BACK TO THE HERD
This chapter on transmedia is a transition point in the Media Survival Guide. For the first time since the introduction, we aren’t focusing exclusively on a single medium. Transmedia is a concept, a way of combining the media we’ve already studied to create new possibilities, doing things the traditional media can’t do on their own. Showing movies on the web. Illustrating books with animations. Sending Batman fans on real-life scavenger hunts. The possibilities are literally limitless.
Transmedia depends heavily on three elements.
Synchronicity is the art, craft and science of making things function together rather than by themselves. In the media, the idea is to create works that work well with other products.
Interactivity is just what it sounds like: consumers interact directly with the media, their input affecting the outcome of the story.
And convergence refers to the tendency of different media to combine into new, versatile forms. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have allowed audiences to access a world of media from a single device.
The multimedia dummy
The prehistory of media synchronicity begins with the serial. Many of the famous 19th century novels we read in literature classes (notably the works of Charles Dickens) were originally printed in magazines in installments. The idea, of course, was to sell each new issue by keeping readers coming back for the next chunk of the story. The serial technique spread as new media developed, becoming popular in movies, radio and television. And it’s still a common practice in many media today.
But in the early 20th century media companies began experimenting with expanding characters and stories beyond a single medium. My all-time favorite “multi-platform” character has to be Charlie McCarthy, a dummy belonging to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. The Bergen-McCarthy comedy routines were popular with live audiences. The vaudeville act translated naturally to one-reel movie shorts. Then they made an extremely successful jump to radio, which made less sense; isn’t a big part of the point of ventriloquism watching to see if the performer’s lips move while the dummy is talking? McCarthy even had his own comic book for awhile, in which he appeared as a human character rather than a ventriloquist’s dummy.
In 1977 Star Wars demonstrated the full power of synchronicity. Hollywood had seen plenty of box office hits before, but never had a movie made so much money from products – media and otherwise – associated with the picture. Records and comic books that retold the story from the movie. Novels that told different stories about the characters. And no end of toys allowing kids to make up their own stories.
At the time, 20th Century Fox thought so little of the movie’s marketing potential that it let George Lucas retain the right to profit from toy sales. Which of course made him an extremely wealthy man. Ever since, synchronicity in one form or another has been an essential part of most Hollywood blockbuster deals.
As corporations create and purchase media sources, they’re careful to acquire companies that will fit into an overall marketing strategy. For example, Viacom’s cable network holdings include Nickelodeon and MTV. So from early childhood to teen years to adulthood, the company has a subdivision that caters to audiences of all ages. And of course the networks also feed content to Viacom’s movie studios.
But some of the biggest successes result not from multiple media holdings but from creating cross-over content. The Marvel Cinematic Universe established the big budget model for content synchronicity. Building on years of success with superhero “mash-up” comics, Marvel’s movie arm combined several successful individual hero franchises (Iron Man, Captain America and so on) into a single movie. The Avengers still reigns as one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Now even the individual franchises frequently contain references to characters from other sets.
And the bigger the corporation grows, the more synchronicity it can generate. In recent years Disney has purchased properties as diverse as Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm (the owner of the Star Wars franchise). The company’s video game division had already mashed Disney-created characters – ranging from Mickey Mouse to Pirates of the Caribbean – into the Kingdom Hearts game series. Now the Infinity game franchise allows players to select Marvel superheroes and Star Wars characters in addition to the original Disney holdings.
Despite its great importance and the vast sums of money dumped into it, sometimes synchronicity doesn’t work so well.
The classic examples, as any serious gamer can tell you, are video games based on movies. Though somewhere there might be an exception or two, games that ride the coattails of successful movies tend to be afterthoughts. Game play is often weak, and bugs abound. It’s almost as if the companies that make them are simply trying to make some money rather than produce a quality experience for customers. Perish the thought.
Further, corporate ownership can sometimes be a hindrance as well as a help. When Disney bought Marvel Studios, it got the rights to most of the characters from Marvel comics. However, the rights to the X-Men series had already been sold to 20th Century Fox. As a result, Disney couldn’t use characters from the X-Men except for two or three exceptions; when corporate lawyers draw up contracts, things can get complicated. In the second Avengers movie, screenwriters had to use the word “enhanced” rather than “mutant” because of ownership issues.
