Announcing Transforming Hollywood: The Futures Of Television

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television


USC School of Cinematic Arts


Transforming Hollywood: The Futures of Television, April 4, 2014, UCLA 


Denise Mann, UCLA

Henry Jenkins, USC

Presented by the  Andrew J. Kuehn  Jr. Foundation

Media Sponsor: Variety

Friday April 4   2014

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

Conference overview:  This year, the fifth installment of Transmedia, Hollywood has been given a new name—Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television—to reflect our desire to engage more fully with the radical changes taking place in the American television industry for creators, distributors, and audiences. When future generations of historians write their accounts of the evolution of the American television industry, they will almost certainly point to the 2010s as a moment of dramatic change: we've seen the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube as major players shaping the production of original programming, gaining critical praise, courting industry awards, and perhaps, most dramatically, starting to compete in terms of number of subscriptions to the top cable networks. We've seen Kickstarter emerge as an alternative means for "crowdfunding" television content, allowing fans to exert a greater role in shaping the future of their favorite series. We've seen a continued growth in the number of independent producers creating and distributing their content through the web. And with these other changes, we are seeing the industry and academia struggle to develop new insights into what it means to consume television content in this connected and yet dispersed marketplace. This conference will bring together key creative and corporate decision-makers who are shaping these changes and academics who have been trying to place these shifts in their larger historical and cultural contexts. What does all of this mean for those of us who are making or watching television?

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Panel one: “Virtual Entrepreneurs—Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future." 

9-9:10 Opening Remarks

Henry Jenkins, USC and Denise Mann, UCLA


Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA


In the fall of 2011, Google announced plans to invest a hundred million dollars to forge talent partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creator in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: individual web-creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCNs), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools, and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek and Sundry), Freddie Wong (Video High School), and Dane Boetlinger (Annoying Orange), each of whom has catapulted his or herself into the top tier of web-celebs based on huge fan followings.  Many of these entrepreneurial web-creators have sought out deals with MCNS, such as Maker, Fullscreen, Maker, Machinima, and The Collective, in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside these long-term contracts with the MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms—the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or are they transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.


2."The Programmers of the Future: Video Streaming on Demand." 

Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, Editor-in-Chief, Digital, Variety


Overview: As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblir, and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution—the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as the subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner, Comcast), the satellite carriers (Direct TV), the telcos (AT&T U-verse), and the wireless companies (Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with the Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sit-coms--behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers.  At the same time, these policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place in the video streaming on demand (VSOD) space as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and new players, such as Microsoft X-box, make aggressive moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming—House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Betas—the VSOD services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood's premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the VSOD services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell?


3. "Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding, and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption."  


Moderator: Henry Jenkins, USC


Overview:  As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to insure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, and Being Mary Jane.  Second screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators, or series. And the commercial success of 50 Shades of Gray, which was adapted from a piece of Twilight fan fiction, has alerted the publishing world to a hitherfore underappreciated value of women’s fan fiction writing as a recruiting ground for new talent and as a source for new creative material. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being under-represented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?


4. Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, Northwestern University



Overview: The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans, who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style, and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers who appear on this panel has contributed to this new vision of television, producing series that are developed for the Internet but are also being shaped for traditional TV as well (several of these series are being developed on HBO). Issa Rae developed The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign; she went on to produce a number of series with other creators,including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles. Released by her own Barnacle Studios, Rubins sitcom became a hit with fans and critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among many others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series, The Couple, and many others from emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, where viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series followed characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. As these examples convey, the internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web-creators and web-celebs, who, in combination with their fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.


Speakers to be announced.



Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Three)

In many ways, children’s television (and media more generally) has been the testing ground for franchising strategies. What is it about this genre/market which lends itself to this mode of production? How have children’s franchises represented the merger of logics from multiple industries?

I argue in the book that, in some ways, the franchising model is an extrapolation of the episodicity of television, where one episode is meant to lead viewers into the next.  In franchising, this just functions across multiple markets and media.  In children’s television specifically, this structure has combined with marketers’ desires to use one media to drive kids’ interest in consumer experiences in another.  That is, of course, how US commercial television approaches all its audiences more broadly.  But television for children has been regulated differently; our concerns about children as a special, protected audience has led to increased activism in an attempt to protect children from this kind of coordinated commercialism.

I don’t really make this claim so explicitly in the book, but it strikes me now that these regulatory attempts at protection may have helped feed the very franchising strategies that anti-commercialism activists would (and did) decry.  When you had Action for Children’s Television pushing for tighter restrictions on how toy companies could advertise their products on television, and succeeding in getting “program length commercials” like Hot Wheels pulled from the air, companies like Hasbro adapted.  While they couldn’t produce television based directly on their toys, they saw no regulation against advertising comics, so they created a partnership with Marvel Comics to create a GI JOE title that could tie-in with a television program.  They now had not just a TV show, but also a comic, both which would help create visibility for the TV.

Of course this only created a model for Transformers and other TV-comic-toy partnerships to follow, and it was really the deregulatory atmosphere (and not attempts at greater protection of kids) that weakened the rules and set off the wave of franchising to follow (where the comics intermediary wasn’t so necessary).  And at the same time as we try to protect kids from commercialism, it’s also common to assume kids don’t have well developed sense of taste—so alongside the impulse to protect them, we could shrug and ignore moves toward commercialization as indicative of the poor taste of kids.  But in either case, we tend to look at kids as special or essentially different, and I think that franchising strategies developed in these sectors in specific relationship to that cultural belief.

Other important factors here, thinking more long term, have to do more with nostalgia. Transformers may have been highly franchised back in its original 1980s incarnation too, but its persistence as a franchise today is tied very heavily to Hasbro’s “transgenerational marketing” strategies whereby adults are encouraged to share their childhood culture with their own children.  (Marvel has just started a similar “Share Your Universe” campaign meant to transfer parent tastes to a new generation of comic readers).  In the long term, focusing on childhood culture now creates the possibility for new iterations in a generation’s time when your original audience procreates.  The reproduction of franchising is in that sense tied to the reproduction of people.

I should also mention, in terms of creativity, that because we tend to delegitimize the tastes of kids, those working in children’s media sectors aren’t often accorded the greatest status and capital within the industry.  Regardless of what you think about it’s commercial motivations, the franchising of kids’ media led to a lot of experimentation with how you could tell an ongoing, collaborative story, and the familiarization of children with more serialized production strategies in the 1980s must have certainly helped create a literacy for the (far more critically endorsed) serial storytelling we see in some parts of “adult” TV today.  There were a lot of people working in children’s TV who still considered themselves creative and innovative despite wider industrial and popular perceptions, and from an insistence of that may have come a lot of new ideas about how to reach kids—both in a marketing and narrative sense.

I’m trying to zero in on this question of childhood in my current research, so I find this connection to be worth exploring with more care than I have here.  But I think there’s definitely an important relationship for us to see there.

Some have seen the franchising system as one more device which American cultural industries use to exert their dominance over the global media imagination, yet you stress the ways that they operate within a transnational context. How might we understand what others have discussed as the transnational exchange of television formats as part of a logic of franchising? What role does localization play within the franchising process?

I’m not sure I want to suggest that franchises are not in fact such a device, but it is more complicated than that critique usually allows.  Television formats, as I mentioned earlier, allow television to travel in localized ways, where instead of the US sending completed episodes of Friends to every nation on earth, the idea for shows like Big Brother are traded amongst different television markets to be remade and localized to suit specific cultures.

One of the most interesting things about the format market is that the dominance of the US is far less clear, with companies like Endemol from the Netherlands having become big players in the market for localizable concepts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the old import/export market is dead—NBC’s The Office was formatted from the BBC version, as were series in many other nations, yet in international television sales, the American version is still able to find a global market, playing alongside the other localized versions that do not travel as freely (including the British original).  Formatting allows us to have Law & Order in many different incarnations travel through the global market, but also to develop localized offerings like Law & Order: UK.

But while American power persists amid formatting and in other kinds of franchising more broadly, I think that the processes by which formatted local uses are incorporated into the system challenges our ability to talk about franchising in terms of purely national origins.  In the television format, the innovations introduced locally can often become a part of the overall formula to be fed back into all the other contexts in which it is used.

In that sense, the formats sold by Endemol are not specifically of “Dutch” origin, but over time become the product of a transnational exchange of culture.  This is what I see in the global exchange of properties like Transformers that operate at a level beyond the single television format.  Given the complex history of exchange and shared innovation of a concept between toy companies and television producers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, it feels over-simplistic to say that Transformers is either a Japanese or an American property.  I think we understand that franchise much more effectively if we see it as the product of these more complex relations and exchanges between transnational industries. And that might help us better understand globalization more generally.

I was struck by your use of the term, “enfranchisement,” in your closing chapters to describe consumer relations to media properties and your insistence on a more “ambivalent” account of what it means to be a fan of some of these series.  You write, “In the end, we have to ask not just how end users might occupy the spaces of cultural production once controlled by media industry, but also how those media industries might occupy the spaces of play and creative labor in which users participate.” What do you see as a way forward for cultural theory in response to these contradictions and ambivalences? Is it possible for us to acknowledge the grounds gained and lost through these negotiations without coming across as wishy-washy and indecisive?

I suppose that the way forward I hoped to find in that passage was one where were could recognize the agency of consumers and their participation in cultural production while at the same time recognizing how that pleasurable, playful participation can function as a part of industrial economies. I’m taking cues there from a number of inspirations, from your own work to that of Marc Andrejevic.  What I hoped to accomplish on a theoretical level with this idea of enfranchisement, however, was not just to recognize the role of consumers’ playful, pleasurable participation in industry, but to start thinking by implication about the work of professionals too as a form of collaborative participation both playful and uneasy (where the ideas about design and world-sharing can often turn us).

In the shift to thinking about “participatory culture” that your own work helped inspire, the focus of participation often remains on the audience.  By considering the identities and subjective uses of media by audiences in relation to industrial production, I think that my hope was that we could equally conceptualize the work of professionals and amateurs as “participatory,” as a way of using the media with pleasures and forms of engagement tied to their identities and communities as participators as well as the institutions that give them license to engage in these practices (extending of course the important work that John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, and so many others have already done to connect production, labor, and identity).  One way forward for cultural theory, therefore, might be to continue to deconstruct hierarchies of production and consumption (as much as I feel continued, focused attention on production is a significant priority) and to focus on how creativity and participation more broadly turn on relations of power that manifest through identity, meaning, labor and other vectors of cultural struggle.

I don’t think that risks wishy-washiness or indecision, so much as it is asking for a paradigm shift, where we stop thinking about industry work cultures and amateur participation as all that different, and instead look at both production and consumption together as sites where identities and meanings form in relation to the participation structured by relations and institutions of power.  Instead of juxtaposing industry and audience or production and consumption, we might think about them more in terms of their commonalities.

How do you see Amazon's new Kindle Worlds program in relation to the contradictions about audience “enfranchisement” that you describe in your closing chapter? It is not, strictly speaking, “free labor,” since fan authors are paid royalties based on their contributions, yet it also represents potentially an extension of corporate control over audience fantasies since writers need to work within prescribed rules and boundaries and be granted authorization before they can contribute their stories to this program. Does this make fans part of the “world-sharing” process you describe here?

 Exactly—it’s not free labor, but it is enfranchised labor, where the participation and labor of these users comes under the terms of the contract of the Terms of Service of End-User License Agreement to which one must consent to participate.  Fans would absolutely become implicated in the world-sharing process with which I am concerned.  Much like any licensee, these fans would, as sanctioned contributors to the franchise, become subject to the same kind of stringent approvals and conditions described by MJ Clarke in his book Transmedia Television.  That might seem counterintuitive given that we probably imagine Amazon playing a pretty heavy intermediary role between fans and rightsholders—but Clarke reminds us how rare it is for professional licensed creators to communicate directly with license holders either.

The collaboration behind this kind of licensed enfranchisement is not based in significant communication, so much as taking up a prescribed role within a shared economy of creation.  Given the restrictions that the Content Worlds contributors will face, I would expect participants to adopt many of the same world-sharing strategies that any professional licensed creator would.  Expect plenty of continuity-mining.  Again, I think this helps us to try to think around some of our binaries between production and consumption, or professional and and amateur, in that we can think about similar subject positions, identifications, and negotiations of creativity, participation, and convergence operating across both sets of terms.


You end the book with this provocative sentence, "it is at the point where collaboration stops, however, that new alternatives might emerge." Do you have any sense of what those "new alternatives" might look like? Is cultural production possible without collaboration - in the multiple senses you are using the word here?


My intention in talking about collaboration in that chapter was to consider it both in the creative sense of shared effort, and in the political sense of complicity with an occupying regime.  In that final sentence imagining an end to collaboration, I may have been leaning slightly more toward that latter sense of the term, given that collective participation may be not just political advantageous, but also, as your question and much of the book itself suggests, inherent to cultural production more generally (even something as seemly authority-driven and corporately-controlled as media franchising).

You’re right that it is difficult to imagined cultural production without the social dimensions of exchanges and sharing we’re been discussing.  But what I think I was getting at speaks to the way in which I understand collaboration in relation to franchising more generally; I’m not insisting that these things are collaborative in the sense that franchise participants all get together and have open conversations about how to make a shared work—in fact, I think this is very much the opposite of what happens given the cultural and economic obstacles to that kind of cooperation.

Again, the collaboration that I see happening here is one where people who do the work of cultural production, professionals and amateurs alike, enter into a shared economy of creation by taking up one of many specific positions within an industrial set of relations.  The “end” of collaboration I’m talking about then is one in which those roles are perhaps not accepted so easily, and the terms of participating as a “user” or “sharer” of something like a franchise get renegotiated (both economically and in the sense of how we identify with and in relation to that cultural work).

I’m not sure that’s a very specific answer, but I’m imagining possibilities where we start to challenge the system that tells us who does and does not have the right to participate in culture in what prescribed ways.  If nothing else, this could be a refusal to abide the roles that EULAs and licensing contracts give us in making sense of our productive contributions to popular culture. The end of collaboration, in this sense, would be a form of cultural production where the users of culture are active in determining what their roles might be, where enfranchisement leads not just to agency participation in a set creative relations, but the reimagination of what those relations are.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

  What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?

 It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.

But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.


I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?

This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).

The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.

What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.

I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.

Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.

One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.


Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?


I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.

What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).

Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.

I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.

In the process of discussing "over-design" as an industrial process, you've developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on "special effects" as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as "designed" rather than "authored?"

Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.

I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.


Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors whose books have been published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I edit for New York University Press. I have followed the career of Derek Johnson since he was an entering Master's Student. We were foolish enough to have rejected Derek when he applied to be part of one of the first classes accepted into the MIT Comparative Media Studies program -- it is not a mistake I would make again, because I now see Johnson as one of the most impressive cultural scholars of his generation. I admire his commitment to test theoretical frameworks against carefully documented case studies and his refusal to take an either-or position in our ongoing debates about structure and agency. He is someone who pays attention to points of negotiation or, his term, "collaboration," where different participants in the processes of cultural production meet each other with differing stakes and differing degrees of power and control.

His strengths as a theorist and researcher are aptly demonstrated in his new book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. The term, "franchises," has been used loosely in media studies for years, but no one has systematically developed a framework for understanding its historic emergence, its discursive implications, its relationship to other industrial practices, and its consequences for what media content is produced and how it is marketed and consumed. Johnson's work here is multidisciplinary -- including a focus on the management of media systems, archival research and interviews with industry insiders, textual analysis, and audience research, all in the service of understanding the logics shaping contemporary media production. The book makes a vital intervention into ongoing discussions around transmedia storytelling and places a new emphasis upon the role of production design and world-building in the contemporary entertainment industries. I have already incorporated this book in my own teaching and writing, especially his work on "world-sharing" within the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek universes. His writing is clear and accessible enough to satisfy many undergraduate students and sophisticated and provocative enough to generate heated discussions in graduate seminars, a hard balance to achieve.

The following interview focuses  on some of  the book's core concerns, since there is so much there which will be of interest to the various communities that follow this blog. But, you need to know that Johnson is now producing scholarship at an astonishing speed on a broad range of contemporary media practices -- from My Little Pony to Lego culture -- and topics -- including an important new collection on media authorship and another book in the works that deals with the processes and structures of media management. His recent work has especially engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as they relate to the development of children's entertainment properties.

