November 24, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
November 24, 2006
*Opening Note: Kevin Sandler on Teaching Convergence Through Heroes
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: Henry Jenkins on How Transmedia Storytelling Begat Transmedia Planning, Part I
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week's update features an opening note from C3 faculty affiliate Kevin Sandler, who shares a recent assignment he engaged in with his students about tracing convergence in the media industry through the transmedia property of the NBC show Heroes. Kevin shares his own thoughts as well as excerpts from some of the work of his students.
The closing note is the first of a two-part series from C3 Director Henry Jenkins, who further examines the concept of transmedia storytelling and how it is being conceptualized and utilized in terms of transmedia planning for marketers and marketing critics/theorists. The conclusion to this piece will appear as the opening note in next week's Weekly Update.
As usual, the update also includes links to all the entries from the week from the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Some of you all are already contributors to the blog or else regular followers and even commenters on the blog. We encourage everyone who is part of the C3 team, including faculty and corporate partners, to engage in this public part of C3's work. The site now includes a tab to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do that if you visit it on a regular basis.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Teaching Convergence: The Pedagogy of Heroes
By: Kevin Sandler, Nicole Walther, and Jennifer Cady
Each fall, I teach a course called U.S. Media Now, a core class in our undergraduate Producing curriculum. US Media Now examines the contemporary media landscape: the here and the tomorrow, what is currently happening and what will be happening. Relating issues of narrative, form and ideology to industrial concerns like corporatization, regulation, merchandising and licensing, branding, distribution, exhibition, globalization, stardom, genre, and authorship occupy many of our class discussions. Texts examined this semester have included the lonelygirl15 vlog, the Scarface video game, and Casino Royale. Needless to say, transmedia storytelling, participatory culture, and experiential marketing intersect with all of these media.
To evaluate student learning of cultural convergence, I ask them to design an integrated, multi-platform marketing strategy for a new television show based on the futurist approaches outlined in Joseph Jaffe's Life after the 30-Second Spot: Energize Your Brand with a Bold Mix of Alternatives to Traditional Advertising. They include 1) the internet, 2) gaming, 3) on-demand viewing, 4) experiential marketing, 5) long-form content, 6) communal marketing, 7) consumer-generated content, 8) search, 9) music and mobile, and 10) branded entertainment. In Fall 2005, I chose FOX's Kitchen Confidential, a half-hour single-camera comedy about the inner-workings of a fancy restaurant. Kitchen Confidential's central focus--food--made it easy for students to create brand extensions to complement, enhance, and transform the show beyond the television screen. Unfortunately for FOX, Kitchen Confidential only lasted four episodes; cancelled due to low ratings undoubtedly fueled by the network's failure to tap into various consumption cultures with similar strategies devised by students in US Media Now.
In one year's time, the launching of new shows (as well as the sustenance of existing ones) has been dramatically transformed by the changing relationships between existing industries, technologies, and audiences. When I chose NBC's Heroes for this semester's project, its ability to tap into a shifting media landscape was obvious: a comic-booky, apocalyptic, serialized drama was ripe for cultural appropriation and reappropriation. However, my students and I were not prepared for the speed by which convergence travels--especially for a hit show. What were initially a traditional television show web site (http://www.nbc.com/heroes) and a semi-official Heroes web site from creator Tim Krieg (http://www.9thwonders.com/) quickly surfaced thereafter as a whirlpool of content: games, graphic novels, interviews, and blogs. Now, in one week's time--the assignment was due on October 3, the day after the airing of the show's second episode--students witnessed many of their engaging brand-building ideas being uploaded daily on NBC's websites. The following are accounts by two students--Nicole Walther and Jennifer Cady--reflecting on the challenges of this "real-time" assignment.
