Seven Myths About Transmedia Storytelling Debunked

Henry JenkinsOver the past few years, transmedia storytelling has become a hot buzzword in Hollywood and Madison Avenue alike--"the next big thing" or "the last big thing" depending on whom you ask. Last year, the Producer's Guild announced a new job title, Transmedia Producer, a decision that has more or less established the term as an industry standard. More and more companies are laying claim to expertise in producing transmedia content. But many using the term don't really understand what they are saying. So let's look at what people are getting wrong about transmedia.

Myth 1: Transmedia Storytelling refers to any strategy involving more than one media platform.

The entertainment industry has long developed licensed products, reproducing the same stories across multiple channels (for example, novelizations). Increasingly, broadcast content is also available on line. And many films are adopted from books (or now, comic books). None of these necessarily constitute transmedia storytelling. In transmedia, elements of a story are dispersed systematically across multiple media platforms, each making their own unique contribution to the whole. Each medium does what it does best--comics might provide back-story, games might allow you to explore the world, and the television series offers unfolding episodes.

Myth 2: Transmedia is basically a new promotional strategy.

Yes, many early transmedia experiments were funded through marketing budgets. Transmedia has been closely linked to the industry's new focus on "audience engagement" and sometimes uses "viral" (or "spreadable") media strategies. But, the best transmedia is driven by a creative impulse. Transmedia allows gifted storytellers to expand their canvas and share more of their vision with their most dedicated fans.

Myth 3: Transmedia means games.

The rise of alternate reality games coupled with mass media properties is part of what's generating excitement here. Transmedia properties combine cultural attractors (which draw together a highly invested audience) and cultural activators (which gives that audience something to do). Games are a good way to give your fans something to do, but they are by no means the only model out there.

Myth 4: Transmedia is for geeks.

So far, most of transmedia has been designed for early adapters--folks at home with digital applications, with disposable time and income, and especially the 18-27 year old males who have disappeared from the Nielsen Ratings. So far, much transmedia content has targeted children through cartoons or geeks through science fiction, horror, and fantasy franchises. But, there are plenty of signs that transmedia experiences may appeal more broadly. For example, some believe transmedia strategies may be key to the survival of soap operas.

Myth 5: Transmedia requires a large budget.

Fans now expect transmedia content around blockbuster films and cult television series, but there are also many successes with using transmedia to build audience awareness around low budget and independent media productions--from The Blair Witch Project to District 9 to Paranormal Activity. It's about developing the appropriate mix of media for the genre, the audience, and the budget of a particular production.

Myth 6: Everything should go transmedia.

Many stories are told perfectly well within a single medium, and the audience leaves satisfied, ready for something else. Transmedia represents a strategy for telling stories where there is a particularly diverse set of characters, where the world is richly realized, and where there is a strong back-story or mythology that can extend beyond the specific episodes being depicted in the film or television series. Transmedia represents a creative opportunity, but it should never be a mandate for all entertainment.

Myth 7: Transmedia is "so ten minutes ago."

The first generation series to push transmedia, (Lost, Heroes, Ghost Whisperer, and 24) ended last season, and some of attempts to replace them--from Flash Forward to The Event--failed. But many of the big hits--including Glee, True Blood, and The Walking Dead--model new transmedia strategies to attract and sustain audience engagement. Transmedia storytelling is still about the stories and if the stories do not capture the imagination, no amount of transmedia extension can repair the damage. But, we will see innovative new approaches because transmedia as a strategy responds to a media environment that rewards being everywhere your audience might be and giving your fans a chance to drill deeper into the stories they love.

Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, has been credited with inspiring much of the buzz on transmedia. On Monday 4/11, he is moderating a session on transmedia at the 2011 NAB Show, the annual media & technology industry conference in Las Vegas, which features a dream team of transmedia experts: Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez, Red Faction's Danny Bilson, The Ghost Whisperer's Kim Moses, The Walking Dead's Gale Anne Hurd, and Conspiracy for Good's Tim Kring.

