Transmedia Storytelling: A Feature of the Digital Media World

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Abstract


The process of convergence/deconvergence in media-communication industry introduce new concepts and methods in content production. Recently researchers and practitioners’ interest has been drawn to the idea of transmedia storytelling, developed by Henry Jenkins. Russian authors’ works are based mostly on foreign sources offering the ways of putting this innovative technology into practical use predominantly in the field of journalism and marketing. The purpose of our research is to consider the benefits of transmedia storytelling in the production of television drama series.

On the production side, transmedia storytelling presumes planning of the global series narrative with the perspective to distribute it piece by piece on multiple media platforms. Ideally this conception expects every medium to do what it does best. It is vital to choose transmedia extensions which best suit for rendering of the particular story to support the branded narrative universe, fill the intervals between the seasons, maintain the target audience interest and supply new information about the characters. This is achieved by such means as viral marketing and advertising, graphic novels/comic books, applications for mobile devices, web-pages, computer games, online games, alternative reality games, role games, etc. One of the producer’s main tasks is not only to attract as big audience as possible, but also to immerse it in the common experience of a drama series. The clash between the television series fiction and reality of the people’s living world guarantees a lasting connection with the content.

In conclusion it should be underlined that feature films and drama serials still provide symbolic material which helps the public to exist in their sociocultural contexts. Transmedia storytelling makes researchers to look for new more complex methods of media content and audience analysis.


Full Text

The processes of convergence and deconvergence, which have transpierced the modern industry of information and communications, are producing discussions on new concepts and methods of media content production. The modern discourse concerning the technology of plot building provokes special interest among theorists and practical workers in the transmedia storytelling approach [1], which allows filmmakers to expand their imaginary universe limitlessly, thus providing it with various entering points due to the unique character of every part of its total content. Franchises such as Star Wars (1977, George Lucas and four others) or The Walking Dead (2010, Greg Nicotero and 41 others) may be regarded as the best samples, since they use a number of media platforms to offer a new story in each episode, broadening their narratives and giving the audience new opportunities to explore and improve their knowledge of their rich narrative worlds.

It is clear that anyone writing on the subject would at some point mention the name of Henry Jenkins, who elaborated the transmedia storytelling concept in his book Convergence culture (2006). This term is used in both theoretical and practical aspects to describe the phenomenon of media landscape, when the narrative is constructed not within one type of media but instead transgresses its borders, capturing others. The content of every single media is to be a part of a larger plot space—as Jenkins puts it, “a transmedia story is unfolding on numerous media platforms, when each new channel becomes a specific and valuable contribution to the whole”[2].

We can mark two types of use of the term transmedia in the discourse concerning this subject: the theoretic one, which emphasizes the cultural approach aimed at determining characteristics of certain structures in media and culture, and also the practical one, based on the way of describing the business model—the very processes of working out, production, and distribution of media. By analyzing the core of transmedia storytelling as a complex of various algorithms of work on several platforms and of ways of building stories on them, the Russian authors, guided by foreign sources [3], offer practical ways of realizing this innovative technology mostly conformably to journalism and marketing. In this connection, it is preferable that we consider foreign experience of using transmedia storytelling in the production of drama series.

Franchising

As to the media convergent world, the film and TV franchise has become a conventional global transmedia brand. The audience’s minds store a story based not only on a single film or several episodes of a TV program—additional projects akin to the original screenplay or teleplay, developed on various platforms as objects of consumption, also make their contribution. Having analyzed how the media franchising model has appeared, D. Johnson stipulates that “the essence of media franchising in the late 20th–early 21st centuries is made by exchange of content among various production sites and contexts both collaborating and competing through sets of communications which often cross industrial and geographic borders”[4].

Nevertheless, franchises are changing the ways of consumption of media products in particular and of cultural products in general. In turn, technological plans generate, as a quite natural result, new ways of storytelling on the basis of digitalization, media franchises, and media brands; franchise is, in fact, “an economic concept whose aim is to support the audience’s loyalty to the cultural product brand as long as possible, to sell the consumers symbolically charged articles”[5].

From the production point of view, transmedia storytelling assumes that a story is planned so that its parts are issued on different platforms without repetitions at any point. Thus, various narrative and esthetic capabilities of different media channels are taken into account so that the audience is completely submerged in the multimedia story.

Architecture

Ideally, the transmedia storytelling concept assumes that every medium does what it can do best. At the same time, each part of the franchise is supposed to be a self-sufficient work; the consumer will not be forced to watch the film to have a chance to play and vice versa. In other words, every new product is another entering point to the franchise. Acquaintance with the plot on various media ensures deep sensations, stimulates one’s willingness to meet new offers. New levels of plot stratagems and sensations revive the franchise and support consumer loyalty, though redundancy in the story may in some cases decrease its fans’ interest and cause the failure of the franchise.

