Sci-fi TV maven Tim Kring announced a new product at Comic-Con in July in San Diego: a book. The first volume of a trilogy. In print. Could the creator of Heroes — which swept beyond the TV screen into magazines, games, mobile Webisodes, graphic novels, and e-comics — be retreating to old media? Not a chance. As Shift: A Novel was hitting bookstores, the story was already migrating to other platforms and a wildly ambitious interactive mobile program called Conspiracy for Good was being rolled out in London and online. Shortly before heading to London for the launch, Kring talked to Fast Company about his next adventures in transmedia.
FC: Is transmedia a trendy label or the future?
Transmedia is just a fancy word at this point for a simple concept: telling stories across multiple platforms. It will be a short-lived word, because it'll just become the norm — the trans will stop and it'll just be media. We have the ability to be online all the time, whether that's on a laptop, or mobile phone, or desktop, or Internet-connected television. The idea is to utilize these different platforms, with their unique attributes, to tell a story. We're saying, This is an idea, and part of it can live on television, but part of it is designed to be on a mobile phone and take advantage of GPS.
For a guy like me, a storyteller, it's hugely exciting to take a mobile phone that is both a content-consumption device and a content-creation device. It allows the audience to actually participate in the narrative. With Heroes, it was very taxing to create [material for] a 360 platform. One of the tricks to creating a big interactive audience around a property is to allow for as much user-generated content as possible.
What about Conspiracy for Good, which you've described as "social-benefit storytelling"?
Conspiracy for Good is part alternate-reality game and part participation drama. Mobile applications are the basis for a lot of the content. We're using augmented-reality and image-recognition applications so you can interact with your environment to get clues, story points, and hidden messages. We've had upward of 130 people working in five countries on it for well over a year now. It rolled into the streets of London on July 17.
Heroes had an underlying message about interconnectivity and global consciousness. With Conspiracy for Good, I took that a step further. We created a story that actually delivers on a real philanthropic action: You'll help build a library in Zambia, stock it with books, and give 50 scholarships for schoolgirls there. I'm very interested in using storytelling to create positive change in the world — to go where people are connected and harness the power of that interconnectivity to do something positive.
How did you get to the point where a TV show can no longer be just a TV show?
Admittedly, I was not thinking this way a few years back. I came at storytelling as a Hollywood writer. I thought of it as a one-way street. You write something, you produce an episode, you push it out into the world, and two or three months later, people see it. That started to change when the audience started to leave traditional television in favor of the Internet and gaming and mobile content. This fractured audience became a real conundrum for some of us working in traditional TV. Where are they? And how do we reach them?
With Heroes, it started with a simple premise: Let's fish where the fish are. They seem to be online, so let's go over there and tell a story. They seem to be on their mobile phones a lot, so let's cast a line over there and send some story in that direction. Maybe we'll actually catch some of them and pull them back to the show. It was all about building this canon, this mythology around the show.
Lo and behold, I became addicted to storytelling in a three-dimensional way. The immediacy of the feedback became really exciting, both dangerous and exhilarating at the same time. Now it's very hard for me to approach anything creative without thinking, How else will this be consumed? If you were going into a studio or a network to pitch a television show and you have not thought at all about how it's going to live on any other platform, you're really missing the boat.
How did Shift come about?
For a couple of years, an agent kept asking me about writing a book, but I didn't have time. Then, three days after the writers' strike began, I had an idea for a book as an alternative platform. There's a CIA conspiracy at the heart of it, and books have a conspiracy feel that lends itself really well to a deep dive into a world of clues and story points. Various things that have been discovered — videos, missing files — will be funneled through a blog. I'm currently working on the screenplay, and we're developing content that can be experienced in an interactive way on new devices like the iPad and other e-book readers.
Where does television fit into your plans?
I'm continuing to pursue television, but I'm starting my own company called Imperative with the idea of taking properties and changing the paradigm — putting the story at the center and deciding, Where does it live? Some ideas may start as a social game, and some as a multi-user online game or a series of comic books.
Imperative is a next-generation business that has one foot still very firmly planted in traditional media, but I can't help but think of all of these new opportunities. My next television idea will have apps built into the idea. How is the audience going to participate? The audiences around Glee are all getting together and singing songs. So if that's what they're doing, how can you aggregate that and provide that platform? The fan base is going to do that anyway.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.