April 9, 2009
Continuity and Change: A History of Transmedia Entertainment
By: Derek Johnson
Transmedia storytelling sits on the cutting edge of convergence culture, promising to bring greater institutional coordination, added narrative integrality, and deeper audience engagement to the various pieces of contemporary media franchises. Comic books, video games, and other markets once considered to be "ancillary" now play increasingly significant and re-centered roles in the production and consumption of everyday film and television properties such as Heroes, Transformers, or the re-envisioned Star Trek in ways that only very few innovators (such as George Lucas and his carefully elaborated and expanded Star Wars empire) had previously conceived in the 20th century. Yet while contemporary convergence has set the stage for a greater embrace of transmedia entertainment, the processes by which stories have been spread across institutions, production cultures, and audiences from different media have a much longer history. At the levels of form, practice, and discourse, transmedia entertainment developed independently of the digital zeroes and ones that inaugurated convergence. Transmedia entertainment does not exist because of or as a result of convergence; instead, it offers an opportunity to see how existing historical trajectories have been shaped and reoriented by the spreadable media of convergence.
Transmedia entertainment can be defined formally in terms of those cultural experiences that travel and transform across a range of media experiences and outlets. Although we tend to assume that transmedia phenomena have been newly formed in an age of industrialized cultural production, adaptation and other processes of translation of content from one medium to another have offered transmedia experiences for millennia. In ancient Greece, for example, mythological narratives based in an oral tradition were simultaneously drawn upon in the visual artistry of potters. Similarly, the Bible might be considered one of the most successful transmedia franchises in history: its stories have been passed down over centuries not only through written word, but also religious paintings and icons that frame those stories in new ways. More recently, these processes of adaptation have become more industrialized, with films like The Ten Commandments making transmedia entertainment mass producible, and products like the Left Behind video series transforming stories like the Book of Revelation into properties repeatedly leveraged and extended over time to create an ever-renewable stream of content. Despite the fundamental formal characteristic of transmedia entertainment—its ability to spread content promiscuously across media contexts - much has changed in this process of industrialization. Most crucially, culture and mythology have been reconceived of as a proprietary, manageable property as opposed to something "folk" owned by all. As a part of that ongoing management and desire to leverage properties, today's transmedia entertainment has embraced a serialized production in which each adaptation of a property offers a unique, differentiable experience to encourage consumption across multiple markets. Corporate managers increasingly consider the development of a video game to accompany a film not in terms of adaptation, but in terms of extension in which stories are elaborated upon, rather than retold. But as scholars from George Bluestone (1957) to Sarah Cardwell (2003) have insisted, adaptation has never been a process of retelling, but instead a process where stories are transformed and evolved in exchange across media. Today's spreadable media, therefore, can be considered as part of a much longer formal history in which entertainment culture has been generated and regenerated from the systemic interaction of different media.
At the same time as we consider the formal history of transmedia entertainment, we must also consider how that history has been constituted by practice. The industrialization of transmedia forms, for example, occurred through specific economic, legal, and creative structures to support production and consumption across and among discrete media institutions. Economically, a franchise like Batman has developed not only in relation to the formation of media conglomerates like Time Warner in the 1980s and 90s and cross-promotional practices that promised synergy between subsidiaries like Warner Bros. and DC Comics, but also in relationship to emerging business practices based alternatively in the digital informational economy. In games like DC Universe Online, Time Warner can rely upon consumers to create new characters to fight alongside Batman, replacing practices based in synergy with those based in the free labor of user-generated content. Transmedia entertainment must also be understood in terms of legal practice; as Avi Santo (2006) and Michael Kackman (2008) have shown, transmedia "brands" like The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, respectively, have historically depended on practices based in trademark law whereby cultural production and consumption were assigned to specific markets and territories. If spreadable media has come to propagate transmedia entertainment increasingly irrespective of institutional lines, we have to ask what changing legal practices enable that acceleration. Moreover, economic and legal changes have been accompanied by shifts in creative practice. Whereas media licensing agreements had once established clear lines of productive authority and creative power between controlling licensees and deferent licensees, emerging non-proprietary and creative commons licenses have, according to Axel Bruns (2008), supported new creative practices of "produsage" based in networked collaboration. The history of transmedia entertainment, therefore, is a history of changing economic, legal, and creative practice.