As you note, the concept of media franchises involves “a migration to the media industries of market logics from other business sectors.” What can you tell us about how the concept of media franchises emerged and what do you see as the implications of using the same concept to discuss the production of “McDonald’s, Mr. Goodwrench and Chicken Delight” and of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?

There’s at least two levels at which I think it’s important for us to draw this connection between the production of entertainment and these kind of business formats often used in the retail sector.  At the most basic, economic level, a franchise is a business arrangement where one party extends to another party the right to use some kind of idea or intellectual property in a new market.  In the mid 20th-century, McDonald’s and other franchisors increasingly looked to sign a bunch of independent franchisees across the country (and later the world) to extend the corporate footprint with little risk and investment (since the financial burden for operating these new locations fell on the franchisee, who actually paid the franchisor a fee for this right).  This is a very similar arrangement to what we see with media licensing—film rightsholders, for example, extending production responsibilities for video games or comic book tie-ins to third parties who absorb the production costs and risks.

Of course, media licensing is a practice with a long history predating the post-WWII franchise boom (see Avi Santo’s excellent work for this), so I’m not claiming that this kind of arrangement was fully inspired by McDonald’s and the like.  But I think it’s an important connection to draw because there’s a large literature in organizational communication, business, and other non-media fields that have reflected on the social dynamics of franchising structures.  Retail franchisors and franchisees have not always worked in unison; instead, franchisors are always working to assert their authority over independent outlets they cannot fully control, and franchisees seek to assert their local agency in a larger corporate culture (in a way a bit more complex than George Ritzer’s notion of the “McDonaldization” allows). It’s exactly the kind of question of power and negotiated struggle that I think speaks to cultural studies of the media.

What I do think is perhaps more “new” is the way this franchise boom in the latter half of the 20th century helped to shape the way in which the production of media entertainment would be increasingly imagined.  Media licensing, and even formatting (in the sense Albert Moran researches, where ideas for TV programs are exchanged between different local markets) were not new to the entertainment media of the 1950s and beyond, but came to be understood through this same “franchise” imaginary.  As Moran tells us, Romper Room was a 1950s children’s television series that was originated in one local television market, and then spawned new productions in others—with the creators having looked to fast food franchising as an alternative model to network distribution.  It is by the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course, that the language of franchising enters common usage for making sense of entertainment media—where we start to understand “franchise” as a commonsense descriptor for things like Star Trek, Batman, and others that cross multiple sites of branded production and consumption.

I think it’s particularly crucial to understand this connection because the franchising metaphor also shapes our critical orientations to these entertainment brands.

Calling something a “franchise” is not a neutral declaration: it prompts us to think about the media in the same terms that we think about McDonald’s.  There is a recognition of the industrial basis for that culture and its hyper-commercial, systemic mode of multiplication and maintenance over time.  Often that comes with an implied critique as well, where acknowledging something as a “franchise” product suggests that its existence is based on market calculation more than creative expression.

When I first offered franchising as a site of analysis at a conference many years back, one colleague advised me to come up with a different term because of the very economically determined, delegitimating connotations it had.  The link between McDonald’s and media in franchising, therefore, is one that makes cultural production meaningful, and it does so in ways that are not always flattering and make it a source of tension and struggle for those involved or invested in that production.  My interest was not to take the economic determination implied by franchising for granted, but to think about how those implicated in and by that term work to negotiate those meanings.


You argue that franchises are not “self-propagating” phenomenon. So, where does agency lie in our discussion of franchises?

In the people who do the work of that propagation.  I consider franchises not as produced by corporations who own the rights to media properties, but also all the other stakeholders who seek to get something out of the work of expanding production and making more of that cultural product.  This could be the producers hired by major media conglomerates to take the reins of a particular franchise—author figures like Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) or JJ Abrams (the recent Star Trek films) or the long line of different comic book authors and editors hired by Marvel or DC to be steward of their ongoing superhero narratives.

Despite whatever authorship and genius we might recognize in these folks, they are still “for hire” workers with only a very bounded and limited (often contractually temporary) claim to authority in the franchise.  The site of agency could also lie in the less visible below-the-line labor of production designers, musicians, and technicians who are asked to recognize the vast histories and networks of collaboration surrounding a franchise in the course of their work.  And it could also extend to the licensees who are contracted to produce ancillary materials meant to work in some relationship to other products, but produced from a position outside more privileged sites of creativity and subject to the stringent approvals of rightsholders and other authorities.  I also want to locate agency within the consumer as well, as fans and other audiences do a lot of work to help these franchises move across markets and persist over time.


The idea that a popular narrative is a complex mix of commercial and cultural motives has been one of the most long-standing themes in film studies (going back to the auteur theory), so why has it been so hard for some people to accept the idea that “franchise properties” might also be culturally meaningful? In what sense are the properties you study “creative”?


In that there’s a lot at stake in the ability of people working in these contexts to be able to lay claim to the idea of creativity.  On the one level, I definitely acknowledge and am fascinated by the capacity for franchising to support complex storylines, design histories, and capacities for expression.  But on the other, I see “creativity” not as an essential truth but as a status and subjective identity that media producers and workers would claim about themselves (“I am creative; I do creative work”).  Particularly because the hyper-commercial realm of media franchising is so critically delegitimized, I’m particularly interested in how those involved with franchising might position themselves in opposition to that franchising and assert their uniqueness, authority, or vision.

Think JJ Abrams and not only his choice to replace the old Star Trek continuity with the new one, but also the distance he puts up between himself and the original series (he prefers Star Wars), and his tendency to retroactively disavow ancillary video games (he just claimed to have “dropped out” of producing the 2013 Star Trek video game despite his co-producers’ participation in the development stages, distancing himself from perceptions that it was nothing but a cheap cash grab)

One of my other favorite examples is how Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, attacked the new series by emphasizing its “franchise” status and casting the mass production of franchising as part of a gendered war on masculinity.  The commercialism of franchising raises the stakes for media workers to position themselves as creative and as different from all the others that use the same idea or premise or property toward this ongoing commercial end.  It helps to position one’s self as such if you actually do innovative things, and I think we do see that a lot in media franchising given this imperative for differentiation.

But sometimes that differentiation comes as much in the identity claims of specific contributors as it does the product itself (and as the case of Benedict and what Suzanne Scott calls the “fanboy auteur” suggest, these franchise identity claims are often explicitly gendered).  As much as franchise products may or may not be indicative of creativity, I see franchising more broadly as a site of struggle over creativity, what it means, and who can claim it in industrial contexts.

You describe in the book interviews you have done with media industry insiders who want to deflect or disavow the concept of franchising as informing their creative decisions. Why do you think the term produced such discomfort? What alternative models do they draw on to describe their work?


Similar to the above, I think it’s because when you’re talking about creative decisions, the idea of franchising (and all the economically-determined calculation it implies in popular and industry use) calls the potential creativity of those decisions into question.  So what I found were often appeals to reassert creativity—and often singular authorship—in opposition to the idea of franchising.

While this wasn’t one of my own interviews, Lost is a great example of this, where the conclusion of the series generated all kinds of industry and critical speculation about franchise potential, and the producers repeatedly came out to publically state that they would have none of it and that theirs was “definitive” version of Lost.

To me that’s what fascinating about franchising—it is both a logic for multiplying media production, but also a meaningful discourse for making sense of and assigning value to that production.  It forces producers to confront the fact that they don’t have creative monopoly in the for-hire work they do for corporations.  It also forces them to position themselves and their work in relation to that of others who come before, after, and in parallel.  That can create contradiction and discomfort around the idea of creativity, which leads to that disavowal.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"


Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

As the World Stopped Turning: A Conversation with Lynn Liccardo on Soap Operas (Part Two)

You provide a very personal account of your own gradual disconnect from enjoying and having an emotional engagement with As the World Turns. How would you describe your relationship to the show, both as a fan and as a critic, and how did that relationship evolve over time?

It's ironic, and no small testament to the power of its storytelling, that I became so deeply involved with ATWT: Since it aired on the East Coast at 1:30, while I was at school, I was far more familiar with, and have far more vivid memories of, Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light, which were on when my sister and I came home for lunch in grammar school, and Another World, which I could see if I came straight home from junior high school.


I only got to watch ATWT on holidays, vacations and sick days, a pattern that continued after I moved to Boston in 1973, found a full time job and worked on my undergraduate degree at night. In those pre-VCR days, what I remember more than specific stories is the familiarity of the characters, who were always there when I was able to watch. That was until I took a year off (1982-3) to complete my degree.  While I had been peripherally aware of the General Hospital phenomenon, I had  no idea that GH's success was why the ATWT on my screen was so different from what I remembered.  But, I actually enjoyed what I saw and never considered abandoning the show. At the time, I was in advertisers' target demo, so from that perspective, the change in direction was a success.


But, while I was enjoying the ATWT's new direction, my mother was not. She missed the show she had loved for 25 years and eventually stopped watching. She wasn't the only one; the show lost more viewers than it gained and a couple of years later (1984-5) the Calhoun-Marland team righted the ship and the show rose in the ratings. But, without my mother, although she continued to watch GL.


After college, the combination of a flexible job and a VCR allowed me to become a serious fan. I was writing about nursing (like soaps, strongly associated with women and thereby marginalized. Also, like soaps' "not your mother's soap opera," nursing had internalized the belief that to be valued they had to become something else: "professional" nurses who didn't want to be seen as "that kind of nurse," dealing with bodily fluids at the bedside.")  While writing an article for Soap Opera Weekly on how nurses were portrayed on soaps I interviewed Doug Marland. A few months later, what was supposed to be a short news piece about CBS ending its head writer training program morphed into a longer article about the paths of three head writers (including Marland), which got me thinking seriously about soaps.


In 1995, I began pitching a piece to coincide with ATWT's 40th anniversary in 1996 to Smithsonian Magazine; it took over a year to convince the editor. By the time I arrived on the set in mid-March when the anniversary episode was taped, there was a new production team in place (see above) and the mantra of the executive producer, head writers and publicist was "we're not 40 years old, we're 40 years young."  I could see that things were falling apart, and while I could identify bits and pieces of what was wrong, I couldn't figure out how those pieces fit together (even if I could, I'm not sure Smithsonian would have been the right place), so I was forced to abandon the piece. I wrote one more article analyzing the demographics of soap opera audience, then turned my attention to writing a screenplay (isn't everyone:) and short plays.


It wasn't until Sam Ford asked me to be on his thesis committee in 2006 that I was able to begin identifying the "bits and pieces" that had undermined the Smithsonian piece. The task now is to integrate those elements into a cohesive framework within which to consider the full impact of soaps -- a task made all the more challenging since there is no obvious hierarchical relationship among the elements.


The book begins with a deep look at Irna Phillips and how the details of her own life so intensely shaped many aspects of As the World Turns. You also recently published a piece about Irna for Harvard Magazine. What do you believe Phillips' place is in the history of the soap opera in particular, and in the greater landscape of U.S. television?


Irna Phillips was a risk taker who, rather than fear failure, learned from it. In 1948, she wrote to P&G's William Ramsey that she had doubts about televising soaps, suggesting that it would be some time before a televised serial could succeed. (She doesn't explain why, but at the time there were roughly 100,00 television sets in the country, most concentrated in the New York area, up from 44,000 the previous year. As the post-war economy expanded, the number of sets increased exponentially; by 1953, over half of US household had a television.) Yet, just a few months later, in January 1949, Irna approached NBC about creating what many consider the first television soap, These are My Children. Accounts vary (some say the network pulled it after five weeks; Irna says she pulled it after 13 weeks when the network shifted its time slot), but by any measure, the television's first soap opera was a failure. Whether the show failed because it was bad (according to Television World) or because the low viewership was a function of too few households with televisions is impossible to determine.


The success of two early television soaps on CBS (Search for Tomorrow and  Love of Life), convinced Irna that the time was right to move Guiding Light from radio, where it began in 1937, to television. But GL's owner, P&G believed that only serials created specifically for television would succeed.  Undaunted, Irna revised two GL "highly dramatic" radio scripts (it's not clear if she secured P&G's permission), then spent more than $5000 of her own money (in 1952, the median household income was $3900) to tape the episodes and the show premiered on CBS in June, while remaining on radio until 1956 (when 71% of households had at least one television).


When Irna first floated the idea of a half-hour soap the suits were again skeptical. One executive told her, "we don't believe in investing in a possible failure." But, as with GL, Irna persevered, this time collaborating with longtime colleagues, Agnes Nixon and Ted Corday, to write and finance ($10,000) a pilot for ATWT. According to Irna, the nine cast members were so impressed, "they agreed to hold themselves available for six months" until the pilot was picked up.


In the early 1960s, Irna became a consultant for what would become the first successful primetime soap opera, ABC's Peyton Place (1964-1969). She then created a primetime ATWT spinoff, Our Private World, which ran for 19 weeks (38 episodes) from May 5 - September 10, 1965. CBS's decision to air the show over the summer, rather than launching it as part of the new fall season, likely contributed to its short run, and may also have reflected a lack of confidence in Irna. Since her unfinished memoir, All My Worlds, ends in late 1963 with her creation of Another World, if Irna had any thoughts about All My Worlds and the two shows she later created, Love is a Many Splendored Thing and A World Apart, they would be in her papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.


Much of your book focuses on the ways in which management practices and corporate structure in the last 15 years of As the World Turns' 54-year run damaged both the quality of the story and the relationship the show maintained with its fans. In the course of your research and writing, in what ways were soap opera fans drawing these connections between industry news and what played out on their screens on an everyday basis? And what can media scholars and those who work in or study other media industries learn from studying the ongoing relationship between longterm viewers and a media property like ATWT?


When fan magazines covering soaps first appeared in the late-1960s, soaps had been on television for almost 20 years. Those early publications consisted mainly of interviews with actors and features that took fans behind-the-scenes of the shows. It wasn't until Soap Opera Weekly came on the scene in November 1989 that fans had timely access to industry news and serious criticism. In addition to episode recaps, Weekly published spoilers that let fans know what would happen when. According to founding editor, Mimi Torchin, fans welcomed information that allowed them to prioritize. Of course, in a extreme example of unintended consequences, spoilers have become a vexing challenge for all serialized storytelling in the digital age.

Both Weekly and its sister publication, Soap Opera Digest, included "Comings and Goings" and "The Revolving Door," features that alerted fans when actors left roles, or were cast as new characters. This information became a form of spoiler that allowed fans to speculate outside of what they saw on the screen. Producers and writers exacerbated this phenomenon by sharing information about who the new (or recast) character would be paired with, and the direction the story would take.  With the final years of ATWT  characterized by a seemingly endless array of new characters, few of whom were connected to the core Hughes family, when fans heard the news online, many were not inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt and wait to see how stories played out before passing (usually negative) judgment.

Another factor to consider: the unintended consequences of rebranding, which requires a willingness to to alienate, and even lose, existing customers to attract desired customers. This worked brilliantly for AMC when the network shifted its focus from showing old movies to become the HBO of basic cable. But movie buffs had plenty of options; not so with soaps. Whether it was articulated or not, when ATWT shifted the show's focus in the early-1980s to capture younger viewers, the show seemed willing to lose its existing viewers, like my mother, who left and never returned, even when the show corrected course a few years later. But, with all soaps trying to recreate General Hospital's success, there was no place for disaffected fans to turn. So many stayed, and with the remote controls that came with their new VCRs in hand,  fast forwarded through many of the new characters that populated the ATWT canvas, contributing to the show's increasingly fragmented storytelling. One consequence  of fragmented storytelling is a fragmented audience, with each segment expressing its own spin on the genre's aesthetic. The result: divergent and often conflicting comments that made it difficult to interpret and apply fan feedback.

In 1996 P&G set up a toll-free number to provide viewers with inside information about the ATWT. At the end callers were asked who they wanted to see the troubled Emily Stewart paired with: "press 1 for Diego, 2 for Jeff." Since "other," "none of the above" or,"in the case of this particular character, "a good therapist," were not among the choices, the results were  meaningless. And the way in which the question was posed (the only option to bypass the question was hanging up) made clear that this was not a serious effort on the part of PGP to engage viewers, but rather a ham-handed token.

Another example of the show's tin ear was someone's (probably not the executive producer or head writer, both of whom had worked in soaps long enough to understand the subtle intricacies of how time unfolds on soaps; depending on the circumstances, sometimes compressed, sometimes extended.) literal interpretation of a frequent complaint about soaps: "the stories move too slowly." In 2008, ATWT abandoned soap opera's traditional narrative structure and began a series of short-term story arcs, some of which wrapped up in a single episode. The combination of self-contained episodes and spoilers made at least one fan happy: "Not sure how or why TPTB have come up with this new concept, but is sure is working well. I think I've watched a total of one or two episodes in the last two weeks." An unintended consequence that inflicted considerable damage in ATWT's final years.