But then Disney bought Fox’s movie holdings. So now the problem has been solved. Maybe.
Synchronicity problems can also be more subtle. Disney owns many properties in different media, one of which is ESPN. For awhile it owned not only the world’s most popular sports network (and sports coverage on ABC as well) but also some of the teams the networks covered, such as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Mighty Ducks (named after a moderately successful series of Disney movies). NewsCorp and its various Fox news and sports networks faced a similar conundrum when owner Rupert Murdoch bought the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The ultimate sports-broadcasting synchronicity success was Ted Turner’s ownership of the Atlanta Braves and TBS. Braves broadcasts on the superstation helped build a fan base for the team all across the nation. But when Turner founded CNN and its short-lived sports offshoot CNN/SI, the news networks raised questions about neutral coverage.
Why so serious?
Interactive media are nothing new (go back and re-read the Gaming chapter if you need a refresher on this point). However, one of the recent developments in the transmedia realm is a quest to make consumers a greater part of the media they use.
In 2007, marketing efforts began for the upcoming release of The Dark Knight. In addition to the usual teaser trailers and press releases, the studio tried something a little bit different. Whysoserious.com began life as a mysterious picture of a pumpkin with a slow burning candle. After the site stirred some curiosity, it expanded into an elaborate scavenger hunt. Cryptic clues led fans on a search all across the country for secret locations, where they were encouraged to take pictures of themselves wearing clown makeup matching the Joker from the upcoming movie.
The project not only stirred interest in the movie but also made followers feel like they were part of a bigger experience. The marketing effort was designed by 42 Entertainment, which has set up similar interactive experiences for clients as diverse as Nine Inch Nails and Wrigley’s Chewing Gum.
Building on the idea that people enjoyed being included in media stories rather than merely passively consuming them, developers began exploring the realm of augmented reality. A typical AR app uses the cameras built into most smartphones to capture images from the real world around the user and then adds a media element to create the illusion that the element is part of the real world.
Nintendo made the first big AR splash with Pokemon Go. Users sought out locations in the real world where virtual Pokemon characters could be seen and captured. The game soon had players running all over the place trying to score the next Pokemon, especially the rare ones.
Though the game was immensely popular, it had a hitch or two. The developers often didn’t know much about the locations where they hid the game’s quarry. As a result, one player searching for Pokemon near a river stumbled across a dead body. And one particularly popular target was placed inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Curators had to ask that the character be moved to another location out of respect for the solemn nature of the museum’s collection.
This trend has also spread to the marketing realm. Amazon’s mobile app offers a feature for some products that allows customers to “place” the item in their homes and offices in order to see how they’ll fit into the space and go with surrounding decor.
Star Wars and Doctor Who. Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sons of Anarchy and Sesame Street. Unlike chocolate and peanut butter, some things are destined never to meet in the media controlled by their owners. But in the imaginations of fans who aren’t restricted by corporate ownership borders, any and all combinations are possible. And they find their expressions in fan fiction, short stories and novels crafted by the loving obsessions of amateur authors.
Because amateurs aren’t limited by marketing’s practicalities, fan fiction can go places that mainstream media could never think of. In addition to combining elements from different franchises, fan fiction can take plots and characters to places unexplored by the official versions. One particularly popular theme in early Star Trek fan writing was sex (romantic, graphic or both) between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a theme broadcast producers in the 1960s couldn’t have explored even if they wanted to.
Of course writing fan fiction – or drawing fan art or producing fan videos – isn’t much of a career option. Companies will generally take legal action against anyone who tries to make money using their property without permission. Even amateur efforts can draw corporate ire. CBS and Paramount – the owners of the Star Trek franchise – have published guidelines to help creative fans avoid going too far. Other companies can be even more restrictive; Warner Brothers once earned itself some bad press by ordering a young fan to shut down her Harry Potter fan site.