When I first attacked this assignment, I realized that designing a multi-platform brand strategy for Heroes alongside NBC's own approach would be challenging. To appeal to the key target audience--the 18 to 35-year-olds--that are online 24/7, and know everything about TiVos, Blackberries, Verizon Chocolate phones, iTunes and consumer empowerment. I first decided to add an ongoing blog by a cast member as well as behind the scenes footage. NBC, however, had already thought of that and put a blog by the character Hiro on the website preceded by a behind-the-scenes tour with painter Santiago Cabrera, which was my second idea. A comic based on the show was a logical conclusion, but only days after the show aired, the comic was available on the website.
Primarily, I chose to add a contest based on audience artwork submitted through a personal profile created on the Heroes website. People are interested in creating profiles on sites that would allow them to communicate with other like-minded fans. In addition, most artists are looking for ways to share their visions. I felt it would be intriguing for consumers to submit their own artwork, who in turn, became content producers of the website.
I also wanted to reach an audience that was not always online. An experiential marketing plan would involve filming everyday viewers nominating their own personal hero. This event could be extended to a contest, which in turn could lead to a reality show based on Heroes. Each part of the marketing plan would focus on consumer involvement and relationship marketing and therefore keep a broad target audience engaged with the Heroes brand.
As I am writing this, I am looking at a recent Entertainment Weekly cover, which flaunts three of the Heroes characters. The article's sidebar reads "Spoiler alert! This story contains plot information about upcoming episodes of Heroes." NBC clearly realizes that ongoing communication with the audience is important in order to keep them involved with a show. The network also realizes that it needs to beat other content creators to the punch, giving away information before everybody else can. Entertainment Weekly thus becomes just another platform to reach more traditional audience members who still want to be one step ahead of the crowd.
After receiving the assignment, I naturally visited the Heroes website first. My initial investigation there revealed that all my preliminary marketing strategies had already been realized by the network. Rather than this frustrating me, it was a relief. After all, it's about time the giant broadcast networks take it to the next level. If the website had been as nondescript as last season's web offerings, I would have been disappointed and my job would have been too easy. While Jaffe's book outlined several newer approaches to marketing, it was published a year ago and time moves much quicker now with the internet that enables ideas and discussions to rapidly spread. His new media marketing ideas were a bit out of date with no possible way to develop and change in the stagnant medium of print. If this was an assignment in real-time, I figured it was best to use theories and strategies being proposed and discussed in real-time. Thus, I turned to my friends in the blogosphere for inspiration.
Starting with the Cluetrain Manifesto (http://www.cluetrain.com) and exploring popular marketing blogs like Seth's Blog (http://sethgodin.typepad.com), Gaping Void (http://www.gapingvoid.com), and even Jaffe's own Jaffe Juice (http://www.jaffejuice.com), I realized what the Heroes offerings were missing: conversational marketing. The network created a blog, but being written from a fake character's point of view, it lacked the appropriate degree of authenticity that makes blogs work. They also presented what the network deemed an "interactive" graphic novel, meaning users could zoom in and out whenever and as much as they wanted. Much of the other content followed a similar pattern of almost engaging with the viewer, but stopping just short of completely interacting. In order to support the new empowered consumer, I realized NBC needs to actively engage its viewer by allowing greater participation in content creation. This doesn't mean letting viewer dictate the course of show (Snakes on a Plane demonstrated the danger of that), but it does mean exercising less control over the show or giving the consumers the necessary resources to create content. For instance, allowing the shows images to be freely, easily, and legally used by consumers in order to create their own graphic novels. Then, rather letting these creations disappear into fan art oblivion, showcasing these creations and allowing other fans to add on or edit. I found this assignment to be helpful in understanding the rapidly changing world of marketing and it also made me wonder if blog content should be considered a greater resource to courses.
Like other assignments in US Media Now, the Heroes assignment embraced a critical and creative philosophy to the media arts. "Creative theory" as Bevin Yeatman and Sean Cubitt call it in their article for the May 2005 issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies. (http://www.journalsonline.tandf.co.uk/link.asp?id=p6470r74t1553701), is about "how an object is put together," the authors believe, "seeing what can be learned from its construction, and suggesting ways it could be improved upon." Nicole Walther and Jennifer Cady's assessments of and strategies for Heroes put this pedagogy into practice. I believe non-traditional forms of assessment like this can better reflect the diverse articulations of meanings and range of activities of communication in today's mediascape. They connect intellectual engagement to lived reality as well as promote self-conscious viewing practices and behaviors in order to prepare students to become more informed producers, educators, and citizens of the media.