Without an understanding of not just what's being said, but what it means, soliciting feedback is at best, futile, at worst, damaging. When it came to soap opera, however, there was no guarantee that those who were conducting the research had ever watched soaps. According to one former network executive I talked with, it was the rare researcher who even took the time to familiarized themselves with the show for which they were collecting feedback. So, while their empirical observations may have been accurate, without a shared experiential frame of reference with their subjects, researchers often lacked to tools to infer, then accurately interpret and apply how fans experience soaps.

When it comes to suspending disbelief, the very nature of daytime soaps demands more of viewers than other dramatic media. But as the genre's scope expanded over the years, traditional elements -- intimate relationships between family, friends and lovers -- began to share space with time travel, the supernatural, omnipotent villains and characters whose repeated returns from the dead often defied both logic and the laws of physics. When ATWT's James Stenbeck first reappeared in 1986 after being presume dead, he provided a simple explanation: "I had a parachute."  But as explanations for his subsequent resurrections became more and more preposterous, some fans were angry, feeling that the writers were taking advantage of their willingness to suspend disbelief -- even insulting their intelligence. Others chalked it up to a "it's a soap opera. No one gives a shit if it makes sense" mentality on the part of writers and producers. By 2009, when Stenbeck returned from the dead for the fourth and final time, the writers didn't bother to even go through the motions. And rather than get angry, those fans still watching responded with detached bemusement.

The number of serialized dramas has exploded in the past 15 years, so dominating television programming that a recent piece in TVGuide suggests that serial dramas may be reaching the saturation point. The challenges facing these shows -- maintaining the integrity of the storytelling in the face of network interference and the shuffling of show runners, spoilers, time-shifting, and more recent additions to the lexicon, binge watching and, perhaps most important, hate-watching -- all have their antecedents in soaps. Current and future storytellers facing the challenge of attracting viewers in a media landscape drowning in serial drama have much to learn by understanding how soaps and their fans have dealt with these issues.


 Lynn Liccardo is a longtime soap opera journalist and blogger. Her critical observations on soaps – their content, the industry that produces them, and the culture that both loves them and loves to ridicule them – connect soap opera’s past and present with its future and begin to form a larger framework within which to more fully examine the genre. She released an ebook of essays detailing the final years of As the World Turns, entitled as the world stopped turning... Among her other publications are "Who Really Watches the Daytime Soaps" (1996, Soap Opera Weekly); "Irna Phillips: Brief life of soap opera's single mother 1901-1973" (2012, Harvard Magazine). Her essay, “The Ironic and Convoluted Relationship between Daytime and Primetime Soap Opera,” was published in The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (co-edited by Futures of Entertainment Fellows Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington).

Sam Ford is co-editor (with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington) of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (2011, University Press of Mississippi) and co-author (with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green) of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture(2013, NYU Press). He is also Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies and Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies Program, and a frequent Fast Company contributor. Sam serves on WOMMA's Membership Ethics Advisory Panel and was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is a Kentucky Press Association award-winning journalist and has written for Harvard Business ReviewWall Street Journal,BusinessWeekThe Huffington PostPortfolioChief MarketerThe Public Relations StrategistPR News,Bulldog ReporterThe Christian Science Monitor, and Sam lives in Bowling Green, KY, with wife, Amanda, and daughters, Emma and Harper.

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television (Part One)

Henry Jenkins: When I was writing Textual Poachers in the late 1980s, I stumbled across a fascinating scheme being floated by fans of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series, Beauty and the Beast, a series with a very committed audience, but one that was small enough that the program was always in danger of being canceled. The fans were suggesting a plan where fans would pay into a fund that would cover the cost of the series production and then would received VHS tapes of episodes once they had been made. The fans rightly recognized that the Nielsen Ratings measured the scope of viewership but not its intensity, and that the scale of success demanded to stay on network television was considerably lower than what would be required to cover the costs of production. At the time, such plans were unlikely to succeed, given the nature of the media environment: they really did not have a robust method for collecting funds from dedicated fans, the producers would not have had a viable business model for proceeding under this unstable system, and the distribution of episodes via VHS was going to be clunky at best.

We flash forward two decades and recent events suggests we have moved dramatically closer to making such a scenario possible. First, we have seen Netflix become a producer and distributor of original television content -- programs that look and feel like network television (actually like HBO or AMC programming) but which are distributed digitally without ever being broadcast. Netflix's first venture in this direction was House of Cards, which seems to have attracted a very solid audience, and their second will be the relaunch of Arrested Development, a fan favorite series that Netflix has brought back after several years in limbo. We are seeing similar moves by Hulu and YouTube, both of which would like to get into the business of producing and distributing web-based television content.

And, then, we have seen Kickstarter emerge as a platform that, with the example of Veronica Mars, has demonstrated the possibilities of fan support pushing a once canceled program back into production -- in this case for the big screen. And for the Veronica Mars scheme to work, we have to assume there were behind the scenes discussions between Rob Thomas and Warner Brothers (which still owns the rights to Veronica Mars) that would allow them some basis of proceeding. We now are hearing that a range of other producers and show-runners are starting to explore whether they might deploy similar tactics to gain a second chance for their passion projects.

This week, I have gathered together three friends, who bring different kinds of expertise to thinking about the short term and long term implications of these developments.

Aymar  Jean “AJ” Christian:


It’s been fascinating to see relationships between producers, fans and distributors reconfigured in digital marketplaces!

About a year before Kickstarter launched, I was drawn into the world of crowdfunding through Felicia Day. Day was a working actress with credits on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she decided she wasn’t ever going to get a leading role and showrunner status unless she did it herself. Intermittently unemployed as so many workers in Hollywood are, she wrote a pilot for The Guild, about a group of gamers, based on her experience playing World of Warcraft in between gigs. She and a skeleton crew produced most of the first season on a dime and then came to place a lot of indie producers find themselves: without funds to continue. But those few episodes had built a fan base, and, through a Paypal link on the show’s active website, she raised thousands to kick-start the rest. That early fan interest shocked the industry, distributors came calling, and The Guild found distribution through Microsoft, who was/is trying to build an entertainment platform outside of television. Day is now a huge source of inspiration within and outside the web television industry and a key brand ambassador for MSN.

In my years researching the “web series” or independent television market I’ve seen crowdfunding take a central place in show development (so much so I’ve tried to track it on my site). Series that built communities of fans early and quickly inevitably turned to crowdfunding. Soon shows targeting all sorts of groups dissatisfied with legacy television used sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to keep indie brands alive. Lesbian web series Anyone But Butraised over $30,000 for its third and final season; The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl ($56,000, nearly twice the ask) for its second; The Outs (over $20,000, many times the ask), a gay-led show, did it in two rounds; last year brought Black & Sexy’s The Couple ($32,000) and Latino-focused show East WillyB ($51,000), not to mention the prodigious work of Freddie Wong, whose canny, Asian-American-led Video Game High School has crowdfunded over $1 million to date (season 1season 2).

Raising money not only gave them funds to survive, and extra opportunities for press and marketing, they also let creators build a database of their strongest fans and supporters, who would then proselytize the show on social networks. This sometimes led to distribution and development deals with both online and on-air networks.

In short, crowdfunding causes us to rethink relationships in media industries, and think very specifically about the kinds of value producers and fans generate from television, as a number of scholars are exploring, from Jason Mittellto Michael Newman, to your work in Spreadable Media. For independent producers, crowdfunding rewards creators with a clear pitch to specific communities, who are in turn rewarded with a show conglomerates might be reluctant to green light. Of course, this kind of value is hard to sustain in our media landscape, and the fact that Veronica Marsraised several times more than most projects before it in 24 hours speaks to the kinds of value conglomerates are able to generate when they have already invested in marketing properties.


Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

He began his career as an entrepreneur at the age of 15, when he developed a story-creation platform with writer Sonia Rodrigues. Used in over 4000 schools, it was licensed 8 times and used as a tool to facilitate innovation and creativity for  many top 500 companies and the UN.


Videos, Videos, Videos....

Today, I wanted to share with you some videos from recent events where I have participated as a speaker or moderator. A few weeks ago, I took the stage at the Tim O'Reilly Tools for Change conference in New York City with two amazing thinkers and good friends -- Cory Doctorow, science fiction and Young Adult writer and digital advocate and Brian David Johnson, the man behind the recent book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Travel Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology (for which I wrote an introduction).  Inspired by the Three Tenors, we jokingly billed ourselvesas the Three Geeks. In the conference context, the exchange -- which spanned across everything from digital publishing to science fiction -- was frustratingly short. We were just getting started, really, when the timer went off. We are hopeful we can bring a much longer conversation to some other venue before much longer.  But, in the meantime, we hope you will enjoy this video of the exchange.

Also, this past month, I was moderator for a Google Hangout discussion of Interacting with Transmedia, part of the InterActs series sponsored by . The featured panelists were:

Marc Smolowitz, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Documentary Filmmaker

Luisa Dantas, Director/Producer/Editor, Land of Opportunity

Jo Ellen Kaiser, Executive Director, The Media Consortium

Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute

Danielle Riendeau, Blogger for KillScreen, Instructor of Interactive Storytelling at Northeastern University, Communications Officer for ACLU-NorCal

InterActs is a conversation series created in partnership between NAMAC and the Daily Dot. Over the next several months, these two teams will host a series of online conversations on creative expression in digital environments. Unlike many programs on transmedia that focus on Hollywood producers and franchises, this event was centered on what people have called the East Coast School of Transmedia, where there is often a strong emphasis on independent and public media production, and here, on transmedia for social change. If you enjoy this video, we hope you will consider joining us for this year's Transmedia Hollywood event, coming up on April 12 at UCLA, where the focus will be on different models for promoting social change in a world of spreadablity and transmedia production.

This past weekend, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I took our Spreadable Media book to South by Southwest, where we gave a talk to a packed auditorium, but also did a range of interviews. Here are a few of the ones that have already appeared on line. We note in the introduction that Spreadable Media tries to address a range of different audiences, and these interviews give some suggestion of how these various groups are taking up our ideas.


Here, you can see the three authors, seated rather uncomfortably on a coach, talking to a reporter from Gen/Connect about the role of the audience in creating value in a networked culture

Here are Sam and I sitting on another coach, this time in a house set up for librarians to gather and talk about the future of media. This time, the focus is on the implications of our work for education with a strong focus on media literacy, old and new.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Here, Sam and I participated in a podcast interview, speaking about the book's implications for journalists and activists.


And here is me on a random street corner speaking to the folks from Leo Burnett: this time with a primary focus on what Spreadable Media means for brands and advertising.

#SXLB: Henry Jenkins, Author & Professor, USC, Pt. 1: Grassroots from Leo Burnett Worldwide on Vimeo.

We are on the road a lot these days, in various combinations, talking about the book and its implications for various audiences. I expect to share more videos before much longer.

As the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, That's me ... all over!

Announcing Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television,and USC Annenberg School of Communication & USC School of Cinematic Arts

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Presented by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation

Friday, April 12, 2013 James Bridges Theater, UCLA

9:00 am – 6:00 pm


Transmedia, Hollywood is a one-day public symposium exploring the role of transmedia franchises in today's entertainment industries. Transmedia, Hollywood turns the spotlight on media creators, producers and executives and places them in critical dialogue with top researchers from across a wide spectrum of film, media and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary summit for the free interchange of insights about how transmedia works and what it means. Transmedia, Hollywood is co-hosted by Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins, from UCLA and USC, two of the most prominent film schools and media research centers in the nation.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Transmedia entertainment has been advanced within the Hollywood system primarily through a logic of promotion, audience building, and engagement, offering the ideal tools for capturing the imagination of networked audiences through the creation of immersive and expansive imaginary worlds. As transmedia has spread around the world, especially to countries with a much stronger tradition of public media, these same practices have been embraced as a means not of building fictional realms but of changing the world:

  • As advertisers seek to construct their own “brand communities” as a way of forging strong affiliations with their consumers, many are embracing cause-based marketing. In the process, these brand marketers are recognizing young viewers’ capacity for civic engagement and political participation, one of the hallmarks of the millennial generation. While sometimes these brand messages end up advancing cultural movements, in other instances, they simply coopt these shared generational concerns.
  • Educational approaches to entertainment, popular across the developing world, are now extending across multiple media platforms to allow fans to develop a deeper understanding of health and social policy issues as they dig deeper into the backstories of their favorite characters. Alternative reality games, which seek to encourage grassroots participation as a marketing tool, have shifted from solving puzzles to mobilizing players to confront real world problems.
  • Fan networks, organized to support and promote favorite media franchises, are taking on the challenge of training and mobilizing the next generation of young activists, using their capacity as thought leaders to reshape the attention economy by increasing public awareness of mutual concerns.
  • Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters.

Each of these productive, participatory, community-based activities have been facilitated over the past decade by a widening web of 2.0 social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. The millennial generation’s mastery of “play” has now expanded to include a growing number of apps, casual games, short-form digital entertainment experiences, and expansive alternate reality games. Millennials, who have been acclimating themselves with the tools of connectivity in times of play, now have at their disposal the means to harness a global community to solve such pressing issues as global warming, ethnic, racial or religious genocide, labor unrest, the inequities associated with class, and countless other modern-day assaults. Many of today’s thought leaders—baby boomers that witnessed an earlier social revolution during the late sixties—marvel over the subtle but pervasive shift that is underway in the web 2.0 era and beyond as social connectedness is becoming reframed as a means for large-scale community action.

Transmedia producers in Hollywood have much to learn from a closer examination of these other forms of entertainment and educational discourse, which we might describe as “transmedia for a change.” When is it appropriate for the big media companies to incorporate such themes and tactics into their pop culture franchises? And when should they tolerate, even embrace, the bottom up activities of their fans which have used their content as vehicles for promoting social justice and political change? What does it mean to produce entertainment for a generation which is demanding its right to meaningfully participate at every level — from shaping the stories that matter to them to impacting the governance of their society?

For more information, see

For conference Registration, see :

Also, that same weekend, 5D Institute, in association with University of Southern California, invites you to join us in The Science of Fiction, our first Worldbuilding festival. This groundbreaking event will take place on April 13, 2012 in honor of the unveiling of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media complex. For more information, see

9:00—9:10 am: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann & Henry Jenkins
9:10—11:00 am: Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural MovementsIn the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)      

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham

CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio     

Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner     

VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph

Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.




11:10 am—1:00 pm: Panel 2 Transmedia For a ChangeHollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications. 


Henry Jenkins (Moderator)     

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek     

Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota     

Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren

Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi     

Founder, BoomGen Studios

1:00—2:00 pm: LUNCH BREAK
2:00—3:50 pm: Panel 3 Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY CultureA recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).


Megan M. Boler     

Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee

Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta     

Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh

Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)

Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep     

Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International



4:00—5:50 pm: Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New PhilanthropistNonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity


Sean D. Carasso

Founder, Falling Whistles


Yael Cohen

Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Milana Rabkin     

Digital Media Agent

Sharon Waxman (Moderator)

Editor-in-Chief, The Wrap



6:00—7:30 pm:RECEPTION

Spreadable Media Spreads New Joy For 2013

So, we are now roaring into 2013 with the next installment of essays associated with the launch of Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. The book is due out from New York University later this month. Each week, we are releasing a series of commissioned essays associated with the book, written by various friends, colleagues, former students, most of whom have at one time or another been affiliated with the Futures of Entertainment Consortium. The Consortium, among other things, runs two conferences per year -- one on the East Coast (Futures of Entertainment, hosted by MIT) and one on the west coast (Transmedia Hollywood, which is jointly hosted by UCLA and USC). These essays are tightly integrated into the book's argument, but they are also intended to stand alone as spreadable content, and we hope that you will feel free to pass them along through your various social networks.

I have been writing about the core concept of Spreadable Media via this blog for several years now, and it has already inspired rich discussion. I thought I would share with you an outstanding video, which uses Spreadable Media concepts, to explain the Caine's Arcade phenomenon. If you do not know the original Caine's Arcade video, check it out below.

Now, here's the video explaining what happened produced by Stephanie Linka, a student in a class taught last Spring at George Washington University, by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism alum Nikki Usher.

How Caine Won the Internet from Stephanie Linka on Vimeo.