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5 Comments

  • Mark Bangerter

    This is just giving a new "tech" name to something that has always existed. Storytelling has been around since the beginning of time. People now have multiple means to simulataneously consume content (I can play PS3, watch TV and browse the Internet all at the same time) and so storytellers are distributing their stories via multiple media and have created ways for this media to overlap. It isn't strictly a marketing concept, however, it is one that marketers must learn in order to be successful. Storytelling is the way that brands connect with their consumers on an emotional level.  

  • Michael Moon | CEO | GISTICS

    While it is often dangerous to challenge the principal architect and de facto authority on Transmedia, the concept AND practice of Transmedia continues to expand and evolve beyond its initial, limited first-expression.

    I submit that transmedia has escaped the cultural limits of mainstream entertainment, thus rendering the "myths" expressed above as secondary at best and has moved to the real and sustainable business of "transmediating" brands, pedagogy, the re-emergence of "high culture" and, yes, participatory entertainment.

    Fedex, Apple, Lexus, and IBM are great examples of Transmediated Brands.

    Transmediated education emphasizes multiliteracy, and project-based learning in small groups by subject as well as the forward integration of Montessori, Waldorf, and other "progressive" pedagogical frameworks.

    Transmediation of high culture emphasized a new cosmology and forms of art that induce shocking introduction--Keith Jarrett and Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan represent two exemplars.

    Yes, I agree that Harry can correctly take issue with the Myths that he has framed. All good. Limited to Hollywood paradigm of "product produced for commerce and, thus, the lowest common denominator--thus retrogressive as a mechanism of culture.

    First and foremost, as a practitioner, I say that Transmediation is about the primacy of being related: artist-fan, innovator-customer, author-reader, tutor-learner etc. That relationship provides the master context for all subsequent content; if the content does not resonate and align with the context of being related to the imagination of the artist, innovation...then it goes away. That process is called "editing with taste"

    Second, Transmediation is about connecting the imaginations of artist-fan through the structured and engineered development of "engagement objects"--each optimized for both the medium and mode of engagement particular to each class of object. In this context, engagement objects entail not only content and metadata, but a connected two-way of data re: patterns, criteria, and mode of engagement. In a phrase, closed-loop feedback drives the Transmediation process and the production on engagement objects.

    Third, Transmediation is about how the artist, innovator, etc. focuses, structures, and directs his/her imagination, creating a sphere of coherence by which he/she can "edit" the straying bits out of a specific expression. Maintaining a sphere of coherence and the ability to apply it to traditional, digital, and participatory media as well as to interior design, apparel, cuisine, and architecture -- takes an will of unbending intent and enormous imagination.

    Fourth, Transmediation is about how a mechanism of culture works in this new era of connectedness, hypertransparency, multiliteracy, and cognitive crews that use multiple intelligence and transaction memory to meld into unified and synergist economic unit.

    So, I politely disagree: Transmedia as originally framed is "so yesterday", freighted by obsolete cultural baggage of entertainment, and the classic first-move land-grab of opportunistic hucksters of the Entertainment industry who still don't get it: It ain't about the story. It's all about the storyteller and his/her fans. It's about connecting imaginations.

  • Odul Gurimsek

    Keeping in mind that the audience engagement and their level of skill in navigating across different media fosters transmedia, the audience's speed in figuring out the operational modes of these strategies is also worthy of noting. Once figured out, audiences can be demanding; a blurring line between producers and their audiences warrants that audience members may become aware of the stategy employed and use it to their advantage. Lost viewers, for instance, had a technology savvy exec. producer Damon Lindelof who has been generous in responding to such expectations: two characters from season 3, Nikki and Paolo were devoted a whole episode, one that would guarantee that they wouldn't be on the show anymore ( by getting buried alive); Libby had long been asked to reappear, and she came back for the last season. Once Lost ended, the amount of unanswered questions infuriated a vocal base of viewers who reacted negatively, and Damon Lindelof is left to defend his work on twitter where he and every other poster is on equal basis. Perhaps a true transmedia story ought to leave some room for creative input on the side of audiences, one that supersedes the experience of youtube remixes, and makes its way into the main product.

  • Richard Stacy

    But is transmedia itself actually a myth? The big change that is happening is that information is divorcing itself from a means of distribution and as a result, the concept of media (which is a form of distribution) is going away. The message no longer needs a medium. http://bit.ly/zc2J4