Kevin S. Sandler is an affiliated faculty member with C3 and Assistant Professor of Media Arts at the University of Arizona. His next book, The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Does Not Make NC-17 Films, is being released in 2007. Sandler is also currently working on Scooby Doo, a forthcoming book from Duke University Press.
Nicole Walther is a Media Arts Senior with a Marketing minor at the University of Arizona and an Equestrian. She grew up in the southwest of Germany and moved to the United States in 2000. Her drive to become involved in film and television was initiated when watching The NeverEnding Story for the first time. After ten years experience in the field of film, music and journalism she decided to work at a Bachelor's degree in order to pursue a career in film or television publicity. She currently works on an experiment that tests the human ability of sleeping only four hours a night while going to school, working, interning, walking the dog, training two horses and feeding two big-headed fish at the same time.
Jennifer Cady is a Media Arts senior who likes to spend her time organizing her Bloglines feeds and reading old media print magazines. She hopes to secure an internship next semester in either new media marketing or online editorial, if you know of any good leads, send her an email at email@example.com. For Christmas, she would like a MacBook.
---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Oakdale Confidential: Secrets Revealed: How the Book's Reprint Is an Even More Striking Example of Transmedia Storytelling (with a Tangent About Bad Twin at Intermission). The re-release of the book based on the As the World Turns soap opera is keeping the transmedia project's sales alive and once again working it into the storylines of the daytime soap, while the project's mainstream coverage still lags behind the attention given to Lost's Bad Twin.
Focus on the Local: How Professional Journalists Should Go Back to School. Comments from MIke with Techdirt emphasize the needed shifts in journalism and how looking at the success of college newspapers might provide new business models for local and regional print news.
Yahoo! Leads Consortium of More Than 150 Newspapers to Bridge Print/Online Advertising. The Internet company has created a deal to allow centralized sales of job listings for online sites as both newspapers and Yahoo! strive to lower the barriers in cross-platform advertising opportunities.
Copyright & IP in Virtual Worlds. Alec Austin provides a quick note linking to a recent Raph Koster post about the nature of copyright in virtual worlds.
Blurring the Line Between Fantasy and Reality: Borat Raising Questions That Affect User-Generated Content and Community Journalism. Through various lawsuits against its makers, the mockumentary has raised questions about what is and is not permissible when technological tools allow a variety of localized experts and a greater chance for faux "journalism" like what eventually led to the Borat film.
More on "The Two Publics": Are Rich Private Owners the Future of Journalism? A recent Boston Globe article looks further at how valid the idea of rich entrepreneurs being the private saviors of journalism really is.
HBO Announces Preliminary Plans for Launching Broadband Channel. The Home Box Office network continues ahead with plans to create a valid, sustainable, and agreeable broadband outlet for its subscription television programming.
Burger King Xbox Games Available. Alec Austin notes the various Burger King Xbox games currently available at Burger King outlets.
Global Magna Not Thankful for Nielsen Commercial Ratings Compromise. The ad buying company indicates that it will not accept a compromise in the continued commercial ratings battle between the networks and advertisers regarding the proposed Nielsen plan to average commercial minutes for each program, specifically targeting problems with measuring DVR viewing for anything other than same day viewing.
Google Branching Traditional and Innovative Approaches to Advertising. The Internet giant is starting to put pressure on traditional advertising agencies as it makes further plans to branch its power in Internet ad placement for traditional media as well.
The Power of the Consumer: Viewers and a Public Conscious Vote O.J. Off TV and Shelves. The book and show, which was touted as O.J.'s revealing how he would have handled the murders had he been the murderer, was pulled by Rupert Murdoch in a startling example of the power of people to voice their disgust at a commercial project that lacks any degree of taste or sensibility.