And now onto our regularly scheduled series of essays. Today's crop are focused around forms of participation within a networked culture.

The Moral Economy of Soap Opera Fandom C. Lee Harrington

Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay at home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughter-in-laws over.

—52-year-old soap opera viewer who has been watching General Hospital for 46 years, One Life to Live for 41 years, and All My Children for 39 years; quoted in Harrington and Bielby 2010

I have long been fascinated with daytime soap operas, both as a source of pleasure in my own life and as the central anchor of my research on media industries, texts, and audiences. Soaps are distinct from other media forms due to their longevity in the U.S. television landscape (the average age of soaps airing in 2011 was 40 years), the daily installments of “primary” text (260 new episodes per year, per soap), their celebration and magnification of emotional expression, and the possibility of lifelong relationships forming between loyal viewers, soap characters, and the communities in which those characters live and work (see the epigraph). No other form of media fiction offers comparable dailiness, intimacy, and familiarity over the long haul.

Soaps’ longevity poses challenges to researchers, who struggle with the sheer volume of textual material produced, as well as to the soap industry, which struggles with staying true to shows’ long narrative histories and developing characters in “real time” while aligning those narratives with contemporary tastes of both newbies and lifers. Balancing these potentially competing demands generates a particular moral economy within soap opera fandom. The research on soap fans that Denise Bielby and I conducted in the early 1990s (Harrington and Bielby 1995) captured the beginning of fandom’s migration to the Internet, with viewers experimenting with electronic bulletin board discussions as a supplement to their investment in other aspects of “public” fandom (attending industry-sponsored fan events, buying fan magazines, joining fan clubs, etc.). In our book, we made a distinction between legal ownership over soap narratives and what we called “moral” ownership over them—fans’ sense that soap opera communities and characters are “theirs,” rather than belonging to the writers, actors, directors, or producers.

This sense of ownership is rooted in at least three factors. First, “soaps’ very success at creating and sustaining a seamless fictional world [. . .] creates a space for viewers to assert their claims when they perceive continuity is broken” (Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby 1999, 36). Second, viewers regularly outlast soaps’ revolving writing and production teams. Many long-term fans have been invested in their show(s) longer than the people creating them (as, often, have several of the actors playing the characters, leading to interesting ownership struggles within the industry [Harrington and Brothers 2010]), and they often do know their show’s history better. (The same point can be made of long-term sports fans or movie-franchise fans, contexts in which transgenerational fandoms outlast coaches, players, actors, directors, etc.) Third, soap production schedules allow the industry to respond relatively quickly to fan complaints and concerns, giving fans a sense that their opinions can make a real difference. MORE

How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising Ilya Vedrashko

You can’t spell “spreadability” without “ad.”

The vision of unpaid people cheerfully passing around ads they love has been a guiding light for marketers for more than a decade now. And what’s not to like? An ad that gets passed along receives extra attention. The Good Housekeeping stamp of consumers’ approval that such transmission suggests is assumed to add trustworthiness to the message. An ad that “goes viral” scores extra eyeballs.

But while the demand and the budgets for “viral” have been growing, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find a permanent box for spreadable media on the modern agency’s org chart. While many different disciplines—creative, media, public relations, social—are claiming ownership, a systemic problem has prevented spreadability from gaining a true acceptance.

Ad agencies, like factories of the industrial era, are a particular arrangement of means of production, highly specialized labor force and scarce resources optimized around efficient mass manufacturing of a particular type of output. For agencies, this output consists of ad units placed in print, television, online, radio, outdoor, theaters, events, and so on. An average agency produces and places thousands of such units on behalf of its clients each year.

These ads—paid announcements that appear in media—come in a finite variety of formats and sizes, and their production is scalable to the point where much of it can be, and has been, automated and outsourced. Ads are designed to elicit responses along the vector “see, like, remember, buy.” The agencies are structured around maximizing the number of these responses. Media departments craft media plans that try to ensure the highest number of the right people see the ad at the lowest cost. Creative departments are judged by the number of people who like and remember the ad. Ultimately, the agency’s output is evaluated against the number of people who buy the advertised product. The more people see, like, remember, and buy, the more successful the agency is in the long run. MORE

Soulja Boy and Dance Crazes Kevin Driscoll

During the summer of 2007, U.S. pop media seemed saturated with talk show hosts and pro athletes dancing along to “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy).” By the time an official music video was shot in late July, the dance craze was already approaching an apex, with new videos appearing daily on MySpace and YouTube. Close inspection of the phenomenon reveals a diverse array of overlapping audiences exploiting “Crank Dat” as a producerly framework for the expression of personal, social, and political messages. Steeped in southern hip-hop’s independent tradition, teenage rapper Soulja Boy Tell ’Em championed the songs, dances, and videos produced by these audiences in pursuit of his own commercial success. “Crank Dat,” for all its confusion, contradiction, and welcoming incompleteness, is a valuable demonstration of spreadability in practice.

In the dominant narrative of the 1990s, hip-hop was driven to pop dominance by a rivalry between Los Angeles and New York City. Excluded from mainstream media channels, artists living in the southern U.S. were forced to develop an alternative hip-hop industry supported primarily by locally grown “indie” record labels with connections to regional radio personalities, nightclub DJs, and mom-and-pop record-shop owners (Grem 2006). This independence enabled the southern artists to develop innovative sounds and styles quite distinct from their coastal peers. In 2003, with CD sales flagging, major record labels turned to these indies in search of new talent to revitalize the industry. Among the many southern styles attracting attention, snap music deviated the most from the conventional hip-hop template. Snap’s minimal drum programming and repetitive lyrics destabilized unquestioned hip-hop norms such as the value of complex wordplay and the use of funk and soul samples. MORE

Television’s Invitation to Participate Sharon Marie Ross

In Beyond the Box: TV and the Internet (Ross 2008), I argued that television shows starting in the late 1990s increasingly seemed to be “inviting” television viewers to become actively engaged with the TV text, often through the Internet. I saw three forms of invitation emerging: overt invitations, where a TV show obviously invites a viewer to become involved (e.g., American Idol’s calls to phone in a vote); organic invitations, where a TV show assumes that viewers are already actively engaged and incorporates evidence of this within the narrative of the show—or, in some cases, television network (e.g., Degrassi: The Next Generation’s attention to the role of new communications media in teens’ lives, and The N network’s use during Degrassi episodes of interstitials that feature teen viewers texting and IM chatting via The N’s website); and obscured invitations, where a TV show’s narrative complexity demands viewer unraveling that drives fans to online applications (e.g., Lost’s dense referencing of philosophers and artists as clues to the “hidden” meaning of the island and its inhabitants).

In discussions with Henry Jenkins since, I have suggested that organic invitations are likely to become the dominant form of TV invitations to participation. Today’s texting, IMing, web-surfing teens will become tomorrow’s multimedia-tasking adults, who will likely only be followed by a new wave of teen TV watchers who will be engaging in yet-to-be-imagined forms of new media communication.

Such developments are reverberating throughout all of media, from increasing demands on print journalism to be more present online to the use of branding in the spread of media franchises across TV, film, and music in such a way that demands more widespread knowledge of marketing from all media professionals. And such changes tend to spread throughout the TV landscape—even CSI has popular online applications, after all. MORE

What Old Media Can Teach New Media Amanda D. Lotz

While it may be the case that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the question remains whether that old dog can teach a new dog anything useful from its existing repertoire. Or, in terms of spreadable media, can the “old”—or, as I prefer, “established”—processes of media industries for creating entertainment content teach those who are endeavoring on the creation of spreadable media anything of value? In the overinflated rhetoric of new media, media revolutions, and change, too often we lose track of basics and fail to consider that most of what seems new and different isn’t really, either. In this essay, I identify some of the established characteristics of entertainment-based media industries that remain relevant in an era of spreadable media and explore how some of the strategies these industries have developed to deal with their particularities do or do not apply to the spreadable media context.

A key starting point for understanding entertainment-based media industries is acknowledging that they are different from most other business sectors—often in particularly frustrating ways for their practitioners. This “difference” of media industries means that the rules and practices that hold for and prove productive to commercialization practices elsewhere simply don’t work, or at least don’t work as effectively, for these media companies. One of these key differences is captured in the maxim “nobody knows,” also expressed sometimes as the acknowledgment that such media industries are “risky businesses.” This sense that nobody knows results from the fickleness of audiences when it comes to creative and entertainment goods. Conventional focus-group testing or the combination of known “successful” features tend not to be particularly predictive of success in the design of a new media good. In other words, you can’t test or engineer your way to a hit with any certainty.

Considering the spreadable media successes of the past few years, I suspect the “nobody knows” maxim is likely to be true of the circulation of spreadable media to the same degree it is for the distribution of established entertainment media. Try as we might to identify common features or characteristics, we fool ourselves if we think we can anticipate a formula for producing creative content likely to catch the cultural fancy of any particular audience at any given moment. But all is not lost; these media companies have developed a number of strategies designed to counter some of the uncertainty of their established platforms, and some of these strategies might prove productive for making spreadable media as well. MORE

For those of you who were at the Modern Language Association conference this past weekend, you might have had a chance to buy an advanced copy of the book. If you did, we'd love to hear what you think, so feel free to drop a note here or even better on the Spreadable Media website.

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

Spreadable Media Goes Retro: Pass It Along!

We continue this week with the process of rolling out the essays commissioned to accompany Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture,   the book I wrote with Sam Ford and Joshua Green and which is being released to the world at the end of January, 2013. You can start to get a sense of the shape of the book's argument by reading these essays, week by week, as they get unleashed upon the world. This week, for example, we are sharing essays which are designed to accompany the book's second chapter -- Reappraising the Residual -- which explores competing regimes of value, competing processes of appraisal, and especially the ways that old media content might regain value from the ways it moves within and across social networks online.

For those who would like a bit more of a road map of Spreadable Media, below is the breakdown of the chapters:

Introduction: Why Media Spreads                                                                                                               

Chapter One: Where Web 2.0 Went Wrong

Chapter Two: Reappraising the Residual

Chapter Three: The Value of Media Engagement

Chapter Four: What Constitutes Meaningful Participation?

Chapter Five: Designing for Spreadability

Chapter Six: Courting Supporters for Independent Media

Chapter Seven: Thinking Transnationally



To learn more about the book, check out our main website. You can go there to read the whole essays (or follow the links below).

We strongly encourage you to spread these essays through your own social networks, repost them on your blogs -- all we ask is that you acknowledge the authors and the fact that they are associated with our book.   Thanks to all of you who have recirculate previous essays we've released.


Today’s big brands are all rooted in the past. Tide, Coca-Cola, BMW, and even Apple are all connected to bygone decades. When these brands extend and use their existing brand name to introduce a new product or service, the past meanings and images that it invokes become an important element to be managed, understood, wielded, and shaped by managers. This short essay discusses and analyzes a form of brand extension strategy that has gained prominence, in which tired or even abandoned brands have been reanimated and successfully relaunched. Management will deliberately reach into the past and consciously seek to gain new value from old brands and the meaningful relationships they convey. Stephen Brown (2001) terms this a “retro revolution” in which the revival of old brands and their images have become an increasingly attractive option for marketing managers. Over the past decade, I have been involved either independently or with coauthors in a growing body of research that looks at how the past is consumed, valued, revalued, and managed, beginning with a study of the values and images of the Wal-Mart retail chain (Arnold, Kozinets, and Handelman 2001). Stephen Brown, John Sherry, and I define retrobranding as “the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards of performance, functioning, or taste,” seeing retro goods as “brand-new, old-fashioned offerings” (2003b, 20). Old brands retain value simply by being old: the value of nostalgia, the so-called retro appeal. There is also value in the communal or cultural relationships that the brand has built over its lifetime. Finally, there are values on an individual level that relate to the former two other values.

In a set of studies cutting across three different retro, “cult brand” products—the Volkswagen Beetle, Star Wars, and Quisp breakfast cereal—Brown, Sherry, and I have sought to explain the underlying principles of retrobranding and the way consumers responded to it (2003a, 2003b). The VW Beetle was a popular car associated with the 1960s era and hippies and also immortalized in Disney’s Herbie films, a series of four films originating with 1968’s hit The Love Bug (the series itself later updated and retrobranded into Herbie: Fully Loaded, a 2005 motion picture starring Lindsay Lohan). Star Wars is one of the most successful media franchises of all time. And Quisp cereal is an American breakfast cereal released in the 1960s using cartoon advertising created by Jay Ward, the creator of cult animation hit Rocky and Bullwinkle, and employing some of the same voice talents.

In each case, the entertainment connections of the brand have helped spur a type of residual and actual “brand fandom” that led to the possibility of a revival. In the case of the VW Beetle, this was the 1998 launch of the VW New Beetle. For Star Wars, it was the much-maligned 1999 prequel The Phantom Menace. For Quisp cereal, it was the quiet and limited redistribution of the cereal into select markets in the 1980s, after it had languished without support since the late 1970s. As well, Quisp’s fan-spurred and eBay-supported emergence in the mid-1990s marked it as the first so-called Internet cereal.



Existing in dialectical tension with contemporary games which trumpet their photorealistic graphics, sprawling storyworlds, and intricate, extended, networked play, retrogames preserve and celebrate a prior era of gaming often referred to as a “golden age” of arcade standards (such as Asteroids, Tempest, and Donkey Kong) from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Increasingly, the category also covers the decade that followed the industry crash of 1983, when the locus of gaming shifted to home consoles such as the Nintendo and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES and SNES), the Sega Genesis and Dreamcast, and home microcomputers such as the Commodore 64 and Amiga, as well as the first generation of PCs and Macintoshes. Compared with games for contemporary consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that occupy gigabytes of memory, resurrections of 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit video and computer games look like the mathematically downscaled primitives they are: their blocky resolutions, limited color palettes, and blip-bleep-bloop sound reproduction are matched by equally simple and repetitive gameplay. However, retrogames are not hopelessly antiquated museum pieces lacking the good sense to stay buried in gaming history. Their continued presence complicates easy (and industry-friendly) conceptions of technological and aesthetic progress, in which the newest equals the best equals the most expensive.

Older games thrive alongside their more sophisticated descendants, gaining popularity and influence with each passing year. Retrogames continue to be played in both authorized and unauthorized forms. Their minuscule memory footprint, easily grasped rules, and convenient fit within the interstices of daily routine make them ideal content for mobile devices. For instance, the App stores for iTunes and Google Android phones devote sections to retrogames. The Xbox Live Arcade markets “updated retro classics” alongside its “newest hits,” while the Wii Virtual Console sells downloads from “the greatest video game archive in history”—actually licenses owned by Nintendo. These monetized properties coexist uneasily with the thriving emulator scene, where every conceivable old game has its software simulacrum and renegade read-only memories (ROMs)—files containing data images copied from memory chips, computer firmware, or the circuit boards of arcade machines—circulate beyond the bounds of copyright. For both legal and illegal purposes, the Internet functions as both archive and distribution network, supporting the sharing, spreading, and mutation of content




Clothing, almost by definition, is a medium of transmission within a spreadable media ecology. It is both the means and the site for the storage and spread of information. Clothes are made to be carried by the human body (as in the French porter and the Haitian Creole pote). Textile skins were, from their origins, portable artifacts and temporary prostheses, shaped by the demands of a mobile body and inscribed with markers of that body’s history. The demands on clothing have always been high—armor (protection against shame, enemies, and the elements) and aesthetics, comfort and durability. Clothing is portable, proximate to the human body, and eminently changeable. Clothes remain artifacts in continual flux. They convey messages to the world, and they also provide the raw material for subversion of precisely these messages.

Before the industrial era, vestments were few and far between. Their production took a great amount of human and material resources. Into their tailored forms much was literally and culturally invested. In the Western tradition, throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clothing—once shaped to a given body—might be worn for years, sometimes carried for a lifetime. The clothing wore its owner as much as the owner wore the clothing, bearing comparable markers of a personal narrative. Through the movements of a body in time, its clothes would acquire increasingly personal and human characteristics—worn knees and elbows, a stretched waist. Stains, patches, tears, and color changes accompanied a life journey, or at least several decades thereof.

