Yes, Transmedia HAS a History!: An Interview with Matthew Freeman (Part One)

From the start, there have been competing claims about the origins of Transmedia storytelling. Many read my discussion of The Matrix in Convergence Culture as indicating that transmedia was a new phenomenon emerging from networked culture. Transmedia in that account lay where old and new media collide. Indeed, at the time I wrote Convergence Culture, I was excited about the prospect of a new storytelling paradigm which I was trying to piece together from the glimpses provided by a range of contemporary projects — from Dawson’s Desktop and The Blair Witch Project to the early ARGS to The Matrix. So my understanding of Transmedia in Convergence Culture reflected a sense that something new was happening here. Yet, if you look closely at my discussion of “The Art of World Building”, you will see references throughout two Homeric epic, Joseph Campbell, and the Christian church in the Middle Ages, as points of comparisons to the world building and extra-textual references found in contemporary Transmedia storytelling. I was certainly not arguing for a total break with the past, and I was hinting that people have been using every available media to tell stories fora long, long time.

Derek Johnson in his own book, Media Franchising: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Culture Industries and through his contribution to Spreadable Media has consistently made the case that today’s Transmedia is simply a reconfiguration of much older industry practices. Similarly Avie Santos has used the example of the Lone Ranger to make the case for earlier forms of product licensing as prefiguring Transmedia. See his recent book Selling the Silver Bullet: The Lone Ranger and Transmedia Brand Licensing. Other contemporary books such as The Rise of Transtexts explores a range of historical analogies. I will be sharing more insights from that boo’ks editors in a subsequent interview in this blog.

But to date, the most thorough and convincing exploration of the prehistory of transmedia has emerged from the pen of British media scholar Matthew Freeman. Freeman recently released the book Historicizing Transmedia Storytelling: Early 20th century Transmedia Story Worlds which represents the state-of-the-art in terms of exploring historical antecedents. Across this book Friedman develops case studies of the Wizard of Oz, Tarzan, and Superman as significant media franchises of the early 20th century. In each case, fictional characters and worlds were extended across a range of contemporary media platforms. For example, L Frank Baum, the “Royal Historian of Oz”, wrote not only books but also comic strips, stage plays, films, games, and other print ephemera, each of which told us something we didn’t know before about his magical realm. Within the first few years of Superman’s existence, the character was appearing in both comic books and comic strips, animated shorts, live-action serials, and radio dramas. Each of these platforms contributed significantly to the development of Superman as we understand him today and of the superhero genre more generally. Freeman explores why each of these producers were willing to take a chance on a new genre and a previously unexplored audience. There were not necessarily the same strong links on a narrative level across these different versions, but there certainly were examples of additive comprehension as sophisticated as anything found in today’s Transmedia franchises.

Freeman’s book must be regarded as a essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how the modern sense Transmedia emerged and what forms it might’ve taken in earlier eras. Freeman is deft in his ability to move between contemporary theoretical and critical accounts of Transmedia and detailed historical accounts of earlier media practices. I was honored to serve as an outside reader on Freeman’s dissertation and have watched with great interest as he’s translated that document into the current book. I was delighted when he agreed to conduct an interview for the blog in which he explores a range of issues concerning both contemporary and historical forms of Transmedia entertainment. I will be sharing his insights over the next three installations of my blog. Enjoy!

Let’s begin with the question which frames your first chapter — why “historicize” the study of transmedia? What has been lost by keeping the focus of discussions of transmedia on the current moment, on an emerging or evolving set of practices within the entertainment industry?

Most pointedly, I have attempted to show in Historicising Transmedia Storytelling that there is far more to transmedia storytelling than meets the eye. It may well be a practice of industrial convergence that affords media content to spread across the subsidiaries of a conglomerate. It may also be a system of technological convergence that grants audiences the power to themselves spread stories across a web of digitally connected media platforms. But transmedia storytelling is also a form of historical production, distribution and even regulation, and one that had a very important role to play in historical media culture long before such modern convergences existed.

That said, I do agree with those who claim that transmedia storytelling is the future. The concept and practice of transmedia has really come to define the workings of today’s (commercial) media industries, speaking as it does to the ways that the spread of content across platforms comes to encapsulate the networks and convergences at the core of today’s media.

And yet the perceived newness of transmedia storytelling – or rather the perceived importance of newer convergences on the rise of transmedia storytelling – has indeed left a sizable gap in our understanding of this practice and its importance across the face of history. Derek Johnson once remarked that ‘one of the newest dimensions of contemporary transmedia entertainment is our recognition of it as such’, and the practice of telling tales across media has not only fed into the workings of media industries over the past hundred years or so, but transmedia storytelling can actually be used as a lens through which to make better sense of some of the biggest industrial, cultural, social and even political developments characterising the fin-de-siècle, the rise of modern advertising and Hollywood.

For example, I explore modern advertising at the turn of the twentieth century, itself a fast-developing industry and system of cultural and commercial communication. That period’s advertising can provide us with a source of early industrialised transmedia storytelling. At that time, new trends in modern advertising invited authors to apply promotional techniques based on branding, collectivity, colour printing technologies, etc. to their storytelling practices. In essence, everything from the giant billboards on the side of buildings and the artistic arrangements in shop windows to the promotional forms of newspaper comic strips served to attract an audience’s attention with content (characters, images, spectacle, etc.) before steering them elsewhere, often across platforms to other related content in media texts and consumer products in an overtly transmedial fashion. In this instance, only via the process of historicisation can we more fully understand transmedia as itself the industrialised slippage of commercial logos, fictional characters and brands across platforms well over a hundred years ago.