The Death of a Buzzword: Synergy and Time Warner. People have denounced many of the notions of synergy when connected with companies that are considered to massive to operate functionally, but Time Warner entities are managing to continue creating powerful synergistic products--perhaps without using the buzzword anymore. Based on a New York Times article.
Technology and Television. A recent New York Times article focuses on the social implications of interactive television and various experiments taking place around the country currently.
Babylon 5 Lives On with New Plans for DVD Releases. The popular franchise continues to live on with a planned series of straight-to-DVD movie releases as the show's success in re-release on DVD leads to sustained corporate interest in the product.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
How Transmedia Storytelling Begat Transmedia Planning... Part I
By: Henry Jenkins
When you write a book, you usually have no idea which ideas will get picked up or by which communities. That's part of the fun of sending your brain children out in the world. Today, I want to explore a case in point -- the ways that the idea of transmedia narrative in my new book, Convergence Culture, has started to evolve into a concept of transmedia planning as it has been taken up by bloggers interested in branding.
Convergence Culture itself deals with transmedia storytelling as an emerging form of entertainment but never really addresses its application to branding. The chapter on transmedia storytelling immediately follows the book's discussion of American Idol, brand communities, affective economics, and product placement so the connection of ideas was there to be found but I did not myself put all of the pieces together.
THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF MR. CLEAN
Even before the book appeared in print, though, C3 researcher Grant McCracken published a series of blog posts exploring what my approach to transmedia might contribute to current thinking about brands:
"In the old world of marketing, there wasn't much transmediation to speak of. Corporations made products, and informed the advertising agency, who in turn informed the consumer... The meanings went straight down a single shute. They did not run on several tracks."
McCracken focuses primarily on one aspect of the transmedia experience -- providing backstory. He questioned whether most brands have a sufficiently detailed backstory to generate the kind of consumer interest that give rise to fan communities around entertainment franchises:
"For Mr. Clean there was no back story, no alternative endings, no competing interpretation. There was in fact no narrative to speak of. I think some consumers surmised that Mr. Clean was an uncorked genie, a creature out of Shahraza released from the lamp/bottle to put his magic at the disposal of the homemaker. In this case, the brand was actually removing meaning from the icon, not supplementing or multiplying this meaning."
Yet in a subsequent post, McCracken shows how easy it would be to flesh out the back story of a seemingly empty icon:
"It's not so hard to imagine Mr. Clean in more fully realized narrative terms: child of an orphanage in a French colony in North Africa (circa 1890), early childhood spend as a runner in a souk (market), taken in as a servant by a family of French nationals who holiday in Morocco and eventually he joins the household even when it is "at home" in France. In the late spring of 1907, "Gerard" is travelling back to Morocco to help to set up the summer home when (mon dieu!) he is kidnapped by pirates. Gerard sails for some years as a pirate and this allows him to built up a small store of wealth, and to return, eventually, to the souk where he buys a stock of carpets and a stall, marries his childhood sweetheart, and begins to raise a little batch of runners all his own. It is on one of his trips to replenish his supply of carpets that..."
Would such a backstory enhance the brand experience? Perhaps. Especially if people find themselves wanting to find out more about this remarkable character and his many exotic adventures, if consumers seek more touch points with the brand, if they generate their own narratives about Gerard. Personally I am waiting to see the Mr. Clean/Capt. Crunch slash genre emerge!
There have been good examples of tapping interest in characters to prolong our engagement. I am thinking of the Folgers Coffee campaign with Anthony Head, who went on to play Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here a story unfolded across a number of commercial installments -- following a fairly simple genre -- the romantic comedy. Could you imagine extending that outward into some kind of epistolary fiction? A series of love letters between the two in print or on the web, which come complete with coffee stains? Perhaps even some kind of game where the goal is help true love win out and good coffee taste find an appreciating consumer?
