“Heroes had an underlying message about inter-connectivity and global consciousness,” show creator and writer Tim Kring tells FastCompany.com. “I think we used the phrase ‘we are all connected’ at least 100 times in the first season alone. It’s a message I’m very interested in putting out in the world.”
And so his “we are all connected” refrain echoes, too, beyond the small screen. Heroes, for example, didn’t just exist on NBC. Off the TV screen was Heroes Evolutions, a digital extension that enabled fans to explore the show’s mythology. It also existed in magazines, games, mobile webisodes, and interactive Web sites. Viewers could read graphic novels and e-comics, use wireless iTV interactivity, and check out more original content online. In other words, Heroes used “transmedia.”
“Transmedia,” Kring says, is a “fancy word for a simple concept: telling stories across multiple platforms.” Aware that in today’s digital age we’re constantly connected through various platforms (“I would venture to say that we’re almost never offline,” he says), Kring believes one-channel storytelling has become archaic. Shows should no longer be designed around a platform; instead, platforms ought to be designed around a show. “You have to take the concept and put it at the center of the paradigm,” he says. “You have to say: This is an idea. Part of it can live on television, but part of it isn’t designed to be a television show. It might be designed for a mobile device, say, taking advantage of a GPS-enabled application.”
In order for the television industry to survive, “you have to use every part of the buffalo–there is no wasted story,” Kring says. “If you’re going into a studio or a network to pitch a TV show, and you haven’t thought at all about how it’s going to live anywhere else, on any other platform,” he explains, “you’re really missing the boat. I totally believe [transmedia] is where we’re heading.”
Clearly, consumers are connecting more than ever through multiple platforms, but is that enough to justify transmedia becoming the norm? Studies have shown, for example, that Internet usage still significantly trails television consumption. And we’ve seen the dreadful results when, say, Twitter gets in the way of the action on a popular show. Is it still too early for networks to unhinge television as the central platform of consumption?
Not according to Kring, who explains that he always begins his creative process now by asking: How else will this be consumed? “When I came to Hollywood as a writer, I thought storytelling was a flat, one-way street,” Kring recalls. “You produce an episode and three months later people actually see it.”
“Clearly that changed when the audience started to leave traditional television in favor of the Internet and gaming and mobile content. With Heroes, we said, let’s fish where the fish are,” he says. “Lo and behold, I became addicted to storytelling in a three-dimensional way.”
Kring is now experimenting with transmedia full-speed. He’s currently juggling several projects including a new series for his just-started production company, Imperative. Though Kring couldn’t speak too much about the show, he did clue me in on a novel use of transmedia. “My next idea for television will have the idea of apps built right in–I want to see how the audience will participate in TV apps,” he says. “If you think about it, many shows have big audience participation. I mean, fans of Glee are all getting together and singing songs. How can we get involved in that? How can we aggregate that and provide them with a platform?”
Kring has also invested serious time in a wild project called Conspiracy for Good. Part alternative reality game (ARG), part crowdsourced development, Kring is blurring the lines between reality and fiction to create an interactive story, which encourages users to “live the adventure, read the signs, fight the Bad Guys and make the world a better place in the process.”
To be honest, I still have no idea how exactly this project works. With 130 people working on it in five countries, even labeling CFG “ambitious” is probably a euphemism–and Kring isn’t afraid to agree. “In many ways, it’s a big giant mess! But in many other ways, it’s the most aggressive ARG interactive narrative ever attempted,” he bubbles. “It’s so hard to undersell because it’s so audacious and so ridiculous and so huge.” (Whatever you think of the project, it is aiming “for good.” CFG is working with Room to Read and the Pearson Foundation to build and fill a 10,000-volume library in Zambia.)
And if that’s not enough to fill his plate, Kring is also trying revolutionize a medium that hasn’t been touched in ages: the novel. Coming out next week, his first book Shift in the Gate of Orpheus trilogy blends together CIA conspiracy theories, ’60s counterculture, supernatural history, and a new take on who killed JFK. Sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before? For Kring, those are the only ideas worth pursuing.
So will transmedia translate to novels? Can a book no longer just be words on a page? That’s what Kring is trying to find out. He’s aiming to “create a universe” around the novel that exists online with “missing” files and clues, and is already planning interactive ways for the novel to live on the iPad and other e-readers, once again proving his faith in transmedia.
He also knows time, as is often the case in his own plots, is running out.
“Transmedia will be short-lived,” Kring says, though not in the way you might think. “Eventually, it’ll just be storytelling.”