The perceived novelty of transmedia entertainment, despite its participation in these wider cultural trajectories, might best and finally be understood in terms of its history as a social discourse. What is perhaps most new about transmedia entertainment is our cultural recognition and discussion of it as such. In scholarly analysis, one of the first uses of the term "transmedia" can be traced to Marsha Kinder's (1991) examination of children's culture as newly constituted by "entertainment super systems" organized across film, television, and video games. A theory of transmedia entertainment emerged at the end of the 21st century to make sense of what appeared to be a cultural and perhaps generational shift in which media appeared to converge in new ways. In the new millennium, however, that theoretical term has received not just increased scholarly attention, but has also been adopted by media practitioners working within the culture industries. In 2006, the management of Heroes, for example, became a job for a professional "Transmedia Team" institutionally charged with implementing creative coordination across television, comics, and the Internet. So while contemporary transmedia entertainment stems from a longer formal and practical tradition, the relatively new discourse of transmedia entertainment emerges from a process of scholars and practitioners identifying new possibilities within those shared historical trajectories. Transmedia entertainment is not new, but the frames with which we think about and make sense of it often are.
Transmedia entertainment makes a great deal of sense in the context of spreadable media, offering content that can be liberally extended and multiplied across a range of possible cultural experiences. Yet transmedia entertainment is intellectually useful as a concept not because it describes something new, but because it can articulate a longer history of formal and practical coordination among media beyond immediate trends. By conceiving of transmedia entertainment in historical terms, while also understanding its evolution in the contemporary context, we can better understand spreadable media as an intervention and revolution of traditional cultural patterns.
Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1957/1968.
Derek Johnson is a PhD Candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His dissertation examines the historical development of the media "franchise" as a form based on shared intellectual property networks, as a specific set of production and consumption practices, and as a discourse used to make sense of media culture. Interested in the organization of culture across media platforms, his research spans a wide range of industries (including film, television, video games, comics, and licensed merchandising) and encompasses issues of narrative theory, audience reception, public sphere discourse, as well as media economics and policy. His recent publications include "Inviting Audiences In: The Spatial Reorganization of Production and Consumption in 'TVIII'" (New Review of Film and Television, 2007), "Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions, and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom" (Fandom: Identities and Communities in Mediated Culture, edited by Gray, Harrington, and Sandvoss, 2007), and "Will the Real Wolverine Please Stand Up?: Marvel's Mutation from Monthlies to Movies" (Film and Comic Books, edited by Gordon, Jancovich, and McAllister, 2007).
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The Moral Economy of Soap Opera Fandom
By: C. Lee Harrington
[A]ll the years of loyal viewing do not seem like I wasted them. Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay-at-home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughters-in- law over. It is a constant in my life that has been a comfort and a pleasure (52-year old soap opera viewer who has been watching General Hospital for 46 years, One Life to Live for 41 years, and All My Children for 39 years; interviewed for Harrington and Brothers- McPhail, forthcoming).
I have long been fascinated with daytime soap operas, both as a source of pleasure in my own life and as the central anchor of my research on media industries, texts, and audiences. Soaps are distinct from other media forms due to their longevity in the U.S. television landscape (the average age of soaps currently airing is 42 years), the daily installments of "primary" text (260 new episodes per year, per soap), their celebration and magnification of emotional expression, and the possibility of lifelong relationships forming between loyal viewers, soap characters, and the communities in which those characters live and work (see quote above). No other media form offers comparable dailiness, intimacy, and familiarity over the long haul.
Soaps' longevity poses challenges to researchers, who struggle with the sheer volume of textual material produced, as well as to the soap industry, which struggles with maintaining true to shows' long narrative histories and developing characters in "real time" while contemporizing narratives that appeal to viewers across the lifespan, both newbies and lifers. Balancing these potentially competing demands generates a particular moral economy within soap opera fandom.