Sometimes an article’s function was portable. This was especially true when even the simplest clothing was scarce: its production costly, time consuming, and labor intensive. A coat might be cut down into a vest, or a dress into a scarf. As a garment’s function evolved, so too might the identity of its wearer. A dress might be handed from mother to daughter through a gift economy. In such instances, it carried with it signs and markers of generational passing. A master might give his worn-out shirt to his servant, for whom it could serve as either bodily cover or portable currency. In the Renaissance, it was common for servants to sell their masters’ old clothing to peasants in neighboring villages. Itinerant rag and old clothes dealing grew into a veritable calling within a commodity-based economy. This was a profession of portability. The dealer became an intermediary between wearers, marking a transitional phase in an article’s mobile life history.

Spread That!: Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project

  Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, my new book with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, is launching at the end of January. Each week, we are releasing new essays written by friends and affiliates of the Futures of Entertainment Consortium which expand upon core ideas in the book. You will see that these essays are an integral part of the book, even though they are being distributed digitally. We also see these essays as a means of sparking key conversations in anticipation of the book's release. So, in the spirit of this project, "if it doesn't spread, it's dead," so we are asking readers to help circulate these essays far and wide to as many different networks and communities as they seem relevant to the ongoing conversation.

Readers are already responding, including through the creation of "memes." Over the weekend, we received this "Slap Robin" announcement via Twitter from @amclay09.

Share with us your own creations and I will showcase this here as I am posting upcoming essays.

This week, we are releasing essays which are tied to the Introduction and first Chapter of the book. Before I do so, let me share some of the early responses to the book (i.e. the solicited blurbs):

“Something new is emerging from the collision of traditionIal entertainment media, Internet-empowered fan cultures, and the norms of sharing that are encouraged and amplified by social media. Spreadable Media is a compelling guide, both entertaining and rigorous, to the new norms, cultures, enterprises, and social phenomena that networked culture is making possible. Read it to understand what your kids are doing, where Hollywood is going, and how online social networks spread cultural productions as a new form of sociality.”—Howard Rheingold, author of Net Smart

“By critically interrogating the ways in which media artifacts circulate, Spreadable Media challenges the popular notion that digital content magically goes ‘viral.’ This book brilliantly describes the dynamics that underpin people’s engagement with social media in ways that are both theoretically rich and publicly meaningful.”—danah boyd, Microsoft Research

“The best analysis to date of the radically new nature of digital social media as a communication channel. Its insights, based on a deep knowledge of the technology and culture embedded in the digital networks of communication, will reshape our understanding of cultural change for years to come.”

—Manuel Castells, Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society, University of Southern California

“Finally, a way of framing modern media creation and consumption that actually reflects reality and allows us to talk about it in a way that makes sense. It’s a spreadable world and we are ALL part of it. Useful for anyone who makes media, analyzes it, consumes it, markets it or breathes.”—Jane Espenson, writer-producer of Battlestar Galactica, Once Upon a Time, and Husbands

“It’s about time a group of thinkers put the marketing evangelists of the day out to pasture with a thorough look at what makes content move from consumer to consumer, marketer to consumer and consumer to marketer. Instead of latching on to the notion that you can create viral content, Jenkins, Ford, and Green question the assumptions, test theories and call us all to task. Spreadable Media pushes our thinking. As a result, we’ll become smarter marketers. Why wouldn’t you read this book?”—Jason Falls, CEO of Social Media Explorer and co-author of No Bullshit Social Media

This week's selections include discussions of historical predecessors,  Memes and 4Chan, the debates about free labor, co-creation in the games culture, and the power of consumer recommendations. Read the sample. Follow the links (....) back to the main site. Read.  Enjoy. Spread. Repeat next week.

The History of Spreadable Media

Media have been evolving and spreading for as long as our species has been around to develop and transport them. If we understand media broadly enough to include the platforms and protocols—to use Lisa Gitelman’s (2006) terms—that carry our stories, bear our messages, and give tangible expression to our feelings, they seem intrinsic to the human experience. Some people might even argue that the developments of vocal communication systems (language) and visualization strategies (paintings and carvings) represent defining moments in human evolution, demonstrations of man’s social nature. Human mastery of media was every bit as important as the mastery of tools. Stories of the spread and appropriation of media run across our history, each shaped by the logics of social organization and production characteristic of any given era.

Early traces of the spread and reach of media abound, even if some historical forms of media fall outside our familiar categories. For example, our contemporary understanding of the reach and influence exercised by ancient empires owes much to discoveries of coins—a medium of abstract exchange if we follow Karl Marx’s argument in Capital ([1867] 1999) and elsewhere but also a system of representation and meaning (from the value of the gold or silver to the inscribed monetary value, to the messages or portraits etched on its surface) with precise culturally defined borders. The coin, as a medium, spread with the state’s citizens, enabling their interactions with one another and at the same time attesting to the state’s reign. Ceramic dishes and tiles offer an example of a medium that was seized on for reasons of cultural exchange. The rich intermingling of styles and techniques characteristic of early-seventeenth-century Dutch, Chinese, and Ottoman ceramics speaks to the period’s trade routes and export markets and the creative appropriations of these various cultural models by its artisans. But these ceramics were also platforms, complete with highly nuanced systems of signification, hierarchies of value, and attendant associations of taste. They were carried, traded, collected, and displayed by a surprisingly large cross-section of the northern European population. As the ceramics circulated within different social groups as the vogue for ceramics rose and fell and were handed down to our present as family heirloom or antique shop curio, the journeys they undertook, and the meanings accorded them as media, attest to the energies and interests of those who helped to spread them....


In Defense of Memes

Although I agree that the terms “viral” and “meme” often connote passive transmission by mindless consumers, I take issue with the claim that “meme” always precludes active engagement—or that the term has a universal, static meaning. As understood by trolls, memes are not passive and do not follow the model of biological infection. Instead, trolls see (though perhaps “experience” is more accurate) memes as microcosmic nests of evolving content. Contrary to the assumption that memes hop arbitrarily from self-contained monad to self-contained monad, memes as they operate within trolldom exist in synecdochical relationship to the culture in which they inhere. In other words, memes spread—that is, they are actively engaged and/or remixed into existence—because something about a given image or phrase or video or whatever lines up with an already-established set of linguistic and cultural norms. In recognizing this connection, a troll is able to assert his or her cultural literacy and to bolster the scaffolding on which trolling as a whole is based, framing every act of reception as an act of cultural production. Consider the following example.

Founded in the early nineties by rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) is a Detroit-based hip-hop group infamous for its violent lyrics, rabid followers, and, as it was recently revealed, secret evangelical Christianity. ICP, which performs in full-face clown makeup, has always been a target for trolling humor. The 2010 release of the group’s single “Miracles,” however, opened the floodgates—in the video, Violent J and Shaggy earnestly extol the virtues of giraffes, rainbows, cats, and dogs, not to mention music (“you can’t even hold it!”) and the miracles of childbirth and the cosmos. The song itself, which is regarded as the group’s evangelical “outing,” is peppered with expletives and features the line “Fuckin’ magnets—how do they work?” a question which inspired immediate and seemingly endless repurposing.

Within a few days of the video’s release, dozens of remixed images and .gifs were posted to 4chan’s infamous /b/ board, many of which merged with existing memetic content. A well-known image of a cross-eyed, bespectacled man captioned with the phrase “are you a wizard,” for example, inspired a series of related macros, including one featuring a close-up shot of Violent J in full makeup. “are you a magnet,” the caption reads, referring not just to the cluster of memes related to the “Miracles” video but also to all the permutations of the “are you a wizard” family of macros.

In short, trolls pounced on the phrase “fuckin’ magnets” not just because it was memorable and amusing on its own (although that played a large part in its popularity, as did the thrill of a gratuitous f-bomb) but because it was easily integrated into an existing meme set. Once the protomeme had been integrated, its resulting permutations—“are you a magnet” being a prime example—became memes unto themselves, establishing further scaffolding onto which new content could be overlaid. By choosing to repost “are you a magnet” on 4chan or off-site, the contributing troll was able to assert his own cultural fluency and, in the process, ensure the proverbial (and, in some ways, the literal) survival of his species. In this sense, the creation and transmission of memes can be likened to the process of human reproduction—specifically the decision to have a child in order to protect one’s legacy. The sexual act is decidedly active, but the resulting zygote is a passive (that is to say, unwitting) vessel for genetic information....

Interrogating “Free” Fan Labor

Over the past two decades, large swaths of the U.S. population have been engaged in copyright wars. On one side, copyright holders struggle to defend their property against what they perceive to be unlawful appropriation by millions of would-be consumers via digital technologies. On the other, millions of Internet users fear or fight expensive lawsuits, filed by entities far wealthier and more powerful than they, that seek to punish them for sharing media online. In this combative climate, fans who produce their own versions of mass-media texts—fan films and videos, fan fiction, fan art and icons, music remixes and mash-ups, and game mods, for example—take comfort and refuge in one rule of thumb: as long as they do not sell their works, they will be safe from legal persecution. Conventional wisdom holds that companies and individuals that own the copyrights to mass-media texts will not sue fan producers, as long as the fans do not make money from their works (for instance, Scalzi 2007 and Taylor 2007).

“Free” fan labor (fan works distributed for no payment) means “free” fan labor (fans may revise, rework, remake, and otherwise remix mass-culture texts without dreading legal action or other interference from copyright holders). Many, perhaps even most, fans who engage in this type of production look upon this deal very favorably. After all, movie studios, game makers, and record labels do not have to turn a blind eye to fan works; U.S. law is (as of this writing) undecided on the matter of whether appropriative art constitutes fair use or copyright infringement, so companies could sue or otherwise harass fan appropriators if they chose. But, even if both sides of the copyright wars consider the issue of fan labor settled, one aspect of the issue has not been sufficiently explored: can, or should, fan labor be paid labor?....


Co-creative Expertise in Gaming Cultures

Gamers increasingly participate in the process of making and circulating game content. Games such as Maxis’s The Sims franchise, for example, are routinely cited as exemplary sites of user-created content. Games scholar T. L. Taylor comments that players are co-creative “productive agents” and asserts that we need “more progressive models” for understanding and integrating players’ creative contribution to the making of these game products and cultures (2006b, 159–160; see also 2006a). Significant economic and cultural value is generated through these spreadable media activities. The usual phrases such as “user-created content” and “user-led innovation” can overlook the professional work of designers, programmers, and graphic artists as they make the tools, platforms, and interfaces that gamers use for creating and sharing content. Attention should also be paid to the work of producers, marketing managers, and community relations managers as they grapple with how best to manage and coordinate these co-creative relations.

The Maxis-developed and Electronic Arts–published Spore thrives on user-created content. Players use 3-D editors to design creatures and other in-game content, to guide their creatures through stages of evolution, and then to share their creations with other players. Since Spore’s release in September 2008, more than 155 million player-created creatures have been uploaded to the online Sporepedia repository. Players can also upload directly from within their game videos of their creatures to the Spore YouTube channel. Spreading content is a core feature of Spore; the game is perhaps best understood as a social network generated from player creativity. This spreadability is not just about content, as the players are also sharing ideas, skills, and media literacies....

The Value of Customer Recommendations

With new channels of communication and old, marketers can deliver a dizzying number of advertising messages to consumers—by many accounts, the average American sees between 3,000 and 5,000 ads a day. Yet, perhaps in response to this fusillade, consumers have learned to better armor themselves against the marketing messages they encounter. The Persuasion Knowledge Model (PKM) describes the extent to which consumers develop a radarlike ability to discern content whose aim is to persuade and, further, how they develop a set of skills to deal with such messages (Friestad and Wright 1994). Some of my own recent research (with colleagues Adam Craig, Yuliya Komarova, and Jennifer Vendemia) uses fMRI technology to explore brain activity as consumers are exposed to potentially deceptive product claims. Our findings show that consumers’ deception-detection processes involve surprisingly rapid attention allocation. Potential advertising lies seem to jump out of the marketing environment and rivet our attention like a snake on a woodland trail.

Advertisements are often informative as well as persuasive; consumers know this and don’t dismiss ads out of hand. But they do assess the extent to which they trust or are willing to use such information. First, and most critically, consumers seek to evaluate the credibility of a marketing message’s source. Source credibility is the bedrock of trust that precedes persuasion. People judge a source to be credible if the source shows evidence of being authentic, reliable, and believable. In the old days of marketing, firms sought to increase the source credibility of their ads by featuring the endorsements of doctors, scientists, and other authoritative experts. Once consumers became more aware that these experts were being paid handsomely for their testimony, the practice became less effective. Celebrity endorsers, who often were not product experts, provided warm affective responses but little in the way of believable, persuasive arguments.

Consumers themselves are particularly important endorsers via word-of-mouth (WOM) messages. Our past understanding of WOM (when one consumer recommends a product to another) was that consumers perceive other consumers as highly authentic but of dubious reliability. As when one’s Uncle Joe touts the superior performance of the Brand X computer, the recommender is clearly a real person but may or may not be knowledgeable enough about the product category to make credible claims. Now, with WOM increasingly occurring through spreadable media, it is more difficult for a consumer to assess both the authenticity and reliability of unknown recommenders. The practice of rating consumers’ online opinions and recommendations (e.g., Yahoo! Answers) is a direct attempt to resolve the audience’s uncertainty about who really knows something worth knowing....


Futures of Entertainment 6 Videos (Part Two)

Saturday, Nov. 10 Opening Remarks from FoE Fellows Xiaochang Li and Mike Monello

Curing the Shiny New Object Syndrome: Strategy Vs. Hype When Using New Technologies With the constant barrage of new technologies, platforms, and services vying for attention, media producers and marketers are frequently lost among the potential places–and ways–of engaging with their audiences. Before they have ever truly figured out one technology, they’ve already moved to another, because of an intense desire to be “first.” As such, companies and media properties have launched–and then abandoned–their virtual world presence, their mobile app, their social game, and their QR code and are now exploring “social TV,” “Twitter parties,” Pinterest pages, augmented reality, and location-based initiatives. This leaves the web littered with old blogs, microsites, and profiles and companies blaming technologies when, too often, it’s been the lack of strategy that led to no traction. How do storytellers and communicators build a framework to more intelligently choose technologies based on how a platform aids their story and their audience, rather than a “gee whiz…get me one of those” approach? How does–or should–listening to the audience factor into this process? And what role, or responsibility, do technology creators have to help with this integration process? Drawing on examples contemporary and historical, this panel looks at how and when to take risks with new platforms, the difference between “innovative failure” and “failure to innovate,” and the deeper patterns of engagement that help us make sense of how new platforms and behaviors connect to longstanding means of engagement. Panelists: Todd Cunningham, Futures of Entertainment fellow and television audience research leader Jason Falls, CEO, Social Media Explorer Eden Medina, Associate Professor of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University David Polinchock, Director, AT&T AdWorks Lab Mansi Poddar, co-founder, Brown Paper Bag Moderator: Ben Malbon, Managing Director, Google Creative Lab

Rethinking Copyright: A discussion with musician, songwriter, and producer T Bone Burnett; Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California; and Jonathan Taplin, Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. As the recent legislative battles have demonstrated, it’s becoming painfully clear that our conception of copyright is ill-prepared for regulating and making sense of a world where media content is fluidly circulated by most of a society. However, in an effort make content free to spread in the ways audiences find them relevant, what is the appropriate balance to ensure that the rights of content creators are preserved and that the incentive to develop intellectual property remains? Rather than continue a debate in which audiences and critics attack copyright while media companies cling to them, how might we cut through current tensions to collaboratively imagine what a new sense of copyright, appropriate for an era of “spreadable media,” might look like?

