individual consumers prefer to view content, shows will be accessible to consumers who seek entertainment on alternative platforms to traditional television viewing.  Furthermore, supplemental material on platforms in addition to entire episodes will help build a loyal, satisfied fan base.  Eventually there will be financial incentives for using transmedia storytelling, as well.  Though profitable storytelling formulas have not come to fruition, they will likely be realized as advertising opportunities, product placement, and consumer payments are maximized.

Achieving the above mentioned rewards brings significant challenges to developing a comprehensive storyline that translates across stages. Varying levels of fan interest and technological savvy are to blame.  Casual fans do not have the motivation to seek additional footage; therefore, the additional features cannot be a necessary component of the overall story; however, hard core fans will not be satisfied with repetitive or dormant content.  Fans in-between behave unpredictably.  Furthermore, gaps in technological familiarity impact the amount of people who seek additional content as well as frequency.  Over time, generations seeking multi-platform experiences will increase as they adapted to the technology at a young age and believe it is fundamental to any property.  In the meantime, producers must strike a balance between adding to the product’s narrative outside television without alienating viewers who only watch the show in its traditional medium.  The search for content from different directions has fragmented shows’ consumer bases.  Audiences cannot be trusted to search for supplemental content or traditional appointment viewing.  It is up to the producers to create satisfying viewing experiences for audiences watching the same characters and premises from diverse and largely deficient approaches – no easy task.

Though it is challenging for every series, some shows have formats that lend themselves to multiple platform narratives.  I first speculated that genre primarily determined of how well shows translate across media.  Comedic shows such as Two and a Half Men seem to have difficulty creating valuable narratives on alternative platforms to television, whereas dramas like Lost have organic storytelling extensions that satisfy hard-core fans without alienating casual ones.  Upon further thought, however, there are many counter examples to this theory.  For example, 30 Rock and The Office for example have terrific online and mobile extensions while Fox’s House suffers from poor narrative bonus features.  To help solve this inconsistency, I re-read Jason Mittell’s composition, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.”  In the work, Mittell characterizes shows as either “conventional” or “complex.” (Note: Mittell acknowledges that these terms are value-laden.) Mittell assigns the dramas and situation-comedies that have typified American television as “conventional,” while classifying shows that have, “specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure,” as “complex.” (29)  Mittell’s classification system is a far more appropriate method of identifying the ways producers can employ transmedia narrative.

“Conventional” shows exist without definition of a unique world.  The audience is expected to believe that the show could exist in their world, and the premise of the story needs to be maintained to retain the essence of the show.  These shows usually run out of story-arcs rather quickly, and suffer when writers try to change the core premise.  Shows currently in production that fit the “conventional” model are Gary Unmarried, Nip/Tuck, and House.  “Complex” shows exist and operate in their own universe.  While it often looks similar to our world, they are too fantastical to exist in the way they are presented.  Shows currently in production that fit the “complex” model are Lost, 24, and How I Met Your Mother.  If still in production, I hypothesize the “conventional” I Love Lucy would struggle with transmedia endeavors while Gilligan’s Island would be able to extend the series with webisodes featuring characters while they are separated from the group as well as games such as “Where in the World Are They?”

“Complex” series explore worlds and storytelling techniques which stimulates the creation of media on diverse platforms.  For example, the mockumentary series The Office allows characters to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the cameras; therefore, the producers have been able to create high-quality, inexpensive webisodes that are consistent with the show’s style. In addition, The Office has added additional features such as cast tweeting, holiday and birthday e-cards, and mobile applications since the show is a reality show about an unreal world.  This analysis, along with many others, proves that the shows with the most effective transmedia narratives are “complex” and not “conventional”. While it is more difficult to integrate transmedia narratives for shows whose premise necessitates status quo conclusions, it is by no means impossible.  For instance, “conventional” show CSI: NY famously integrated the virtual social network Second Life in a 2007 episode.  Not only did a character pursue a criminal on the site during the television episode, people who visited the Second Life website could assume the vocation of CSI: NY investigators.  The producers created a cross-platform narrative that added value to the story without disturbing the experience of casual fans.

Transmedia storytelling has become a common strategy to expand a show’s presence, especially as audiences hunt the market for additional entertainment.  Shows pitched in today’s market need an original premise, an online model, mobile applications, and syndication opportunities.  Now that audiences want to participate in entertainment, offering supplemental material to consume and develop on various platforms is necessary to capture desirable fans.  Cross-media narratives are difficult to develop and even more difficult to monetize; however, larger fan bases, syndication values, and franchise development make the long-term investment advantageous for networks.  In an overcrowded entertainment market, effective transmedia storytelling can maximize consumer exposure which any effective network executive, producer, or writer should realize.


One Response to “Transmedia Storytelling”

  1. jess4tv Says:

    I thought this was so interesting regarding the expansion of the ‘story-world’ of television shows to other media. What’s cool is that with ‘Lost’ it seems to have come up in a very organic way out of the show, however, what does it say about the complexity of say ‘Gossip Girl’ that it’s coming out of these original tween books?

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