The research on soap fans that Denise Bielby and I conducted in the early 1990s (Harrington and Bielby, 1995) captured the beginning of fandom's migration to the Internet, with viewers experimenting with electronic bulletin board discussions as a supplement to their investment in other aspects of "public" fandom (attending industry- sponsored fan events, buying fan magazines, joining fan clubs, etc.). In our book, we made a distinction between legal ownership over soap narratives and what we called "moral" ownership over them - fans' sense that soap opera communities and characters are "theirs," rather than belonging to the writers, actors, directors, or producers.
This sense of ownership is rooted in at least three factors. First, "soaps' very success at creating and sustaining a seamless fictional world...creates a space for viewers to assert their claims when they perceive continuity is broken" (Bielby, Harrington and Bielby, 1999, p. 36). Second, viewers regularly outlast soaps' revolving writing and production teams. Long term fans have been invested in their show(s) longer than those creating them and they often do know their show's history better.1 Third, soap production schedules allow the industry to respond relatively quickly to fan complaints and concerns, giving fans a sense that their opinions can make a real difference.
Soap fans' claims to moral ownership date back to at least 1941 (see Cantor and Pingree's  discussion of the complaints of radio serial listeners), and by the late 1950s soap fans routinely contacted TV networks to express their concerns. Fan ownership claims were increasingly visibilized in the 1970s and 1980s in fan club newsletters, ever-more-fan-friendly soap opera magazines, at industry- organized fan events, and on newly emergent forms of electronic communication.2 My co-author and I were surprised to find that fans' moral ownership claims (sense of entitlement over the narrative) resulted in a more harmonious fan/industry relationship than in other media fandoms (particularly scifi fandom), with long term viewers recognized and courted as a key element of the genre's economic survival (Harrington and Bielby, 1995).3 In their recently released white paper on spreadable media, authors Jenkins, Li, Domb and Green (2009) write, "In some cases the moral economy holds in check the aggressive pursuit of short term self-interest in favor of decisions which preserve long term social relations between participants." The daytime soap opera industry and fan community exemplify the challenges and rewards of balancing long and short term interests.
While moral ownership struggles long pre-date the Internet in the world of soap fandom,5 fans' online presence visibilizes and amplifies those struggles in new ways. Soap viewers were among the first groups to migrate to the Net recreationally4 and while arguably slower than other fandoms to create the types of user-generated content currently associated with media fandom, they are now fully engaged in blogs, vlogs, video-sharing, fanfic, podcasts, mash-ups and so on. For recent soap fan scholarship, see Melissa Scardaville (2005) on fan activism, Eve Ng (2008) on online fan music videos, and Sam Ford (2008) on the historical trajectory of soap opera fandom.
Here are also interesting ownership struggles between long-term soap
actors, who have been playing the same character for 10, 20, 30, 40+
years, and the writing/production teams who craft their characters'
storyline trajectories. See Harrington and Brothers-McPhail,
Allen, Robert C. (1985). Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press.
C. Lee Harrington is Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies Program Affiliate at Miami University. She is co-author (with Denise D. Bielby) of Soap Fans: Pursuing Pleasure and Making Meaning in Everyday Life (1995, Temple U Press) and Global TV: Exploring Television and Culture in the World Market (2008, New York U Press). She is co-editor of the anthologies Popular Culture: Production and Consumption (2001, Blackwell; with Denise D. Bielby), Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2007, New York U Press; with Jonathan Gray and Cornel Sandvoss), and the forthcoming I(with Abigail De Kosnik and Sam Ford). Her journal articles have appeared in outlets such as Media, Culture & Society, Poetics, Feminist Media Studies, Television & New Media, and Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. She has been watching General Hospital for 28 years and has also spent years off-and-on with One Life to Live, All My Children, Days of Our Lives, and the dearly departed Santa Barbara.