The Futures of Video Gaming Many innovations in the creative industries owe their roots and inspiration to the gaming world, from audience engagement and storytelling techniques to distribution methods and cross-platform integration. This session examines some of the critical questions facing those working in the gaming industry as large companies and indie developers grapple with the challenging evolution of the market brought on by new networked technologies, audience practices, and business models. How are game developers embracing or rejecting the unauthorized play of games online, and how has piracy evolved as a discourse in the gaming sector? How do creators strategize around the widespread circulation of games through automated propagation (using friend invitations for social and “free to play” games) — or grassroots spreading (for unexpectedly popular titles like Minecraft) — of information through social network sites? How badly are new architectures (Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PSN Network) clashing with old traditions (game stores, $60 game discs)? And how are business models in the gaming industry shifting as we see massive success simultaneously from high-budget technology like Kinect and low-budget distribution like the Humble Bundle? Panelists: T.L. Taylor, Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies, MIT Christopher Weaver, founder of Bethesda Softworks and industry liaison, MITGameLab Ed Fries, architect of Microsoft’s video game business and co-founder of the Xbox project Walter Somol, head of tech community outreach, Microsoft New England Research and Development Center Moderator: Futures of Entertainment Fellow and games producer Alec Austin

The Futures of Storytelling and Sports Throughout the history of mass media, sports programming has been an innovator. In today’s era of online circulation, transmedia storytelling, and 24/7 access to engaging with sports stars, teams, and fellow fans, sports franchises could be argued as the most immersive of storyworlds–with drama playing out in real-time, and the “narrative world” being our own. What is driving innovation in how sports tell their stories, and get their fans more engaged than ever, through multiple media platforms? How does operating as a media franchise in our everyday world set sports apart from entertainment properties? How are sports empowered by being “real,” and what constraints does that place on what they can do as well? How are talent engaged to be part of the storytelling? And what innovations are seen as sports are extended wholly into the fictional realm, whether through licensed extensions or various forms of “sports entertainment”? Panelists: Abe Stein, researcher at Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab; graduate student, Comparative Media Studies, MIT; columnist, Kill Screen Peter Stringer, Senior Director of Interactive Media, Boston Celtics Jena Janovy, Enterprise Editor, Jamie Scheu, associate content director, Hill Holliday Moderator: Alex Chisholm, transmedia producer and Co-Founder and Executive Director, Learning Games Network

Closing Remarks from FoE Fellow Sheila Seles and Dr. Heather Hendershot, Comparative Media Studies, MIT

Futures of Entertainment 6 Videos (Part One)

Over the next few installments, we are going to be sharing videos of the panels from this year's Futures of Entertainment conference, now in its sixth year, and developing a really strong community of followers who come back again and again to participate in our ongoing conversations. For those who do not know, FoE is a conference designed to spark critical conversations between people in the creative industries, academics, and the general public, over issues of media change. The Futures of Entertainment consortium works hard to identify cutting edge topics and to bring together some of the smartest, most thoughtful people who are dealing with those issues. It is characterized by extended conversation among the panelists in a format designed to minimize "spin," "pitch" and "pontification," and in a context where everything they say will be questioned and challenged through, Twitter, and (this year) Etherpad conversations. As someone noted this year, one of the biggest contributions of the conference has been close interrogation of the language the industry uses to describe its relationship with its publics/audiences, and this year was no exception, with recurring concepts such as "curation" getting the full FoE treatment. And we came as close as we've ever come to a Twitter riot breaking out around the "Rethinking Copyright," session on which I participated.

The conference, traditionally, opens on Thursday with a Communications Forum event. This year, the focus was on New Media in West Africa, part of our ongoing exploration of the global dimensions of entertainment. There was much discussion of what we could learn from Nollywood (even hints of the coming era of Zollywood) and a spontaneous live performance by Derrick “DNA” Ashong.

New Media in West Africa Despite many infrastructural and economic hurdles, entertainment media industries are burgeoning in West Africa. Today, the Nigerian cinema market–”Nollywood”–is the second largest in the world in terms of the annual volume of films distributed, behind only the Indian film industry. And an era of digital distribution has empowered content created in Lagos, or Accra, to spread across geographic and cultural boundaries. New commercial models for distribution as well as international diasporic networks have driven the circulation of this material. But so has rampant piracy and the unofficial online circulation of this content. What innovations are emerging from West Africa? How has Nigerian cinema in particular influenced local television and film markets in other countries across West Africa, and across the continent? What does the increasing visibility of West African popular culture mean for this region–especially as content crosses various cultural contexts, within and outside the region? And what challenges does West Africa face in continuing to develop its entertainment industries?

Panelists: Fadzi Makanda, Business Development Manager, iROKO Partners Derrick “DNA” Ashong, leader, Soulflége Colin Maclay, Managing Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University Moderator: Ralph Simon, head of the Mobilium Advisory Group and a founder of the mobile entertainment industry

Opening Remarks from FoE Fellows Laurie Baird and Ana Domb

Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human Media properties have long measured audiences with Nielsen ratings, circulation numbers, website traffic and a range of other methods that transform the people who engage with content into that aggregate mass: the audience. Meanwhile, marketing logic has long been governed by survey research, focus groups, and audience segmentation. And, today, executives are being urged to do all they can to make sense of the “big data” at their fingertips. However, all these methods of understanding audiences–while they can be helpful–too often distance companies from the actual human beings they are trying to understand. How do organizations make the best use of the myriad ways they now have to listen to, understand, and serve their audiences–beyond frameworks that aim to “monitor, “surveil,” and “quantify” those audiences as statistics rather than people? What new understandings are unearthed when companies listen to their audiences, and the culture around them, beyond just what people are saying about the organization itself? What advantages do companies find in embracing ethnographic research, in thinking about an organization’s content and communications from the audience’s perspective, and in thinking of “social media” not just as a new way to market content but a new and particularly useful channel for communicating, collaborating and conducting business?

Panelists: Lara Lee, Chief Innovation and Operating Officer, Continuum Grant McCracken, author, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Business Emily Yellin, author, Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us Moderator: Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy, Peppercomm

The Ethics and Politics of Curation in a Spreadable Media World–A One-on-One Conversation with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova and Undercurrent’s Joshua Green We live in an environment where the power of circulation is no longer solely–arguably, even primarily–in the hands of media companies. However, if that means we all now play a role as curator and circulator of content, what responsibilities does that bring with it? How is curation becoming an important aspect of the online profile of professional curators? And, for all of us who participate in social networking sites or who forward content to family and friends via email, what are our obligations to both the creators of that content and to the audiences with whom we share it? If we possess the great power to spread content, what are the great responsibilities that come along with it?

The Futures of Public Media Public media creators and distributors often face a wide variety of strains on resources which impact their ability to innovate how they tell their stories. Yet, in an era where existing corporate logics often restrain how many media companies and brands can interact with their audiences–or how audiences can participate in the circulation of media content–public media-makers are, at least in theory, freed from many of the constraints their commercial counterparts face. How have the various innovations in producing and circulating content that have been discussed at Futures of Entertainment impacting public media-makers? How do the freedoms and constraints of public media shape creators’ work in unique ways? How have innovations happening in independent media, civic media, and the commercial sector impacting those creators? And what can we all learn from their innovation and experiences?

Panelists: Rekha Murthy, Director of Projects and Partnerships, Public Radio Exchange, Annika Nyberg Frankenhaeuser, Media Director, European Broadcasting Union, Andrew Golis, Director of Digital Media and Senior Editor, FRONTLINE Nolan Bowie, Senior Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Moderator: Jessica Clark, media strategist, Association of Independents in Radio

From Participatory Culture to Political Participation Around the world, activists, educators, and nonprofit organizations are discovering new power through their capacity to appropriate, remix, and recirculate elements of popular culture. In some cases, these groups are forging formal partnerships with media producers. In other cases, they are deploying what some have called “cultural acupuncture,” making unauthorized extensions which tap into the public’s interest in entertainment properties to direct their attention to other social problems. Some of these transmedia campaigns — Occupy, for example — are criticized for not having a unified message, yet it is their capacity to take many forms and to connect together diverse communities which have made these efforts so effective at provoking conversation and inspiring participation. And, as content spreads across cultural borders, these activists and producers are confronting new kinds of critiques —such as the heated debates surrounding the rapid spread of the KONY 2012 video. Are new means of creating and circulating content empowering citizens, creating new forms of engagement, or do they trivialize the political process, resulting in so-called “slactivism”? What are these producers and circulators learning from media companies and marketers, and vice versa? What new kinds of organizations and networks are deploying this tactics to gain the attention of young consumer-citizens? And, for all of us, what do we need to consider as we receive, engage with, and consider sharing content created by these individuals and groups? Panelists: Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, MIT Dorian Electra, performing artist (“I'm in Love with Friedrich Hayek”; “Roll with the Flow”) Lauren Bird, Creative Media Coordinator, Harry Potter Alliance Bassam Tariq, co-creator, 30 Mosques in 30 Days Moderator: Sangita Shresthova, Research Director of CivicPaths, University of Southern California

Closing Remarks from FoE Fellows Maurício Mota and Louisa Stein

And for your added entertainment pleasure, check out Dorian Electra's new music video, "FA$T CA$H: Easy Credit & The Economic Crash" which premiered at this year's conference.

"We Do Not Have a Hollywood on the Outskirts of Warsaw:" What Poland Can Teach Us About Copyright and Circulation (Part Two)

I was able to share some core insights from this research as part of an very engaged panel at this past week's Futures of Entertainment conference (with musician T-Bone Burnett and Annenberg Innovation Lab head Jon Taplin.) Expect to see the video of this panel (and others from the conference) on my blog before much longer. For those of you who live in Los Angeles, you might be interested in attending a one-on-one conversation I am having with T Bone Burnett this Weds. Nov. 14, 7:30, Hammer Museum. Check here for more information. Now back to your regularly scheduled interview...


You situate your study in a much larger tradition of media and cultural scholars in Poland writing about “circuits” or circulation. Can you share with us some of the core insights from that tradition? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: Polish sociologists in the Communist era were very focused on the issues surrounding the so-called “second circulation”, grassroots political and cultural activism as protest against the hypocrisy of the system and a sort of safety valve that enabled the society to externalize its frustrations. But in Polish history, informal circulations also included diverse economic activities and a vigorous youth culture movement. For us, that tradition served only as background – we haven’t used the tools that Polish sociologists developed to study alternative circulations. Yet we took them into account, since as concepts they have the power to disrupt the current logic and point out existing mechanisms that can be eerily similar to the ones observed in the Communist period. For example, there were social exchange networks used by our parents to distribute independent media and barely available products of Western popular culture. The irony of the situation lies in the fact that people who were active users of informal circulations in the Communist era are mostly quick to condemn informal usage of such circulations among their kids and grandkids.

Of course it’s difficult to make a direct comparison between both situations, but it turns out that as far as moral economy, or what people consider right and wrong, is concerned, there are a lot of similarities between the two. A qualitative study that Mirek is currently conducting involves a closer look at these similarities.


How might we situate the study of grassroots circulation of media in relation to the larger examination of what I call participatory culture or what Yochai Benkler discusses as “peer production”? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Research shows that in Poland the creative output uploaded by people to the Internet is still marginal and the percentage of active creators does not grow. Of course, I do not mean all the marks we leave on the Web, like Facebook comments – just more substantial forms of creativity. There are some differences in the results depending on the indicator we chose, but no more than few percent of Internet users engage in regular cultural production. That’s why we decided to look for a Poland-specific point of reference for your and Benkler’s ideas, which would enable us to expand cultural participation categories to include more elements than just “production.” We considered things beyond “peer production,” like peer reproduction, redistribution, and recommendation, as we decided that even though they’re more controversial than grassroots production, they have just as strong an influence on the media and culture, which are known for wielding distribution control as a powerful weapon.

We were also very inspired by Mirko Tobias Schafer’s “extended culture industry” concept, which dissolves the top-down/bottom-up distinctions. Even in the discourse of exploitation identical situations can be interpreted in completely different ways: Internet users redistribute content to which they have no rights, but simultaneously they are doing the dirty work for the corporations as they promote their work. In a way, both content authors and consumers are participating in culture – maybe both groups don’t share the same rights, but they surely share similar possibilities for action. The role of software in all this is also really significant – it’s often the case that participation based on redistribution requires very little activity. Many users of file-sharing networks exchange content almost incidentally, the software does it for them. The significance of technological architecture behind cultural participation is an avenue well worth exploring.

We still want to broaden our knowledge of the grey area between authorship and consumption because we feel that a lot of interesting things happen there. We just commenced a qualitative study of people who still aren’t authors but are something more than just consumers – the category includes people who function as grassroots content archivists, who prepare and release Polish subtitles for TV series and movies. In informal circulations these people are institutions, and preliminary interviews show that they often feel that their actions “serve a higher purpose.” At the same time, they’re still using content to which they have no rights.


As you note in your report, much of the work in “informal economies” has centered on the developing world. What new insights do we get if we apply this model to talk about how media travels through more developed countries? How, for example, might that operate in relationship to post-Communist Eastern Europe? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: The claim that informal economies and circulations function worldwide should be a truism. This is well demonstrated by Robert Neuwirth, for example. We find it very interesting that the informal economy category, at first devised to describe the economies of developing countries now applies so well to modern creative economies. We also like Ravi Sundaram’s idea of “pirate modernity”, which claims that modernity is neither regulated nor sterile, but haphazard, informal or even illegal.

And Poland, today a developed country, has been very different only twenty years ago. Although we moved from a shortage economy to a surplus economy, some mechanisms are still working just fine. And digital technologies only invigorate the informal circulations. Many Poles still remember the times when public radio played entire music albums on the air, while people at home mass-recorded them on tapes. Nobody really knows whether it was legal, but we all suspect that we might have had pirate public media back then. In the 1990s, we had legally operating stores that copied for customers albums from CDs to tapes. But simultaneously we assumed that this informality was typical of the Communist era when it functioned as the prohibited, glorified second circulation, as well as the crazy transition period of the early 1990s. We’re trying to demonstrate that the informal processes are still heavily influencing our culture.

The application of concepts developed for third world countries in Poland might hurt the national pride of many people. Yet we believe that Poland should draw on the experiences of for example the BRIC countries instead of comparing its culture industries with the United States. Look at the official copyright policy one feels as if Poland’s strategy was to copy the American intellectual property model directly. Yet we do not have Hollywood on the outskirts of Warsaw. While IP policy is imposed by international trade agreements, there is still room for taking into account local specificity and the national interest. This is rightly emphasized by Joe Karaginis in his commentary on our report. Joe writes that in the 19th century, the United States tolerated copyright infringement when it benefited American citizens. Meanwhile the policymakers in Poland, as well as we as a society, are not collectively asking whether another model might suit the Polish national interest better than the one currently implemented.

What are the primary motives for seeking content through informal circulation? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Asking about motivations that drive people towards using informal circulations is very important, but it would be wise to remember that for the user, the delineation between a formal and informal circulation is blurry at best. The average user doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to easily discern whether a given online source represents the formal or informal circulation. Even payment doesn’t help to distinguish between the two, as the grey area in Poland includes websites that charge the users not for content, as they claim, but for data transfer. But for users, that distinction is often unclear. For the purposes of our project, we classified online sources such as streaming as part of the informal circulation. But to answer your question, it appears that price is the key factor when it comes to picking the informal circulation; about two-thirds of the respondents point to this motivation. Availability of content and ease of acquisition turn out to be equally important. This criterion is especially important for people living in smaller cities. Many respondents also pointed out that it’s important to them how up-to-date the content offer on the Web is. With no comparable offer from the official distribution channels, the Internet becomes a much more attractive source of content. In Poland, the offer of video-on-demand services, online music stores and paid streaming websites is still very limited and aimed at a mainstream audience.

In our study, we also analyzed attitudes towards downloading. The results basically paint Poles as pragmatists: for many people downloading is simply easier than visiting a store.


Near the end of the report, you describe what you are calling “Next Generation Internet Users.” Who are these people and what distinguishes them from the general population in your country? Are they more or less likely to buy content online? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Faced with rising Internet penetration rates, we decided to make the “Internet user” category a little more nuanced. That’s why we applied the concept of “Next Generation Internet Users,” a term proposed by the World Internet Project’s William Dutton. The term describes heavy Internet users, also accessing the Web through various mobile devices, people who are constantly online, more or less. They’re also distinguished by their relatively high creative output – they take photographs, create digital content, build their own websites. They are heavily involved in content sharing but frequently purchase content as well. In Great Britain, these users make up over 40% of all Internet users. The people we polled in our study, however, demonstrated higher than average Internet usage: they spend multiple hours on the Internet, often accessing it via different devices. They turned out to be a very cultured group: e.g. 89% of them declared that they read at least one book in the past year. Using informal circulations is common in the group. About 88% of them use the informal circulation of music, 73% use the informal circulation of books; 78% use the informal circulation of movies. A high percentage of the people we studied declare buying cultural content online – a little over a third of the respondents (37%) claim to have paid for access to content online in the past year.

Our study has demonstrated that the division of the Polish population into Internet users and people who don’t use the Internet is consistent with the division into people who actively consume cultural content and those who don’t engage with any type of content circulation (except broadcast media – TV and radio – which weren’t the subject of the study). At the same time, the people displaying heaviest Internet usage and cultural consumption are also the most active users of informal circulations.


What do you think are the biggest mistakes made by policy and industry folks when they look at the relationship between formal and informal circulation of content? 


MIREK FILICIAK: Policy and industry folks have to stop perceiving informal circulations as excommunicated havens of the illegal and the anti-cultural. They need to treat these circulations as an alternative or as competition – it might be amoral and dishonest, but it is a part of the general circulation of culture. If a different approach is the desired result, changing the language might be a good place to start.