To encourage the consumption of streaming content on the multimedia market, Murray advises that producers should impart specific ideological and demographic characteristics to their media products, which ought to be persuasive enough to make consumers invest money and emotions in the brand [6]. For this reason, TV drama with a legible brand identity, such as Heroes (2006–2010, Greg Beeman and 32 others) or True Blood (2008–2014, Michael Lehmann and 23 others) have found financial success—due, in no small part, to certain psychosocial portraits displayed in them, which is what spectators loyal to the given content like to rediscover in radically different media formats.

This demand determines, in considerable part, esthetic qualities of the brand content on multiple media platforms while simultaneously ensuring that the audience is sufficiently submerged on an emotional level to create a durable connection with the content. The technique of transmedia storytelling increasingly deviates from linear suspense dramatic composition, to be directed to immersive forms of art of world-forming. In the context of creating stereoscopic, stable, and verisimilar worlds, the audiovisual form, that is esthetic design, acquires increasingly greater meaning, in contrast to the purely narrative resource.

Jenkins states that “storytelling is becoming more and more art of world creating, since it forms gripping ambience which cannot be investigated and got to know completely throughout one work or within one medium. This world is greater than a film, even greater than a franchise, since the fans’ suppositions and aspirations expand this world in various directions”[7].

Listing the advantages of applying transmedia storytelling, L. Mikos mentions plot economy, since some characters are not to be introduced in full during the opening episodes of a TV drama. All the more, it is often enough to repeat the presentation briefly, as the characters are familiar thanks to other sources—for instance, corresponding websites, as in cases of Game of Thrones (2011–2019, David Nutter and 18 others) or Lost (2004–2010, Jack Bender and 25 others), which have a high number of characters. This is how additional information on the plot and heroes drawn from other parts of the project helps to fill in the blanks left in the main script.

Extensions

The main bodies, or pivots, of most transmedia texts are TV serials (the best-known exception is the production of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Generally, there are two approaches to transmedia storytelling: either to invent a story than can be entirely told on several platforms, or to take a story from one medium and extend it to other platforms. Each part of the global narrative world interacts with others, deepening it; however, it also can be an independent work, letting the public choose how deep to submerge in the events. This is the number one challenge in transmedia storytelling.

Evans marks three kinds of coherence in transmedia texts: the author’s, narrative coherence, and the temporal one [8]. Needing a unitary author to create transmedia texts does not mean that all texts of a plot world on different platforms must be created by one author; for the author to maintain coherency, however, is a must. This is important at the production stage and then in the distribution period. In addition, we are not to ignore temporal coherency, since separate parts of transmedia stories are issued in serial off-seasons.

In the context of esthetic convergence, transmedia storytelling assumes that there exist three consumer categories with a paradigmatic attitude to perception that is typical media of products in the digital world. These are (1) active spectators who plunge into the plot live in order to experience pleasure in each episode of the project, (2) more penetrating loyal audience following logic in the narrative as a whole, (3) “navigating spectators who like to seek interconnections between different parts of the story and discover numerous interpretations of the text” [9]. However, as most common spectators are not inclined to submerging deep in the narrative world, the special popularity of transmedia projects is prerogative of scanty fan groups.

TV dramas such as Sherlock (2010, Paul McGuigan and nine others) and Breaking Bad (2008–2013, Michelle MacLaren and 24 others) have spread on a number of platforms—from hand drawn novels (comics) to games based on augmented reality and episodes for mobile phones (mobisodes). In the end, a transmedia TV episode can be seen on different audiovisual platforms in quite a short time, and all of them are characterized by some specific source code or other author’s/author group’s peculiarities.

It is then crucial to select such transmedia extensions that best fit the given TV drama. The aim of transmedia is to support the existence of the branded narrative universe and fill off-season periods in order to preserve the target audience’s interest in the series, to provide additional information, and to more intensely involve the spectators in the TV series events. To achieve this, producers use various forms of transmedia extensions: viral marketing and ads, graphic novels (comics), web series, mobile applications, web pages, computer games, online games, games based on alternate reality, and role play.

Viral marketing, for instance, has played an important role in the case of the vampire series True Blood. A marketing campaign was designed to promote the first season of the TV series; it was based on the iconography of a drink for adults with slogans such as True Blood for Suckers, Taste First, and No Bites. For the three months prior to the start of the TV series, the web remained filled with videos broadcasting that True Blood helped vampires “come to light,” while fake ads allegedly aimed at vampires streamed on cable channels and evening web shows [10].

A special website (www.truebeverage.com) offered the public additional information concerning a peculiar vampire drink. A site for vampires also appeared; it had allegedly been created by the American Vampire League, advocating equal rights for humans and vampires in the USA. The internet issued a short video in which the League’s spokespersons told the audience about their problems. In another video, the White House press secretary declared that the president was concerned with vampires’ problems. Interviews with partizans and opponents of equal rights for vampires took place, and all the videos were subsequently posted on Facebook.

