Is ‘Transmedia’ in TV finally growing up?
I’m currently working on a few interesting projects for TV broadcast clients which have perked my interest again in the murky world of ‘transmedia story-telling’.
At Red Bee, one side of the Creative Division’s business is helping market businesses/institutions that are funded through the creation and distribution of content (normally moving image if truth be told).
We pull a lot of the same levers as anyone else – print, press, radio, digital etc but of course, broadcast media normally holds much of the focus. But I want to focus in on digital activity for this post.
The ‘T’ word
Let’s face it, there is now a definite blur in online environments between what constitutes marketing and what constitutes editorial. Some people call this stuff ‘transmedia’. Some call it coverage. Some call it advertorial. It’s all of these things but I wanted to spend a couple of minutes with you to talk about the ‘T word’.
Henry Jenkins describes it as:
a process wherever important portions of the misinformation get distributed methodically over multiple supply stations for the purpose of creating a specific and coordinated leisure experience.
Here is a slide that was doing the rounds a few months back demonstrating the interconnectivity of Disney’s ‘supply stations’ … In 1937.
I think the shift that’s happened from Disney’s vision of multi-platform entertainment brands and where we are today is brilliantly summed up by this diagram.
About four of five years ago, a lot of people got very excited with this approach. We saw a slug of ‘transmedia’ projects. The relaunch of the Batman franchise with the ARG ‘Why So Serious?’ and Dexter springs to mind as well as our relaunch of Red Dwarf a few years back.
Most of the conversation seemed to be around the blur of marketing and editorial principles that resulted in a mildly exciting property promoting a new storyworld to new and existing audiences by maintaining the ‘fourth wall’ of the story being promoted. It was marketing but nobody called it that – often because the assets were coming straight out of the studios/indie – think of the pincer strategy deployed by WarnerBros for Superman – on the one hand a massive, epic, dare I say it ‘traditional’ three minute blockbuster trailer, whilst also simultaneously releasing General Zod threatening Planet Earth through a series of broken messages.
I’m particularly excited by the theory behind Syfy’s Defiance premise. Essentially a post-apocalyptic Planet Earth set sometime in the not too distant future with aliens and humans living side by side sometimes getting a bit eggy with each other. What’s interesting though is that the storyworld has then been turned into both a linear TV show but also a Mass Multi-PLayer Online Game (MMOG) which plays out in time with the show, some of the outcomes of the game then going on to inform the linear narrative and vice versa. Here is the team discussing it’s creation… (If this isn’t a ‘Planner idea’ I don’t know what is…)
What seems exciting about all this is you can involve a growing number of people in a story in a way which did not detract from the main, let’s call it ‘linear’ story-telling experience whilst still super-serving those that wanted to pull apart and bury themselves into that story world. You could interact with a character on Twitter e.g. Jack Whitehall’s Alfie Wicker from BBC Three’s Bad Education without it impinging on your enjoyment of the main show. As the diagram below shows, we’d be able to develop new narratives which were fundamentally anchored in the storyworld but we’d go off on tangents and then tie it back in at certain intersections in the plot.
Grant McCracken says people enjoy burying themselves in narratives to;
…craft time and space, and to fashion an immersive near-world with special properties. We enter a world that is, for all its narrative complexity, a place of suddencontinuity. We may have made the world “go away” for psychological purposes, but here, for anthropological ones, we have built another in its place
And of course, the entertainment industry is very keen to make sure that these extensions pay for themselves in someway. Take a look at this interesting taxonomy of ‘transmedia’ activities…getting people to pay for your marketing is a bit of a holy grail really isn’t it?
But I think there is something genuinely new gathering pace right now, certainly in the TV industry that is going to lead to some break-out multi-media narratives with the interactivity having genuine mass appeal. I think in the next two years we will have a multi-platform format that will dominate the British pop culture landscape for the next ten years… I’m thinking ITV1 on Saturday night mega-mass here…
There are two key drivers…
1. Device penetration bringing about the rise of the multi-screen living room. Simply the user journey from screen to screen has shortened. I don’t need to go upstairs to log onto the show’s site to continue my participation with what I’ve just watched. If you didn’t watch Gogglebox on C4 to get a glimpse of what’s happening in British front rooms right now, it’s worth a look for a qualitative take. For more numbers go here.