Yet, there is also a danger in too much specificity. We might start by pondering whether renaming Mr. Clean Gerard increases our engagement with the character or simply closes off a range of other possible associations. The most effective use of transmedia branding so far may be the BMW campaign, "The Hire," which unfolded first on the web (in the hands of some of the world's greatest filmmakers) and more recently in the comics (in the hands of some pretty damn gifted comics creators). Despite all of the screen time he enjoys, the central protagonist -- the driver -- receives very little characterization, allowing him to move fluidly across genres and across media platforms. He is more an observer figure than a protagonist: the goals of the guest stars set the terms for each new installment. One can encounter the episodes in any order, but there may be less motivation to try to find links across them.
TRANSMEDIA vs. MEDIA NEUTRAL
The relationship between transmedia entertainment and branding resurfaced recently in a much discussed post by Faris Yacob from the London-based Naked Communications group. Yacob embraces transmedia branding in contrast to what he sees as the media neutral approach that shapes much current thinking about branding:
"The model that has held the industry's collective imagination for the last few years has been media neutral planning. In essence, this is the belief that we should develop a single organising thought that iterates itself across any touchpoint - this was a reaction against previous models of integration that were often simply the dilution of a televisual creative idea across other channels that it wasn't necessarily suited to...The important point is that there is one idea being expressed in different ways. This is believed to be more effective as there are multiple encodings of the same idea, which reinforces the impact on the consumer.
"Now then, let's think about transmedia planning. In this model, there would be an evolving non-linear brand narrative. Different channels could be used to communicate different, self-contained elements of the brand narrative that build to create an larger brand world. Consumers then pull different parts of the story together themselves. The beauty of this is that it is designed to generate brand communities, in the same way that The Matrix generates knowledge communities, as consumers come together to share elements of the narrative. It has a word of mouth driver built in."
While McCracken's use of my transmedia concept emphasized back story, Yacob's version stresses world building and the social activity of consumers. His primary example turns out to be the alternative reality game, The Art of the Heist. It's worth recalling that I do discuss The Beast and I Love Bees in the context of my discussion of transmedia storytelling. Indeed, at the heart of my concept of transmedia is the distinction between cultural activators -- works that draw like mined individuals together to form a community and cultural activators -- works that give these communities something to do. In a subsequent interview, Yacob fleshes out even more his idea about the role of the consumer in the process of transmedia branding:
"I think consumers can handle more than a single core idea. In fact, I think in an age where increasingly consumers control the media the consume, and we can no longer simply interrupt, entertain for 25 seconds and then sell them something, then we have to offer them more than a core idea well told.
"It's not about individuals responding to the whole world - it's about whether a community will adopt it. And groups naturally spring up around stories that have rich worlds to explore, discuss and share.
"The industry seems obsessed by engagement at the moment - building / offering brand engagement. But from a person, or communities, point of view - why should they engage with brands unless there is some value in the engagement?"
Consciously or unconsciously, Yacob is linkig my notion of transmedia entertainment with arguments about complexity in contemporary popular narrative made by Steven Johnson in his book, Everything Bad is Good For You, or C3 researcher Jason Mittell in his work on contemporary television narrative. I see the kinds of complexity that Johnson and Mittell discuss as closely linked to the emergence of knowledge communities (or as Pierre Levy might call it, collective intelligence): a group of people, pooling their knowledge, working together, can process much greater complexity (indeed, demands much greater complexity) than an individual watching television alone in their living room. Transmedia entertainment simply pushes that search for complexity to the next level, spreading the information across multiple media platforms and thus providing an incentive for what Mimi Ito calls "hypersociality." The more people get absorbed into putting together these scattered bits of information, the more invested they are in the brand/fan narrative.
In a film franchise, what fuels this interest may be a story -- or more precisely, a fictional world rich enough to support a range of possible stories. But, one can imagine other structures of information generating similar interest -- we can't really call what motivates the Survivor spoilers I discuss earlier in Convergence Culture a story per se. One can imagine, for example, a trivia contest of some kind creating sufficient interest that people seek out information from multiple choices and pool data with others in their core community.
The conclusion to this piece will appear as the opening note in next week's Weekly Update.
Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, is a seminal text that describes the foundations of C3. His blog is available at http://www.henryjenkins.org.
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