The early 21st century revolution in the music business started with the MP3, but it didn’t end there. The new audio file format made music copying and distribution – legal and otherwise – much easier, but it didn’t immediately improve playback options. To listen to your MP3 collection, you had to either sit within audio range of your computer or burn the songs you wanted onto an audio CD (with the disc system’s limitations).
However, digital audio files enabled the creation of an entirely new device: the personal audio player. The marketing concept was based on the same idea that made Sony’s Walkman tape players such a huge hit a couple of decades earlier: what people really wanted was a way to take their music with them while on the go. This time Apple was the first to score a big financial success with the iPod.
The iPod could store thousands of tracks and was no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Its memory and size made it a huge improvement over older personal systems. Apple also made the smart move of supplying the computer interface software – iTunes – not only for its own computers but for Windows systems as well. It also marketed a range of options, from larger models that could store more music down to the “Mini,” which couldn’t store as many tracks but was around the size of a postage stamp. Other companies such as Microsoft followed with their own personal players, but none captured public attention as effectively as Apple’s market-dominating iPods.
The iPod-iTunes combination also expanded consumers’ audio options. In addition to MP3s, the new technology could also download podcasts, which bridged the gap between old-fashioned records and old-fashioned radio broadcasts.
Phones in the 21st century are so radically different from their 19th and 20th century ancestors that it’s almost a shame there isn’t an entirely new name for them. To start, cellular phones were nothing more than mobile versions of their cord-bound relatives. But each new generation of cell phone added something new to the mix. First texting. Then cameras.
And then smart phones hit the market in the late 2000s. The newest models functioned not only as interpersonal communication devices but almost like miniature computers. Users could type and send email, play games more advanced than simple solitaire, even surf the web. And that was the real media-significant change: the phone escaped its interpersonal boundaries and became a new outlet for mass communication.
Once again Apple led the way with the iPhone, but this time another technology – Google’s Android operating system – was close on its heels. Both systems now offer users thousands of apps, many of which are phone-suitable versions of social media, audio, video and other computer-based mass comm technology.
Smart phones are great, but they suffer from size issues. Specifically, their screens are too small to effectively display many forms of mass media content. Laptop computers are also great, but they too suffer from size issues. Specifically, they’re a little larger than most folks can lug around comfortably.
The territory between the two is now occupied by tablets. These lighter-than-laptops, bigger-than-cell-phones devices are ideal for many uses and many users. The latest generation uses touch-screen technology, reducing if not entirely eliminating the need for a keyboard or mouse.
They’re also highly effective mass media machines. My current tablet is an iPad Pro. Working with the Apple Pencil, it’s the first mobile device I’ve ever considered a serious graphic arts tool. And of course it works quite well for accessing the web, reading newspapers and magazines either on the web or via apps, reading e-books books, streaming videos, and of course playing games. Best of all, it represents a genuinely portable technology, something I can use at home, take to work, read on a bus or idle moment in a waiting room or bathroom.
Though I can still imagine a world without it, the tablet certainly comes in handy.
The convergence of video and the web is supplying new competition for corporate broadcasters and cablecasters. In just a month or two YouTube adds as much new content as the broadcast networks have produced in the last half century. Sure, a lot of it is pure crap. But viewers can also find the work of talented, independent TV producers content with YouTube’s revenue sharing, less intrusive advertising plans and lack of a paywall.
Beyond that, television has been slower to adapt to the world of web convergence. Because the TV business is huge and hugely profitable, it has less incentive to change the way it does business.
Hulu – one of the industry’s first serious forays into the online world – is a mixed bag of results. On the plus side, it features a lot of programming from major broadcast networks such as NBC, ABC and Fox. Depending on what options you select, you can either watch live television the same way you would on a cable or dish system, or for a lower subscription price you can wait a day or two and then watch current release shows on demand. The service also offers some movies and original programming.
Like television, the movie industry is big enough and well enough established that it hasn’t made a lot of fundamental changes. Big pictures still start in the theaters, go international, and later get released on some combination of streaming, cable and discs.