In mostly conceptualising transmedia storytelling as part of digital or industrial convergences, it is fair to say that many scholars have thus far had a tendency to neglect such workings of the past – thus leaving us all with a limited and narrow understanding of what is actually a far longer, far broader and far more complex historical development. In other words, only by looking to the past can we fully see the contingencies of the present, and by searching for historical precedents it can force us to be far more nuanced in describing what is truly specific to our present media moment. To be clear, my work is in no way a ‘corrective’ to any particular scholarly understandings of transmedia storytelling. Simply, it is an expansion of those understandings, adding new information, insights and perspectives that enhance the characteristics of this important phenomenon as it evolved across history.

If we are historicizing transmedia, why should our focus start with the dawn of the 20th century? Set the stage for us in terms of what conditions were emerging then which would push storytelling in a more transmedial direction.

There’s no denying that the notion of stories that span multiple platforms pre-dates the dawn of the twentieth century. Derek Johnson and Roberta Pearson, in particular, point to the mythological narratives of Ancient Greece and to the cross-platform narrative architecture surrounding the figure of Jesus Christ as possible (almost pre-historical) forms of transmedia storytelling. Mark J. P. Wolf also points to things like Homer’s Odyssey as a storyworld that exists transmedially and trans-historically.

And so while identifying ‘the first’ transmedia stories is surely well and truly beyond our abilities as researchers, there were nevertheless some major and fundamental transformations associated with the United States circa 1900 that became intrinsically tied to the rise of transmedia storytelling on an industrial scale. Most broadly, two of these key transformations were industrialisation and consumer.

I should probably explain that statement a little. In many ways, telling stories across media is not really about stories converging as it is about stories building – rather like a series of extensions that are added to a building to form a larger and ever-expanding house. This analogy of a house hints at a central point: The industrial strategies of the past century that became most significant to the industrial history of transmedia storytelling were all practices or developments that afforded a way to build and to spread that which was built. Industrialisation was all about building and spreading. Just as media convergence allows content to flow across multiple media platforms, so did industrialisation, albeit in different ways.

Of particular importance were the technological changes that made the production of new forms of culture possible and the concentration of people in urban areas that created significant audiences for this new culture. At the turn of the twentieth century in the US, indeed, larger cultural factors concerned transformations that saw a predominantly rural-farming economy eventually develop into an emerging urban-manufacturing landscape. It may have only fully characterised particular cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but this period unquestionably witnessed the full force of industrialisation and became characterised by related developments to do with new models of mass production, fresh industrialised systems of modern advertising, and evolving developments in methods of mass communication.

What is important to stress is that, come the turn of the twentieth century, new forms of mass production technology, which led to a new and characteristically American form of manufacture, emerged only around the turn of the twentieth century. And this American form of mass production was vital to transmedia storytelling at this time.

Consider the era’s new archetypal model of industrialised mass production – the assembly line. The assembly line’s significance on what is now called transmedia storytelling ties most straightforwardly to the fact that production fast became a reproducible system of adjoining interchangeable parts during this particular time.

If imagined only from a strictly manufacturing perspective, transmedia storytelling is similarly about the reproduction of many media texts as much as it is about the creative expansion of fictional storyworlds and the migration of audiences. If the entire process of transmedia storytelling is ‘like building your Transformer and putting little rocket ships on the side,’ as Heroes’ Tim Kring once put it, then those additional ‘rocket ships’ are essentially interchangeable extension parts. And it is for this reason that the assembly line – this quintessentially American form of mass production – is so crucial to comprehending the industrial context through which transmedia storytelling emerged as an industrialised practice.

After all, in the same way that transmedia storytelling is the integration of multiple forms, or a process where elements of a larger product work like components of a unified experience, so too was the model of early-twentieth-century mass production: The assembly line was a process whereby one component was produced according to its relationship with others, which in turn was designed to be joined with another component, and with each of these adjoining components eventually all coming together to form one larger product. Conceptually, the assembly line and transmedia storytelling both work on the basis that separate product-pieces are each added one by one to form a larger product, like individual bricks building a proverbial house. In short, mass production afforded the sheer reproducibility of fiction as multipliable products for the industrial age.

From there, we then reached a phase in US history where consumer culture emerged, and this too was crucial. Economically, transmedia storytelling operates on the basis that audiences will gain both a richer and fuller understanding of a given story if they consume more of its media texts. Any attempt to historicise transmedia storytelling must therefore account for consumer culture as a broad contextual backdrop; the consumerist ideology ingrained into many current definitions of transmedia storytelling suggests that its history is closely related to the rise of consumer culture.

Specifically, the rise of consumer culture around the early twentieth century was important to the industrial history of transmedia storytelling for two reasons. First, the new models of mass production described above would lead to increased mass distribution, spreading the array of new products across media and audiences whilst further intensifying the importance of standardised differentiation on the production of products. Second, this mass distribution gave rise to the business of a number of interconnected licensing practices associated with corporate authorship’s managerial function, and in turn transmedia storytelling became corporatised. Put simply: If industrialisation afforded ways to build media on an industrial scale, then consumer culture afforded the means to spread and market that media across platforms.

 

Dr Matthew Freeman is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at Bath Spa University, and Director of its Media Convergence Research Centre. He is the author of Historicising Transmedia Storytelling: Early Twentieth-Century Transmedia Story Worlds (Routledge, 2016), the author of Industrial Approaches to Media: A Methodological Gateway to Industry Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and the co-author of Transmedia Archaeology: Storytelling in the Borderlines of Science Fiction, Comics and Pulp Magazines (Palgrave Pivot, 2014). His research examines cultures of production across the borders of media and history, and he has also published in journals including The International Journal of Cultural Studies, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and International Journal of Communication.