Policymakers make the mistake of considering only the legal implications of using informal circulations – we need to place a few positive aspects of these circulations on the other scale, like increased access to content and increased cultural activity. On the other hand, the industry in Poland offers few legal alternative to downloading – there’s not enough content, it’s expensive, and there’s no easy way to access it. We believe that people who engage with informal circulations might switch to legal purchasing of content online if given an honest alternative offer.

Presenting our findings to a group of industry representatives was an interesting experience. Many of the people from the creative industries, who publicly decried our report claiming that it legitimizes stealing, changed their tone and agreed with us in private conversations. They were aware of the fact that they will need to adapt to the users, and that the status quo is untenable and cannot be artificially supported by making the laws more severe. It was obvious especially to people working in the Internet industry. When asked about the main obstacles that hinder business development they didn’t mention piracy, they spoke about lack of flexibility on the part of collective rights management organizations and copyright holders, especially in the film industry.

We hope that the public debate currently underway in Poland, in which our report voiced a few very important issues, will head in the right direction. That we’ll witness the foundation of new services based on new business models and that the authorities, after learning from the experiences surrounding the ACTA fiasco, will introduce balanced regulations that will care for the interests of authors and producers as well as the society in general.

Mirek Filiciak is a cultural studies scholar, works at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is interested in the influence of digital media on cultural participation practices and research methodologies. Co-editor of Polish cultural studies quarterly Kultura popular (Popular Culture), co-author of book Youth and Media.

Justyna Hofmokl is a sociologist and vice-director of Centrum Cyfrowe - think-and-do-thank building digital society in Poland. She is the author of Internet as a New Commons and published in International Journal of Commons.
Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist and works as director of Centrum Cyfrowe. He is Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland and former member of the Board of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland. His research interests focus around the intersection of intellectual property, society and digital technologies, with a special interest in open models of collaboration and sharing.

"We Do Not Have Hollywood on the Outskirts of Warsaw": What Poland Can Teach Us About Circulation (Part One)

The Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt: Polska recently posted an English language translation of their report, The Circulations of Culture, which deals with the informal, sometimes illegal exchange of media content which is occurring in contemporary Poland. This report is a model of the kinds of thoughtful research which should be done in other countries around the world, including the United States, on this highly contentious topic. They start with a recognition that the pervasive language of "piracy" closes off issues which we need to be exploring. As they write:

"Wanting to become familar with and understand new practices one may not assess them in advance, let alone condemn them as illegal or wrong. Only knowing their scale, character and consequences may we assess the influence of new circulations of content on the sphere of culture. The domain remaining out of control of the state and the market is very varied. We lend and borrow books and records. We watch films uploaded to YouTube, but also we download them from websites and p2p networks. Usually we do not think whether we do it legally or not. And the facts of the case may be varied – there is content made available on the web illegally, but we may also use many materials in accordance with the law. Only 13% of Poles buy books, music or films. As many as 33% get hold of them in digital form, in a non-formal manner and for free. This number increases to 39% if we include also the „physical” forms of exchange into informal circulations, such as lending CDs. That is three times more than the market circulation, based on purchases of content."

So far, the report's findings might seem to support those who feel that informal circulation undercuts the development of a commercial market. Yet, the picture they develop turns out to be more complicated. They found that the rate of cultural consumption in contemporary Poland remains very low -- only 44% of Poles had contact with a book over the past twelve months and only 20.80% of Poles went to the cinema over the past year. Among those who are most active online, though, the numbers are significantly higher. 89% of "Internauts" or "heavy Internet users" have read at least one book over the past year, and 82 percent have gone to a movie in the past 12 months. So, while less than 5 percent of Poles have bought a book and less than .1% have bought cps in the past year, those numbers are much higher for those who are most active online -- 68% bought a book, 29 percent bought music.

Most of the heavy internet users acknowledged downloading some form of media content without paying for it -- the number can be as high as 95 percent depending on how we define our terms, but they also represent the core of the existing media market. As the report concludes, illegal downloads do not preclude legal purchases. So much for the argument that it is going to be impossible to get people to pay for content they can download for free. Instead, we need to enter into a much more complex exploration of when and why people who could and do download content illegally choose to pay for media content. So, when the media industry declares war on pirates, it may also be declaring war on its best customers, and this may explain why their tactics so far have been so unsuccessful at slowing the rate of "media piracy," because they are directed at the wrong people, because they do not understand the root causes of the issue, because they are not addressing the key motives for why people choose to pay for media.


Mirek Filiciak,  Justyna Hofmokl, and Alek Tarkowskithe primary authors of the report, were kind enough to participate in the following interview, which helps situate their findings within the context of a broader range of research in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe concerning "sharing cultures" and "informal media economies." In what follows, they share further insights from their research which might guide policy-makers in other parts of the world as they seek to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways such unauthorized circulations may impact the creative industries and the culture more generally.

For a creative presentation of the report's core findings, visit this site.


Can you provide some context abort the current state of the debates around intellectual property and file sparing in Poland? What motivated your study? 


MIREK FILICIAK: The subject has been moving from the fringes towards the mainstream of the debate on culture for several years now. The shift has motivated the Polish government to work at increasing access to the public domain and to create initiatives such as the Digital School project, which directed a significant amount of funding towards the creation of open educational resources. The protests of Polish youth against ratification of the ACTA treaty in January and February of 2012 were a breakthrough moment for public discussion surrounding the subject. Incidentally, that’s when we unveiled our report, the end result of more than a year’s work.

For our team, taking on the subject was a continuation of our previous initiatives and research projects. Take, for example, the series of “Culture 2.0” conferences we co-organized, one of which featured you as a keynote speaker. Justyna and Alek founded the Polish chapter of Creative Commons and now they’re heading Centrum Cyfrowe (Digital Center), which is a leading Polish organization working towards greater cultural and civic engagement through digital technologies. IP issues are one of the Center’s main areas of interest and thus the organization hosted our research project. I myself have extensive research experience in this field and my previous research projects concerned for example fans of American TV series in Poland, or the “Youth and Media” project (the full report will soon be available in English) which was an ethnographic study of the use of media by Polish youth. We demonstrated in that study that thanks to networked digital media content often flows outside of official markets and without the involvement of institutional intermediaries. Our previous work and experiences with research, policy and activism suggested that the available indicators of cultural participation, often focused on official distribution channels, illustrate only a subset of the cultural practices of Poles.

That’s why we decided to provide empirical data that can be useful both for researchers and for policymakers. In Poland, previously data was limited and skewed: based on outdated research schemes of official statistics or biased studies set to prove that piracy is wrong and harmful for culture. There are some commercial studies, but usually the methodology is kept secret, which makes it hard to debate the results. From the very start, our project was designed to be a scientific study as well as an additional voice in the public debate. We also wanted to propose a set of standards for transparency of methodologies and data presentation (not only did we make the report and raw data sets available to the public, we also prepared a very approachable mashup).


You make a clear point in the opening paragraphs of the report that you are not studying “pirates,” but rather you are researching “informal content sharing practices.” Can you explain the distinction you want to make between the two and why it is such an important one for framing your findings? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Above all, we wanted to draw public attention to somewhat deeper aspects of cultural activities of Internet users. And to retire the “pirate” label, as it basically leaves no space for debate and substantial arguments. In Poland, content sharing via the Internet has been presented for the last few years strictly as a struggle between “thieves” and “pirates” on one side and “evil corporations” on the other, without making any attempts at trying to understand the phenomenon.

The “piracy” tag draws attention solely to the financial consequences suffered by authors and intermediaries, while omitting issues that are absolutely fundamental for the state’s cultural policy, such as building social and cultural capital through accessing and sharing content. Only by framing the issue in a neutral way can we look for regulatory solutions that will balance the interests of the authors and intermediaries with societal benefits.

That’s why we were determined to take a closer look at the circulation of content outside of the market and reinvigorate the public debate, which doesn’t seem to have developed in Poland in any sensible way in the years that passed since the fall of Napster. Instead of talking about “piracy,” we’d rather discuss the flow of cultural content in the society. It often slips outside of the control and regulation of both governments and markets – and forms informal circulation.

We didn’t want to evaluate the legality of the behaviors we studied – and by the way, that’s not an easy task. In Poland, even the lawyers themselves can’t agree on what classifies as “fair use.” We assume the point of view of the users themselves and take a closer look at the way they access and use cultural content. We want the debate on regulating certain cultural practices on the Internet to be based on facts and reliable data.


Many have argued that the informal sharing of media content online comes at the expense of purchasing media. We hear the argument that people are unlikely to pay for media when they can get so much of it for free. What did you discover around this question through your research? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: Our results demonstrate that the people who access informal circulations can be roughly divided into two groups. About a quarter of them are people who at the same time download informally and purchase content. Surprisingly enough, they are among the culture industries’ best customers. They make up the largest group among said customers and their expenditures are similar to the expenditures of consumers who don’t engage in illegal downloading. Formal and informal distribution channels are not competing in their case. However, 75% of people who participate in the informal circulation – this amounts to about 25% of all adults in Poland – don’t purchase any media from the formal circulation. They use radio, the TV, and the Internet. The question is whether they’re people that have “quit” the market or ones that never participated in it to begin with. We think (although that’s strictly a hypothesis) that they’re potential future customers or people that don’t participate in formal distribution due to economic reasons. Informal circulations increase the cultural activity of people who, until now, were only passive consumers of mass media.

In our next research projects we are trying to better understand the exact relationship between the two types of circulations, studied through the practices of individual persons. We don’t know for example whether an Internet user that engages with both circulations does it with equal frequency or how downloading influences purchasing behavior over time. We are also pressuring the government to organize a research consortium that would explain the economics of the two circulations.


Mirek Filiciak is a cultural studies scholar, works at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is interested in the influence of digital media on cultural participation practices and research methodologies. Co-editor of Polish cultural studies quarterly Kultura popular (Popular Culture), co-author of book Youth and Media.

Justyna Hofmokl is a sociologist and vice-director of Centrum Cyfrowe - think-and-do-thank building digital society in Poland. She is the author of Internet as a New Commons and published in International Journal of Commons.
Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist and works as director of Centrum Cyfrowe. He is Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland and former member of the Board of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland. His research interests focus around the intersection of intellectual property, society and digital technologies, with a special interest in open models of collaboration and sharing.

Creating Transmedia: An Interview with Andrea Phillips (Part Three)

Game designers have long debated how they might create a game that makes people cry or indeed, whether people cry about games all the time (and not just from frustration.) I am often asked a similar question about transmedia.  Is our experience of transmedia a necessarily cold and analytic one -- putting together pieces of a puzzle, searching for clues which provide insights -- or does it produce its own range of emotional impacts on the audience? 

The idea that weeping is the sole arbiter of emotional response is absurd. The fact is that not only can games and interactive narrative produce a range of emotions -- the same tears and laughter and boredom you can get from flat media -- but also a whole new palette of emotions that require the audience to have agency. Frustration, as you say, but also fiero. Guilt over one's actions. Pride over an accomplishment. Relief at escaping from danger.

Many transmedia narratives share that element of interaction, and hence can open up that broader range of human emotions to provoke. Indeed, this is one of the things I find the most exciting, as a writer -- if the goal if a story is to provide an emotional experience, then surely the forms that allow you to access a wider scope of emotions is the clear winner.

The idea that a transmedia experience must be cold and analytic is equally misdirected. It's mistaking form and structure for content. The emotional payload is carried by the context and meaning each piece has, not by how you consume it. You wouldn't call a business letter anything but a cold and emotionless format, but the memo that hires you or fires you is going to have tremendous emotional weight because of the meaning you bring to it as a reader.

It also bears noting that insight based on fragmented evidence is our natural experience of life. Not to go down that "the whole world is a transmedia experience" path, but there is definitely a seed of truth there -- attaching meaning and therefore emotional weight to what amount to breadcrumbs is a very common and very human activity, whether the stories we're engaging with are authored fiction or not.

Writers have often described film and theater in terms of the willful suspension of disbelief, yet it can be hard to sustain disbelief across a story which is dispersed across so many different media. Indeed, transmedia often calls attention to the processes of its own production and circulation in ways which can impact its emotional reality. This may be why early ARGS claimed “this is not a game” and thus incorporated the reality of the web into the story. I’ve suggested we might think about the active production of belief as part of the expectation the transmedia storyteller places on their audience. What insights do you have about the problem of maintaining the credibility of a transmedia story?

This is an issue I've wrestled with quite a lot, because there are tremendous ethical and legal questions around pervasive fiction. How do you account for bystanders misinterpreting your content -- and maybe reporting you to the authorities? And yet how do you create an immersive experience if you're lamp shading the fact that your story isn't really real?

The solution, I think, is to separate the idea of realism and verisimilitude from the idea of emotional and narrative authenticity. It's easy to mistake the two, because they're both interpretations of truth. This isn't a new problem, either. In the 18th century, many novels claimed to be papers found in an attic, journals arrived in a mysterious parcel, and the like. They, too, were striving for realism in an effort to stake out credibility and authenticity, as the novel was considered a low form at the time. But now we've grown comfortable with the idea that a novel is outright fabricated by a writer, and that novels have cultural value, too.

Transmedia narrative will get there as well, and I suspect a lot faster, because audiences now have much more sophisticated media habits than audiences three hundred years ago. The audience will happily forgive you for gaps in realism. The hero rarely has to take a bathroom break, after all, and the bad guys are nearly always terrible marksmen. But if you have a character react to a situation in a way that doesn't feel true to the audience, you'll simply lose them.

Once you recognize this key distinction, it liberates you from striving to make things all look perfectly and completely realistic. The audience wants to buy into your story, so using intro and outro bumpers on video clips and corporate footers on websites don't damage the heart of the experience.

Classic Hollywood developed principles of redundancy so that every detail that mattered was repeated multiple times -- they sometimes talked about the Law of Threes. Does redundancy become more or less important in a transmedia text? What are some strategies that are effective for building redundancy into the text without boring your most dedicated fans? Are there other principles which should be used to insure the accessibility of a transmedia story?

As with many parts of transmedia creation, there's no one right answer. It depends on what works best for the project you're trying to make. Outright repetition could be necessary in some works and not others.

The one hard rule I'd put is this: if you're providing multiple entry points to your story, then you need to provide enough context for the audience to understand what's going on at exactly that point. If that means you have to repeat important details, then so be it, but a more elegant solution might be to provide easy access to that information in an out-of-story reference source. It might also be possible to include certain key information in entry pieces of content and then never repeat them. If you're making a sprawling Star Wars-style venture, you probably don't need to explain what a Jedi is in every new book or film; you can assume a certain amount of canon knowledge in your audience.

There is one more consideration, though, and that's the effect of fandom on a work. In an emergent and adaptive narrative, you may not even know what details will be important ahead of time. You simply choose the things your audience has focused on and reward that focus to the best of your ability.

Some communities thrive on explaining the story to one another, as well. Homestuck comes to mind -- it's recently been described as the Ulysses of the internet by the Idea Channel. It's nominally a web comic, but there are strong game influences and even outright games, music, and heavy audience influence over the events of the story. At this point, there are dozens of characters and an incredibly convoluted universe that operates under some very specific rules. The story can be nearly inscrutable in places if you aren't active in the fan community one way or another.

But if the creator, Andrew Hussie, were to repeat important details in the way that Hollywood might suggest, it would disrupt the flow of the story, limit its scope to what could be planned ahead of time, and it would remove the need for a sort of social grooming that happens in the fan community, of sharing common knowledge about the story and world. I don't think that fandom would be as robust if Homestuck itself wasn't as opaque.


Some argue that elements built into a transmedia story in order to intensify fan engagement can seem overwhelming to a more casual consumer who wants to just sit back and be entertained. Is this tension inevitable around a transmedia work or can we, as Christy Dena has argued, created different forms and levels of participation for different segments of a transmedia audience?

We can design for different levels of participation, and in fact for the most part we do. But there is a point of diminishing returns. If only ten people in the world will ever see a piece of content, perhaps you're better spending your budget on something else. You do in general have to choose between providing a very rich and deep experience for very few people, or providing a somewhat shallower experience to a much broader audience.

The fashionable solution right now is to make each platform a self-encapsulated narrative, completely accessible to casual audiences. Star Wars works just as one movie. Lizzie Bennett Diaries works just as a web series. Lance Weiler's Pandemic works just as a short film, and so on and so forth. But there are varying degrees of immersion available if you're motivated for all three of these. For Star Wars, you get entire other stories. For Lizzie Bennett, you get just a little characterization and depth.