But online services – most notably Netflix – have put a dent in part of the movie studios’ smooth surface. For a monthly subscription fee, Netflix supplies viewers with movies a couple of ways (depending on the subscription plan).
When it first began, Netflix was a disc subscription service. Subscribers could get DVDs via the mail, watching as many as they want subject only to limits on how many they can have at home at once. Finish watching one, send it back and Netflix sends out the next disc in the subscriber’s queue.
In recent years, however, the disc service has been vastly overshadowed by Netflix’s online streaming option. Viewers with Internet connections fast enough can watch as many movies from the instant view catalog as they want. The catch is that many new releases and older, less popular movies may not be available via the streaming service.
This new distribution channel is good for the industry as a whole, providing a new revenue stream. But it poked one heck of a hole in the home video market. Hollywood Video went out of business almost overnight, though its larger competitor – Blockbuster – struggled on for awhile before succumbing.
E-books are currently the “latest thing” in the book publishing world. For many years publishers tried in vain to get readers to switch to electronic publications. Eliminating the need for printed books would simplify book distribution and reduce the wasteful printing of books that went unbought. But for many years e-readers were too expensive and clunky to appeal to the book-reading public.
Enter the emperor of online marketing. According to Amazon, in 2011 for the first time the number of books downloaded via its Kindle service passed the number of “dead tree” books purchased. Of course this figure doesn’t draw a distinction between e-book purchases and free, public domain downloads. Still, the trend is clear.
When Kindle dominated the market, its system proved to be a limitation on electronic publishing. Simple text worked well, but illustrations or other multimedia elements were difficult if not impossible to incorporate.
Things changed thanks in no small part to market pressure from Barnes and Noble’s Nook tablets and Apple’s iBook app. Amazon’s competitors used the EPUB format, which made multimedia much easier to include. The Kindle system then had to struggle to catch up.
On the periodical side – as noted in Chapter Ten – the “dead tree” newspaper’s days are numbered. Printing costs continue to rise, ad revenue continues to fall, and the web offers readers more and more options for up-to-the-minute news minus the subscription fee and paper waste.
Online, however, newspapers stand a much better chance. Readers still want and need good journalism. Convergence also allows newspapers to offer new services such as podcasting and streaming video that weren’t part of their older incarnations. News web sites can also effectively combine with other news sources, such as a local newspaper and a local TV station joining their web sites to increase their combined audience.
Further, some newspapers are making paywalls pay off. The Wall Street Journal charged for content starting in its earliest days on the web. And the New York Times is seeing some success with its scheme for charging for content. The system that seems to work best is the strategy drug dealers have been using for decades: get customers hooked with small “free samples,” and then sink the economic claws in after addiction sets in and demand for the product goes up. If you just want to read a story or two, you don’t have to pay. But reading extensively requires a subscription.
Though the “big boys” may be able to make money this way, smaller, community newspapers may face a different picture. Thus the newspaper business’s transition to the 21st century is far from a done deal.
Have you ever noticed that after you spend some time surfing the web in search of something that suddenly advertising-supported web sites start showing you ads related to whatever you were looking for? When I was looking for some public-domain images to go with the War of the Worlds section of the Radio chapter, suddenly Hotmail started showing me banners and skyscrapers for War-of-the-Worlds-related stuff.
Welcome to the wonderful world of cookie-targeted ads. Unless you prevent them from doing so, many of the sites you visit leave “cookies” – little bits of data about the site – on your computer. And some sites are set up to scan your cookies looking for clues to what you might be interested in. If they can match your interests to a product or service an advertiser would like to sell you, they can get good money for the ad targeted at a confirmed potential customer.
Some argue that this practice is a serious invasion of privacy. On the other hand, it may actually improve your web experience. If the choice is between paying to use a web site and putting up with an ad or two in exchange for free access, most of us would rather tolerate some ads. And if offered a choice between targeted ads for things we might actually want and a relentless parade of untargeted plugs for Earn Your Degree Online, Singles in Your Area and Axe Body Spray, well, that shouldn’t be all that hard a call either.