More Spreadable Media: Rethinking Transmedia Engagement

Let it spread, let it spread, let it spread. By now, you know: Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture is a new book, being released by New York University Press at the end of January 2013, written by myself, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Around the book will live thirty or so online essays written by colleagues, former students, and others who have been associated with the Futures of Entertainment Consortium through the years, which both engage with the content of the book, and are, in turn, taken up as part of the book's core argument.  We are hoping you will do your part to help spread these essays throughout your own social networks, and let the conversation start before the book even gets released to the world.

Today's crop, the last before the new year, offers new perspectives on transmedia entertainment and more generally, on the issue of audience engagement, both central themes in the book, as those of you who regularly read this blog might imagine. For more information, check out the book's home page.

Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text


While the rise of spreadable media is a major trend of the contemporary era, another development within media seems to pull in an opposite direction: narrative complexity of media storytelling, especially on television. Since the late 1990s, dozens of television series have broadened the possibilities available to small-screen storytellers to embrace increased seriality, hyperconscious narrative techniques such as voice-over narration and playful chronology, and deliberate ambiguity and confusion. These trends, which I’ve explored at length elsewhere (Mittell 2006), are tied into transformations within the television industry and technologies of distribution that have enabled programs to be viewed more consistently by smaller audiences and to still be considered successful.

Such long-form complex narratives as Lost, The Wire, 24, and The Sopranos seem to run counter to many of the practices and examples of spreadable media found elsewhere in this book. These shows are not the ephemeral “video of attractions” common to YouTube that are shared and commented on during downtime at work. They are the DVD box sets to be shelved next to literary and cinematic collections, long-term commitments to be savored and dissected in both online and offline fora. They spread less through exponential linking and emailing for quick hits than via proselytizing by die-hard fans eager to hook friends into their shared narrative obsessions. Even when they are enabled by the spreadable technologies of online distribution, both licit and illicit, the consumption patterns of complex serials are typically more focused on engaging with the core narrative text than the proliferating paratexts and fan creativity that typify spreadable media.

Perhaps we need a different metaphor to describe viewer engagement with narrative complexity. We might think of such programs as drillable rather than spreadable. They encourage a mode of forensic fandom that invites viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story and its telling (Mittell 2009a). Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into story worlds and urging them to drill down to discover more. READ MORE


A History of Transmedia Entertainment

As embraced by industry professionals and media consumers alike, transmedia storytelling promises to bring greater institutional coordination, added narrative integrality, and deeper engagement to the various pieces of contemporary media franchises. Comic books, video games, and other markets once considered ancillary now play increasingly significant and recentered roles in the production and consumption of everyday film and television properties such as Heroes, Transformers, and the reenvisioned 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 twentieth century. Yet, while contemporary convergence culture 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. Although we might recognize transmedia storytelling as something newly emergent, we also cannot deny its relationship to long-established models of media franchising whereby the creative and economic resources owned by monolithic corporate entities were nevertheless widely used and shared across production communities and industry sectors. The franchise models that multiplied one Law & Order into several sister series and turned X-Men comic books into action figures worked by spreading resources among a network of stakeholders brought into social relations by virtue of their parallel (though often imperfectly aligned) interests. Thus, neither transmedia entertainment nor convergence point to the end of industrial models of cultural production in favor of some new social media; instead, the transmedia storytelling of convergence offers an opportunity to see how spreadable media extend, reorient, and reimagine existing historical trajectories in the industrial production and consumption of culture.

Understanding transmedia in terms of cultural exchange across and transformation through different media experiences means recognizing traditional processes of adaptation and translation of content as a foundation for the social exchange of spreadable media today. READ MORE.



Performing with Glee

Some producers developing cross-platform media franchises are experimenting with distribution models that engage consumers on a quotidian level, capitalizing on personal audience networks and not-quite-official distribution routes to help content spread. For FOX’s television franchise Glee, the network integrates traditional, legal distribution practices with experimental tactics that engage loyal fans, in addition to harnessing unofficial distribution channels that fall into legal gray areas.

The production team has embraced the show’s fans—known as gleeks, a fusion of “Glee” and “geek”—fashioning a popular (brand) identity and catering specifically to them. In addition to conventional broadcast, Hulu and allow viewers to catch previous episodes, and FOX offers additional content such as cast interviews and behind-the-scenes clips. Glee’s thematic fusion of high school comedy and Broadway musical provide opportunities for musical guests from both Broadway (such as Kristin Chenoweth) and the popular music circuit (such as Britney Spears and Josh Grobin), bringing new viewers into the Glee fan club while keeping current fans engaged.

To retain fan interest after season one ended, FOX partnered with CoincidentTV to create the “Glee Superfan Player.” The online platform integrates social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter with other fan-enticing elements—such as links to buy music on iTunes and to create “photobooth” pictures with the cast—in a unified space that plays episodes while viewers multitask. While the player only provides access to material on Hulu and, rendering the experimental platform useless once episodes eventually expire, it at least represents an attempt to create a consolidated cross-platform fan experience. Other recent experiments include a MySpace karaoke contest, in which fans record themselves singing hits from Glee, and live concert tours that sold out in four American cities—so successful that the cast plans to tour the UK in mid-2011. READ MORE

Valuing Fans

Why work toward a model for valuing fans?

The U.S. media industry has run into some significant economic problems in recent years. Study after study suggests that Americans are watching more television and consuming more movies, music, and information than ever before, but, at the same time, it is neither as captive nor as concentrated as before. New ways to discover emerging artists and projects, as well as increasing choice in media platforms and content, are challenging how ad-supported media is bought and sold and rendering direct funding for some media content much harder to come by.

It was this situation that gave rise to the popularity of “engagement” a few years ago, a tactic to sell advertisers audiences whose enthusiasm is believed to translate to more awareness of and receptivity to product placement and commercials. How much more “engaged” and receptive this new audience is than the older, bigger one was considered crucial in setting a price for the advertising that supports media production. Conspicuously absent from these discussions was the role that fan communities (groups whose various interests in a media property may range widely) play in contributing economic value beyond paying attention to commercials. READ MORE


The Online Prime Time of Workspace Media

Ask a producer of digital content about website usage patterns, as I have, and they will tell you how important the audience accessing their content from work is to daily website traffic. According to NBC’s vice president of digital content and development, Carole Angelo, designs its daily production schedule to service its workweek “lunch hour” audience. Fox Sports Digital (2009) also adopts this production strategy, as it summed up in its 2009 slogan “lunchtime is the new prime time.” Reporting on this trend, the New York Times observed that American cubicle dwellers were increasingly choosing to spend their break time watching online videos, playing Flash games, and engaging in social network sites instead of heading to the water cooler (Stelter 2008). The entertainment industries are creating digital content for the work space because they see this audience as a dependable online consumer demographic.

Programming for the workspace media audience is crucial to entertainment industry efforts in the online space. It allows producers to adapt familiar television programming strategies for the Internet. In television, producers have long programmed according to “day parts”—segments of the broadcast day designed for particular audiences and viewing contexts. Nick Browne has argued that the scheduling of day parts enabled television companies to reflect and reinforce a “socially mediated order of the workday and workweek” to “mediate between the worlds of work and entertainment” (1994, 71). Each day part carries with it certain assumptions about the needs and desires of audience segments, as well as expectations of modern labor. The scheduling of a workday day part demonstrates the influence that technology has had on the blending of work and entertainment. READ MORE