To fill the breaks between each season, producers often shoot web series designed as extensions of a TV story. Thus, low-budget spin-off for mobile phones 24. Conspiracy (2006, Eric Young, Marc Ostrick) became an extension for the TV series 24 (2001–2010, Jon Cassar and 18 others). Mobisodes of such kind were issued between the first and second episodes of The Walking Dead. Some producers use web series and mobile applications to introduce new characters in a TV drama before the new season. For instance, the producers of the Dutch TV series Goede tijden, slechte tijden (1990-…, Michiel Geijeskes and 42 others) issued a mobile application containing diaries of a mysterious character who had appeared in the intriguing finale of the previous season. Thanks to the app, Goede tijden, slechte tijden increased its rating by approximately 17 percent [11]. Temporal coherency of transmedia storytelling is very important for viral marketing, filling seasonal breaks, and attracting young audience.

When the aim of applications and websites is to bring additional information, their content is then centered on certain characteristics and/or actions of the series’ heroes. For example, in the web project where the protagonist of the criminal drama Monk (2002–2009, Randy Zisk and 46 others) was presented as a small child, the audience could see some of his characteristic features forming as early as in his early childhood, when he used to reveal his classmates’ deeds.

Moreover, it is through a web series or a mobile application the status of minor characters of a TV program may be heightened. The web series Nurse Jeffrey: Bitch Tapes (2010–, Sanford Bookstaver and five others) shows male nurse Jeffrey commenting on Dr House of House (2004–2012, Greg Yaitanes and 49 others) quite offensively. The plot world of the drama becomes brighter thanks to this additional perspective.

Immersion

One of the producers’ tasks is not only attract audience, but also to involve them in the general transmedia TV drama experience—including playing in the alternate reality in the narrative world, where the public gets a chance to solve mysteries and secrets contained in a serial audiovisual work. Success in the game motivates the spectators and urges them to try other transmedia extensions. The most famous example is the application Lost Experience, launched between the second and third seasons of the TV series Lost [12].

The first European TV drama with an extension designed as a game in an alternate reality was the Swedish show Sanningen om Marika (2007–, Martin Schmidt and one other) [13], highly evaluated by critics and scholars but not by the audience. The transmedia arsenal of Marika consisted of a classical linear story (fictitious debates and a five-episode TV drama), a website (www.conspirare.se), a mobile application, and a Swedish virtual universe for group playing. The example of Marika has proved that the transmedia narrative world of a TV drama should not be too complicated, since part of the audience may not be willing to go online, instead preferring to watch the series in the classical linear format. Spectators who are young and more active, however, look for every part of the transmedia story on all platforms available and willingly submerge in the narrative world, also taking part in all the special projects created for the fans. As a result, it is this public who constitutes the basic niche market that can be taken advantage of, rather than ordinary spectators.

Transmedia storytelling and mega-narratives are the producers’ and TV channels’ reactions to the growing fragmentation of the market and the audience. In addition to the initial audiovisual texts in films and TV series, web series, comics, games in alternate reality, computer games, role plays, mobile applications, and social network pages are aimed at attracting consumers to multiple media platforms, offering spectators a feeling of complete immersion.

The digitalization process requires new methods of working out, producing, and spreading texts such as those of TV series. It is possible to create narrative worlds on a much larger scale in a digital convergent media ambience. They exist as a part of the textual universe where transmedia storytelling plays an exceptionally important role. Nevertheless, “new technologies change texts not so considerably as sociocultural contexts which determine meanings which are formed in the process of interaction of the audience with texts as esthetic objects” [14].

Conclusion

As theoretical investigation deepens, the concepts of transmedia storytelling and practical experience grow, and problems requiring analysis and understanding are being uncovered. It is common to consider the question of meaning construction as the key one, because “it is hardly possible to understand clearly what meaning will be given to any given completed text in the modern media culture” [15]. Correspondingly, we are to understand the processes that make texts part of the meaning circulation system in sociocultural contexts.

Feature films and TV series still provide symbolic material that helps the public construct their life worlds sensibly within concrete sociocultural contexts. Transmedia storytelling tasks media investigators to work out more effective analytic methods for TV series and their extensions.

The classical analysis of a text can reveal how dramatic narrative structures in TV series and their transmedia extensions involve spectators in concerted meaning production. What is more, it must concentrate on the institutional characteristics of the global media market, its intertextual frames—that sociocultural reality in which the spectators and their everyday lives exist, as well as the public discourses in which meanings are jointly produced, helping us adjust social and communicative interconnections.