2. Our understanding of TV audiences in a digital world is maturing.
By that I mean firstly we’re getting smarter on defining an audience’s relationship with a ‘broadcast medium of moving images’. Grant McCracken, when discussing the cultural impact of binge viewing recently, he referenced the fact that what binge-viewing does is create ‘sudden commonality’;
…And if we share that binging with our families or friends, we can make that world — that show — a place of sudden commonality. (Think about all those couples with crazy busy, vastly different days creating shared spaces of intimacy around watching even seasons-old shows together after their kids sleep.) Contrary to what others may argue here, we don’t lose that that “shared cultural space,” the shared experience of everyone talking about the same shows. We just narrow the space to an island inhabited only by ourselves instead of all of America watching the same show at once.
I think this sudden commonality is actually what a TV schedule does. The schedule helps create a sudden commonality – not only at 8pm in the evening (heightened further by social media of course) but also the next day – the old ‘water cooler moment’. Why? Because our life patterns fundamentally haven’t changed at the same pace as technology and if you buy into a couple of fundamental pieces of how people make decisions; that a) we make decisions based on what we see others doing (Mark Earl’s I’ll have what she’s having) and b) we’re crap at deciding so we revert back to habit (Barry Schwarz’s Paradox of Choice), you see how important a broadcast schedule still is in our culture.
In other words, broadcasters are the creators of short, sharp, shared cultural spaces. Very few other mediums can do this at nearly the same scale which of course strengthens the stranglehold of TV. Youtube attempted to loosen the grip a few weeks ago with Comedy Week so I’ll be waiting to see how that gets reported but a quick look at the numbers suggests UK terrestrials have nowt to worry about just yet. After all, it is this burst into culture which most advertisers seek too (normally driven by/aligned with supply chain capacities, retail demand and sales targets).
Secondly, we’re getting better at understanding how viewer attention shapes differ depending on the genre and type of story being told on TV. Mat Lock and his team at StoryThings have great points of view on this are and I’ve presented some thinking on this area before too. Ted and Andy’s SecondSync platform is compiling really interesting analytics (thankfully) corroborating my thinking around different genres’ viewer behaviour (and also moving it on a step by now offering benchmarks for what a ‘social’ show looks like and with Facebook’s show of leg to the TV industry through their hashtag announcement yesterday, the data is only going to get better). And of course over in the US (probably a good 12 months ahead of us), there are constant research findings reporting now on how different types of TV shows are performing, essentially by looking at behaviours on other platforms as a new proxy for ‘engagement’ around TV shows.
A Transmedia future: Commercial, big and multi-genre
So what does all this mean? Well I think ‘transmedia’ is moving out of the fictional genre, out of the fanboy forums at 1am on a Tuesday night and into the front room, with the whole family particiapting at 8pm on Saturday evenings. Unsurprisingly Channel 4 are leading the way in this space in the UK with Million Pound Drop but I think this is just the start of something much bigger and commercially viable with multi-skilled teams of people – advertisers, schedulers, commissioners, producers, web developers getting together and reinventing TV ‘formats’. For example, what could be the role of a TV show sponsor and online retailer Very when Gok’s Fashion Fix plays out? Flash sales on the site enabling you to ‘shop the look’ perhaps? Or Fosters sponsorship of Channel 4 comedy shows like 8 out of 10 Cats – Brad and Dan offering up the chance to offer up a ‘viewer’ team on the show? Or what if I could instantly replay, clip and share the off-side decision on Sky Sports via the second screen showing everyone the angle that convinces my friends the goal shouldn’t have stood?
So is ‘transmedia’ finally growing up. Yes it is. And how will we know when it has finally matured? Probably when we start calling it TV again.