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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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