Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Two)

Your dust cover frames the book in terms of the development of the “post-network” television era in relation to “the introduction of broadband into the majority of homes and the proliferation of popular, participatory Web 2.0 companies.” What role has technological change played in shaking up established modes of production and distribution or arrangements of labor?

In the early days of broadband and Web 2.0, the networks tolerated an exceptional degree of collaboration with thought leaders and cutting-edge companies outside of Hollywood proper; these outsiders included executives from Silicon Valley, entrepreneurial writer-producers and digital producers, among others. The result of this momentary largess was a vast array of transmedia storytelling experiments associated with the networks’ most valuable media franchises, including Smallville, Lost, Heroes, Ghost Whisperer, among others.

Furthermore, the networks jumped into the digital distribution waters headfirst by making broadcast content available via Apple iTunes, Hulu, and the CBS Digital Audience initiative, as well as their own network websites. During previous periods of upheaval—economic, cultural, and technological—the Hollywood studios have tolerated the cultural experiments of creative insiders who embraced these new technologies, such as sound, radio, television, cable, and most recently, digital; however, these shifts cannot be reduced to technological developments alone; instead, we’ve seen a history of cultural convergence as Hollywood embraces alternative creative models during periods of social-economic change in the U.S.

As seen in your book, What Made Pistachio Nuts, the beginning of sound had a damaging effect on Hollywood’s traditional operations, as did the social-economic crisis prompted by the Depression; the studios responded to these combined threats by looking to alternative aesthetic forms, such as Vaudeville, to enhance their own offerings. In other words, Hollywood’s earliest days demonstrated this tendency–the “emergence of convergence”—best seen in the studios efforts to import Vaudeville’s stars by integrating their performance strategies into Hollywood’s traditional narrative system. This history of convergence was also amply on display during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as Hollywood embraced, emulated, or assimilated other cultural outsiders, such as the German Expressionists, the Italian Neo-realists, and the French New Wave.

Furthermore, Hollywood has always demonstrated a willingness to advance the business logic of key cultural-industrial entrepreneurs, such as Walt Disney, George Lucas, and more recently, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Pixar’s John Lasseter, among countless others. The big media corporations’ internalization of these epochal changes tends to take place slowly, in incremental steps, over several decades; however, the studios responded rather quickly to Lucas’ game-changing creation, Star Wars, by making sure their boiler-plate contracts with talent granted the studios 100% ownership of all licensed merchandise.

Most agree that Walt Disney’s introduction of the multi-platform, cross-promotable, media franchise in the 1950s is one of the key drivers of today’s modern media corporation. Disney has continued to inspire imitators, as other studios try to replicate its use of Marvel to generate a “shared universe” of characters across their film, television, theme park, and other formats.

In contrast, the networks appear to be more risk-adverse organizations, unwilling to invest too much of their intellectual or infrastructural capital to overhaul their aging system without concrete evidence that online advertising will soon outpace their analog revenues. Even though the early experiments in transmedia storytelling  proved popular with millennial audiences, the networks disbanded them, preferring to bring these interactive content-promotional campaigns in-house via their newly created social marketing divisions; notably, this retrenchment is also evident in the networks current emphasis on tech-driven “connected audience” strategies over cultural experimentation via creator-driven transmedia storytelling initiatives.

As we think about what I call transmedia, do you see some tensions between the desire for coherence and continuity within an expanded story world and challenges to creative autonomy within a dispersed production sphere strongly governed by licensing agreements? 

Transmedia storytelling was embraced by a variety of independent-minded production personnel who were eager to disrupt the rigid storytelling conventions of most Hollywood big media franchises; furthermore, it was an effort to bypass the usual gatekeepers—agents, managers, attorneys, and the battery of studio executives overseeing development, marketing, business affairs, and consumer products divisions.

As you point out in your Wired TV essay, “The Reign of the Mothership,” the term “transmedia” originated around major media franchises targeting children; Marsha Kinder demonstrated how characters from key franchises, such as Super Mario Brothers and Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles, became part of a “transmedia supersystem” and revenue generator for the media companies. It wasn’t until later that you used the Matrix example to expand the definition to include the various stakeholders in the creative authorship of the storytelling associated with various platforms linked to a particular media franchise.

Derek Johnson’s essay in Wired TV sheds light on the history of film and television licensing, focusing on the period from the 1950s to the present when studios mimicked the structured business models used by fast-food restaurants and gas stations to organize their management of licensed properties. In particular, Derek Johnson, as well as media scholar M.J. Clarke, Transmedia Television (2012), describe network and studio licensing divisions engagement of  independent vendors—comic book writers, game designers, and novelization authors—in “work-for-hire” agreements that allow these creative personnel to earn revenue and deliver profits to the studios by creating stories for additional platforms linked to media corporation-owned media franchises. In this scenario, licensed vendors are often made to feel like second-class citizens in comparison to the studios’ highly valued above-the-line creative personnel—showrunners, directors, and producers, and so forth.

Notably, the latter are protected by the talent guilds, whereas licensed vendors must cover production costs, insurance, and other major expenditures themselves, placing them in a high-risk, low satisfaction segment of the creative labor force. Johnson explains the paradoxical lengths that NBC-Universal went to in order to limit fan engagement with their Battlestar Galactica Videomaker contest; they forced this unpaid labor force to sign contracts analogous to the onerous “work-for-hire” arrangements with licensed vendors rather than reward this advance guard of fans for their loyalty and commitment to keeping their series active in the Zeitgeist.  Johnson’s case-study underscores the themes running throughout Wired TV—that media corporations have been over-zealous in their management of their IP, preventing them from benefiting fully from the spreadable nature of media in the digital ecosystem.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).