Do Fans Generate Transtexts?: An Interview with Melanie Bourdaa and Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz (Part Three)

An important contribution of this book is expanding the range of exemplars of transmedia practice to consider the role that transtexts play in relation to the contemporary sitcom and professional wrestling, among others. What are sitcom producers doing differently from those working with speculative fictions and how might expanding what we look at further sharpen our conceptual vocabulary for thinking about transmedia?

 

Derhy Kurtz: Thank you. Sam Ford’s chapter on wrestling and the chapter on sitcoms do offer perspectives which are… under-represented, we could say, in academic literature on transmedia; as does yours, on a totally different level, with regards to geographically and conceptually different types of transmedia. This was precisely the point of this book: not only to develop the analysis of key and often-discussed topics through new case studies, as Matt Hills and Paul Booth skilfully have, but also to bring new elements and perspectives to the table.

And some sitcom producers using transmedia strategies, indeed, do things differently, on a number of levels. In our chapter, Simone Knox and I explain that in this TV III era, TV channels, and US networks in particular, are struggling for audience share, and sitcoms are thus turning to smaller but more engaged audiences; with the producers encouraging invested viewership by using transtexts. This is where we came up with two new notions (albeit not specific/limited to comedy). Transtexts give their audiences the opportunity to willingly (continue to) suspend their disbelief, play along and ‘believe’ that the transtexts are ‘real’ (for example, that books and or tweets were in fact written by the characters); this is what we have called Accepted Imaginative Realism. It is, therefore, an imaginative game between the producers, who invest in creative labour to provide a more compelling and life-like storyworld, and the audience, who becomes further engaged and chooses to ‘believe’ in the transtexts (in a manner reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s ‘we-know-they-know’ double-codedness of the postmodern). But of course, one can also express the situation from the production perspective, rather than the reception one, through the concept of the Reality Envelope, where the producers have a specific agenda: attempting to push this (reality) envelope so as to penetrate beyond the TV set’s screen and thus bring this sense of reality to the audience. We chose that expression because, in addition to the ‘pushing the envelope’ idiom, an envelope is a spatial object, alike transtexts ‘hovering’ around their storyworlds, and also because envelopes are fragile, a notion which we must be kept in mind in relation to these concepts of ‘realism’. But I wish we had more time / space, because there are many more elements to talk about, which are used within transtexts by sitcoms producers, such as issues relating to texture, performance and the actors’ input. To sum up, individually and collectively, such concepts can enrich debates on transtexts, and in our conclusion, we invite others to engage with them and test them out through other case studies, whether from or beyond the sitcom genre.

While most accounts acknowledge that many transmedia texts function as both storytelling and branding, the emphasis has largely been on identifying their contributions to the story. Yet there are several places in the book where this emphasis is reversed. What might readers learn about branding by looking more closely at transmedia franchises?

 

Derhy Kurtz: Yes, I think this is another important element as well, and it is interesting to finish on that note. Besides studying what transtexts and branding can bring to a story, one could and should also look at what transmedia stories can bring to branding, and marketing, and communication. As it happens, the answer is: a lot! I have long been interested in that aspect, in fact, and aside from guest-editing a special issue entitled ‘Branding TV: Transmedia to the Rescue’ a few years ago, I actually teach transmedia as a communication and a branding strategy to communication postgraduate students (it was only natural, therefore, that this emphasis would be reversed at times in the book, as you note).

Regarding transtexts and branding, and the text-brand, Hélène Laurichesse, by applying concepts such as the galaxy system and the brand universe to transtexts, and by clarifying the place of fans in this brand-centred analysis, brings a rare insight into how the two can work with one another. But aside from branding, transmedia franchises (for which a whole new legal framework must be considered, as explained by Jennifer Henderson, due to the presence of extensions under many forms) can be used as an example to create an engaging marketing or communication strategy around a product, which will be more immersive and more compelling than a traditional advertising campaign could ever be; as was done, for instance, by Chipotle and its scarecrow campaign a few years back. But it can also be used in order to create a new storyworld, the transtexts of which would be the ones to be sold to the public, like LEGO (through the help of various right-leasing devices, in order to use a number of comic books or other fictional characters), which have created a universe where people are… ‘legos’, and directed the audience to the transtexts themselves: videogames, films, etc., which are sold to the consumers, rather than to the original product itself: the toys (as opposed to using transtexts as a decoy to hide the advertising purpose, while bringing people back to the original product; in the case of Chipotle: sandwiches).

Transtexts are, therefore, not ‘simply’ a persistent – and rising – narrative form for a variety of cultural products anymore; they are also part of the future of communication, marketing, branding and advertising.

Melanie Bourdaa is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences, and a researcher in Transmedia Storytelling and fan studies. She ran a MOOC entitled « Understanding Transmedia Storytelling » in France. She created the GREF, a research group gathering scholars working in the field of Fan Studies.  She co-created the CATS, a consortium on Transmedia Storytelling, gathering researchers and professionals in this field of expertise. She runs the research program “MediaNum”, dealing with the valorization of Cultural Heritage via Transmedia Storytelling, funded by the Region d’Aquitaine.

Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), Sciences Po (IEP) and Ecole Polytechnique (X), as well as at various communication and business schools. He created undergraduates/postgraduates courses, including on Transmedia, and holds experience in marketing and in institutional/promotional/political communication and consulting. His PhD, at the University of East Anglia, explores ‘success’ in the TV industry.