 

 

 

 

[1] See, for example: Pilgun M.A. (2015). Тransmedia Storytelling: perspectivy razvitiya mediateksta [Transmedia Storytelling: Prospects for the Development of Media Text] // Mediascop — 2015. — № 3. — P. 43.

[2] Jenkins H. (2006). Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide. NewYork and London: New York University Press. P. 97.

[3] Krasnov G.S. & Sidornya A.A. (2018). Teoreticheskoye obosnovanie konstepstiy transmediynogo storitellinga [Theoretical background of transmedia storytelling concepts] // Molodoy Issledovatel Dona, № 1(10). Pp. 98-109. (In Russ.).

[4] Johnson D. (2013). Media franchising. Creative license and collaboration in the culture industries. New York and London: New York University Press. P. 7.

[5] Mikos L. (2017). Transmedia Storytelling and Mega-Narration: Audiovisual Production in Converged Media Environments. In S. Sparviero, C. Peil & G. Balbi (Eds.), (Pp. 159-176). Media Convergence and Deconvergence. A Palgrave and IAMCR Series. P. 161.

[6] Murray S. (2003). Media convergence’s third wave. Convergence, 9(8), 8-18. Johnson D. (2013). Media franchising. Creative license and collaboration in the culture industries. New York and London: New York University Press. Pp. 13-14.

[7] Jenkins. Op.cit. P. 114.

[8] Evans E. (2011). Transmedia television. Audiences, new media and daily life. New York and London: Routledge. P. 33.

[9] Murray. Op. cit. P. 257.

[10] Hardy J. (2011). Mapping commercial intertextuality: HBO’s true blood. Convergence, 17(1). P.11.

[11] Wouda E. (2013). Contact is king. Paper presented at the workshop “Digital Strategies. Financing, Marketing and Distribution 2.0” of Erich Pommer Institute in Berlin, December 5.

[12] Mittell J. (2015). Complex TV. The poetics of contemporary television storytelling. New York and London: New York University Press. P. 301.

[13] Urazova S.L. (2012) Televidenie kak instituzinal’naya sistema otrazhenia kul’turnyh potrebnostey [Television as an institutional system for reflecting sociocultural needs], Dissertatsia …doktora filologicheskyh nauk: 1001.10. Moscow, 2012. Pp. 394-410. (In Russ.).

[14] Micos. Op. cit. P. 171.

[15] Hills, M. (2005). How to do things with cultural theory. London: Hodder Arnold. P. 26.

About the authors

Gennady P. Bakulev

S.A.Gerasimov Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK)

Author for correspondence.
Email: vestnik-vgik@vgik.info

Russian Federation, 3, Wilhelm Pik street, 129226 Moscow, Russia

Doctor of Philology, Professor

References

  1. Krasnov G.S. & Sidornya A.A, Nejreticheskoye obosnovanie konstepstiy transmediynogo storitellinga [Theoretical background of transmedia storytelling concepts] // Molodoy Issledovatel Dona, № 1 (10), 2018, pp. 98–109. (In Russ.).
  2. Pilgun, M.A. (2015) Тransmedia Storytelling: perspectivy razvitiys mediateksta [Transmedia Storytelling: Prospects for the Development of Media Text]. Mediascop 2015, № 3. P. 43.
  3. Urazova S.L. (2012) Televidenie kak instituzinal’naya sistema otrazhenia kul’turnyh potrebnostey [Television as an institutional system for reflecting sociocultural needs]. Dissertatsia …doktora filologicheskyh nauk: 10.01.10. Moskva, 2012, pp. 394–410. (In Russ.).
  4. Evans E. (2011). Transmedia television. Audiences, new media and daily life. New York and London: Routledge.
  5. Hardy J. (2011). Mapping commercial intertextuality: HBO’s true blood. Convergence, 17 (1), 7–17.
  6. Hills M. (2005). How to do things with cultural theory. London: Hodder Arnold.
  7. Jenkins H. (2006). Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide. New York and London: New York University Press. 308 p.
  8. Johnson D. (2013). Media franchising. Creative license and collaboration in the culture industries. New York and London: New York University Press.
  9. Johnson D. (2013). Media franchising. Creative license and collaboration in the culture industries. New York and London: New York University Press.
  10. Mikos L. (2017). Transmedia Storytelling and Mega-Narration: Audiovisual Production in Converged Media Environments. In S. Sparviero, C. Peil & G. Balbi (Eds.), pp. 159–176. Media Convergence and Deconvergence. A Palgrave and IAMCR Series.
  11. Mittell J. (2015). Complex TV. The poetics of contemporary television storytelling. New York and London: New York University Press.
  12. Murray S. (2003). Media convergence’s third wave. Convergence, 9 (8), 8–18.
  13. Wouda E. (2013). Contact is king. Paper presented at the workshop “Digital Strategies. Financing, Marketing and Distribution 2.0” of Erich Pommer Institute in Berlin, December 5.

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