And again, the issue of fandom rears its head. In a classic alternate reality game, most people will never actually solve a serious puzzle or pick up documents in a secret meeting at midnight. But the players who do jump through those hoops actually become a part of the entertainment for more passive audience members. The experience becomes something akin to a spectator sport.

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. Her book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is published by McGraw-Hill. Her work includes educational and commercial projects such as The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones with Campfire Media, America 2049 with human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, Routes for Channel 4 Education, the independent commercial ARG Perplex City, and The 2012 Experience for Sony Pictures. These projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a BIMA, an IVCA Grand Prix award, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others.

Creating Transmedia: An Interview with Andrea Phillips (Part One)

Over the past few years, there has been a minor publishing industry emerging around books which seek to explain the aesthetics and economics of transmedia or crossmedia entertainment production. Among them: Drew Davidson (from Carnegie Melon University’s Entertainment Technology Program) contributed Cross-Media Communication (2010); Wired Magazine’s Frank Rose (2010) published The Art of Immersion; Nuno Bernardo (2011), a Portugal-based transmedia producer who has done work in Canada, Europe, and the United States, published A Producer’s Guide to Transmedia; the similarly titled A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences Across Multiple Platforms  is the work of Andrea Phillips (2012), whose clients have included HBO, Sony Pictures, and Channel 4, and Max Gionavagnoli (2011), an Italian based transmedia producer and teacher who has organized the Ted X Transmedia events, recently published a more theoretical work, Transmedia Storytelling: Imagery, Shapes, and Techniques. It is not simply that these books come from both industry and academic sources or that they come from both the United States and Europe, but the individual authors also often straddle borders, as creative producers who work sometimes in academic settings, or as producers who work in multiple national contexts. These books engage in what might be described as speculative aesthetics, theorizing future directions in transmedia, alongside pragmatic advice for would be producers.  

As someone who teaches courses in this space (and regularly hears from other faculty who are developing such classes), it is great to have such a rich array of texts to use to instruct and inspire our students. I am committed to using this blog to run interviews showcasing this projects: so far, I have run interviews with Davidson and with Rose, and now, I am happy to share this exchange with Andrea Phillips.

Phillips is one of the most thoughtful writers working in this space today: she manages to hit the right balance between pragmatism and vision, between describing the conditions under which transmedia producers work today and spelling out the long term potentials of this still emerging form. She has the weight of hard experience behind her, but she is also deft at exploring theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of her project. I learned a ton from reading her book, and I learned more from her response to some potentially challenging questions I threw her way. I hope you enjoy this interview which I will run across the next few installments. I am very much looking forward to meeting her in person at the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT next week. (And, shameless plug, it's not too late for you to register to join us there.)


I was delighted to see such a strong emphasis on the audience in the title of your book. Many people want to see transmedia as centrally about textual practices or about technological affordances. What model of audience underlies the approach you take in your book?

I come to the creation of transmedia narrative as an audience member myself, first and foremost. As a result, I'm absolutely militant about making sure that the story has value to my intended audience, even across a spectrum of consumption styles. This approach arguably has as much in common with software design as with other kinds of storytelling: use cases and user flows become just as important as emotional texture and pacing.

There's an interesting piece of mental gymnastics required when you're thinking explicitly about your audience. On the one hand, the audience is made of multiple individuals who will each have different experiences of the narrative, depending on factors like mood and context you have no control over. And for many people, that individual experience is all they'll have.

On the other hand, your audience is made up of individuals who talk to one another -- on forums or other digital communities, on social media, in person. Just as your work is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts, so too is the audience. It's smarter than the single smartest person. It's a living organism that makes decisions about how to engage with your story on behalf of a huge share of your audience.

You have to be able to hold both of these ideas in your head, and plan both for the individual and for the hive mind simultaneously. That can be a tricky maneuver. It's easier to design simple for a single-player experience or assume every audience member will be experiencing your story through the lens of a collective. But it's much better practice to take both angles into account.


Your first sentence tells us, “there’s never been a more exciting time to be a storyteller.” Why? 


We're in the middle of an epochal shift in how human beings communicate with each other. There have been other disruptions in the past, of course. The printing press and television were both incredible disrupting technologies that totally altered our communications landscape. But the internet and the mass availability of the tools of production have for the first time put the power of one-to-many and many-to-one communications in the hands of just about everyone. (Gibson's unevenly distributed future notwithstanding.)

The result is a revolution in how we view and consume news, in how we engage politically, how we promote and fund businesses, how we spend our leisure time. And more to the point, it's completely altered the landscape of the possible for art and for artists. We have new tools and new ways to reach audiences -- and that's amazing.

But the part that gets me incredibly excited is that we're experimenting with new forms, too, or changing old ones into something breathtakingly novel. We're making new kinds of art that can exist only in the intersections between media, not just taking old media to new places. It's not every generation that gets to feel like you're shaping a whole new art form.


You write in the book about the East Coast and West Coast Schools of transmedia design philosophy. How important do you think these geographic distinctions have been in the ways transmedia has evolved over recent years? And what happens when we open transmedia to a more global perspective? Surely, East and West Coast mean something different if we are talking about Europe, Latin America, or Australia, each of which has made innovative transmedia properties.

In a way, I regret codifying that West Coast vs. East Coast ideology in the book, because the distinction I was addressing has much more to do with philosophy than with geography -- it's meant to underline a cultural difference created by different underlying industries and mechanisms of productions. Of course Los Angeles transmedia is heavily influenced by Hollywood and the TV industry that exists out there -- many of the people coming into transmedia in that region happen to come in already having that skill set, and it's wise to use the skills you have.

Meanwhile, New York has a very strong live theater community, and a strong network supporting independent film. So it makes perfect sense that works in that region would be influenced by proximity to those artists.

I find it extremely frustrating that a perception exists that big franchise-style intertextual works and very personalized independent works can't both be transmedia at the same time. It doesn't need to be a value judgment. Removing either one cheapens the whole of transmedia and what's possible under that umbrella.

Of course there are tremendous transmedia works coming out of Canada, Australia, the UK, Scandinavia -- and it's not easy to slot those into East Coast vs. West Coast. They all have their own distinct style and flavor, because of varying local factors. Canada, for example, has a world-class presence for transmedia documentary and nonfiction, as a side effect of how its funding bodies operate.

As we open our eyes to even more work being done globally, we'll find more interesting variations in approach than even that. In fact, I'd put down money that distinctions in that work already exist, but they haven't yet been thoroughly documented in English. What's the state of transmedia in Bollywood? What strides are occurring in the Korean MMO community?

It would be remarkably arrogant to just assume there are none -- it's a better bet to imagine there are marvelous works being created that the English-speaking transmedia community simply hasn't encountered yet. This is doubly true when you consider how many creators in English have independently stumbled into transmedia by making it before they ever heard the term.

From the start, transmedia has been caught in the competing pulls of marketing and storytelling. But, is this really different from any other form of commercial or popular entertainment form, which have historically been described in terms of the tension between Art and Commerce? What’s at stake in seeing transmedia as a form of storytelling as opposed to a form of marketing?

It's not a brand new thing, or unique to transmedia, not at all. This is the same old song and dance that early film went through, in particular. We have to navigate a tangled web of issues ranging from the credibility of art and artists, the need to make a living, public perceptions of the form, and the filters that audiences use to view any given work. The net result, though, is that being viewed solely as a potential marketing vehicle is very definitely a huge risk to the development of transmedia storytelling as an independent industry.

These risks are threefold. First, it means transmedia is on the hook to produce successful marketing outcomes in order for ongoing production of new projects to continue. This is problematic because transmedia isn't inherently a particularly good or efficient marketing vehicle. Transmedia marketing campaigns projects have created some amazing press buzz, to be sure, but the efficacy of a transmedia marketing campaign varies tremendously. And even in the areas where transmedia marketing excels (creating depth of engagement, for example) it's notoriously hard to measure how A few high-profile, expensive failures could chill any client's appetite for transmedia work. It would be a tragedy for something like that to smother the industry in the cradle.

And it means that audiences approaching a transmedia work will always be trying to ferret out the hidden brand message. Worse, it means that the creators are beholden to stay on message, limiting the scope of possible work enormously. A marketing client may place limits ranging anywhere from a mild "no swearing" to something as confining as "no responding to Tweets or comments." These limitations can hinder the viability of individual projects. But they're invisible to the public -- all they'll see is a transmedia marketing campaign that just doesn't quite work, and before you know it, transmedia itself is written off as an unviable mode of creation.

But equating transmedia with marketing, not storytelling, also means that independent artists have a more difficult time with winning grants, for example, or even generating press coverage. This does rise from that tension between art and commerce you mention; there is a myth that real artists don't sully their hands with concerns about mere money, the romanticizing of the starving artist in a garret producing purer work. Meanwhile, some of the finest art of our time is created as design work for advertisements. But it's not considered "art" in the purest sense because it was commissioned for a commercial purpose.

Ultimately, the credibility of transmedia as an art form is on the line, and therefore the willingness for programs to permit it as a course of study, for funding bodies to award money, or for investors to contribute will all suffer.

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. Her book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is published by McGraw-Hill. Her work includes educational and commercial projects such as The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones with Campfire Media, America 2049 with human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, Routes for Channel 4 Education, the independent commercial ARG Perplex City, and The 2012 Experience for Sony Pictures. These projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a BIMA, an IVCA Grand Prix award, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others.






Videos from Transmedia Hollywood 3: Rethinking Creative Relations

Sometimes it's easy, sometime's its hard. We've had ongoing success in building a community around the Future of Entertainment Consortium's west coast event, Transmedia Hollywood, which is jointly produced each year through a collaboration between University of Southern California and University of California-Los Angeles (or as they would put it, University of California-Los Angeles and University of Southern California). But, this year's conference seemed to be under some kind of black cloud. We never have had so much difficulty lining up speakers, so much last minute shuffling of presenters. On top of that, the event will be known as the year without Henry, since I ended up in the hospital on the eve of the event, ended up missing most of the day as I fought my way through the bureaucracy to get released. And, then, we faced epic delays getting the videos out to the world.

Well, the videos are finally here and, despite the struggles, we are still very proud of what we were able to produce -- the speakers are, as always, lively and thought provoking, a rich mix of academics and folks from many different sectors of the entertainment industry, and the content remains timely, capturing some of the key transitions shaping the entertainment industry today and bringing an ever stronger transnational focus to the mix, as we are connecting more and more with folks creating transmedia content around the world.

With the growth of transmedia and creative industries/production studies focused classes at universities around the world, we hope these videos will prove to be important resources for use in the classroom or to assist researchers who would not otherwise have access to insider perspectives within the media industries.

Above all, enjoy! And if you find something interesting, help us spread the word.

Transmedia Hollywood 3: Rethinking Creative Relations

As transmedia models become more central to the ways that the entertainment industry operates, the result has been some dramatic shifts within production culture, shifts in the ways labor gets organized, in how productions get financed and distributed, in the relations between media industries, and in the locations from which creative decisions are being made.

This year's Transmedia, Hollywood examines the ways that transmedia approaches are forcing the media industry to reconsider old production logics and practices, paving the way for new kinds of creative output. Our hope is to capture these transitions by bringing together established players from mainstream media industries and independent producers trying new routes to the market. We also hope to bring a global perspective to the conversation, looking closely at the ways transmedia operates in a range of different creative economies and how these different imperatives result in different understandings of what transmedia can contribute to the storytelling process - for traditional Hollywood, the global media industries, and for all the independent media-makers who are taking up the challenge to reinvent traditional media-making for a "connected" audience of collaborators.

Many of Hollywood's entrenched business and creative practices remain deeply mired in the past, weighed down by rigid hierarchies, interlocking bureaucracies, and institutionalized gatekeepers (e.g. the corporate executives, agents, managers, and lawyers). In this volatile moment of crisis and opportunity, as Hollywood shifts from an analog to a digital industry, one which embraces collaboration, collectivity, and compelling uses of social media, a number of powerful independent voices have emerged. These include high-profile transmedia production companies such as Jeff Gomez's Starlight Runner Entertainment as well as less well-funded and well-staffed solo artists who are coming together virtually from various locations across the globe. What these top-down and bottom-up developments have in common is a desire to buck tradition and to help invent the future of entertainment. One of the issues we hope to address today is the social, cultural, and industrial impact of these new forms of international collaboration and mixtures of old and new work cultures.

Another topic is the future of independent film. Will creative commons replace copyright? Will crowdsourcing replace the antiquated foreign sales model? Will the guilds be able to protect the rights of digital laborers who work for peanuts? What about audiences who work for free? Given that most people today spend the bulk of their leisure time online, why aren't independent artists going online and connecting with their community before committing their hard-earned dollars on a speculative project designed for the smallest group of people imaginable - those that frequent art-house theaters?

Fearing obsolescence in the near future, many of Hollywood's traditional studios and networks are looking increasingly to outsiders - often from Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue - to teach these old dogs some new tricks. Many current studio and network executives are overseeing in-house agencies, whose names - Sony Interactive Imageworks, NBC Digital, and Disney Interactive Media Group - are meant to describe their cutting-edge activities and differentiate themselves from Hollywood's old guard.

Creating media in the digital age is "nice work if you can get it," according to labor scholar Andrew Ross in a recent book of the same name. Frequently situated in park-like "campuses," many of these new, experimental companies and divisions are hiring large numbers of next generation workers, offering them attractive amenities ranging from coffee bars to well-prepared organic food to basketball courts. However, even though these perks help to humanize the workplace, several labor scholars (e.g. Andrew Ross, Mark Deuze, Rosalind Gill) see them as glittering distractions, obscuring a looming problem on the horizon - a new workforce of "temps, freelancers, adjuncts, and migrants."

While the analog model still dominates in Hollywood, the digital hand-writing is on the wall; therefore, the labor guilds, lawyers, and agent/managers must intervene to find ways to restore the eroding power/leverage of creators. In addition, shouldn't the guilds be mindful of the new generation of digital laborers working inside these in-house agencies? What about the creative talent that emerges from Madison Avenue ad agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, makers of the Asylum 626 first-person horror experience for Doritos; or Grey's Advertising, makers of the Behind the Still collective campaign for Canon? Google has not only put the networks' 30-second ad to shame using Adword, but its Creative Labs has taken marketing to new aesthetic heights with its breathtaking Johnny Cash [collective] Project. Furthermore, Google's evocative Parisian Love campaign reminds us just how intimately intertwined our real and virtual lives have become.

Shouldn't Hollywood take note that many of its most powerful writers, directors, and producers are starting to embrace transmedia in direct and meaningful ways by inviting artists from the worlds of comic books, gaming, and web design to collaborate? These collaborations enhance the storytelling and aesthetic worlds tenfold, enriching "worlds" as diverse as The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and cable's The Walking Dead. Hopefully, this conference will leave all of us with a broader understanding of what it means to be a media maker today - by revealing new and expansive ways for artists to collaborate with Hollywood media managers, audiences, advertisers, members of the tech culture, and with one another.

Once the dominant player in the content industry, Hollywood today is having to look as far away as Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue for collaborators in the 2.0 space.

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA


Nick Childs, Executive Creative Director, Fleishman Hillard

Jennifer Holt, co-Director, Media Industries Project, UCSB

Lee Hunter, Global Head of Marketing, YouTube

Jordan Levin, CEO, Generate

In countries with strong state support for media production, alternative forms of transmedia are taking shape. How has transmedia fit within the effort of nation-states to promote and expand their creative economies?

Moderator: Laurie Baird, Strategic Consultant - Media and Entertainment at Georgia Tech Institute for People and Technology.


Jesse Albert, Producer & Consultant in Film, Television, Digital Media, Live Events & Branded Content

Morgan Bouchet, Vice-President, Transmedia and Social Media, Content Division, Orange

Christy Dena, Director, Universe Creation 101

Sara DIamond, President, Ontario College of Art and Design University

Mauricio Mota, Chief Storytelling Officer, Co-founder of The Alchemists

A new generation of media makers are taking art out of the rarefied world of crumbling art-house theaters, museums, and galleries and putting it back in the hands of the masses, creating immersive, interactive, and collaborative works of transmedia entertainment, made for and by the people who enjoy it most.

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA.


Tara Tiger Brown, Freelance Interactive Producer/Product Manager

Mike Farah, President of Production, Funny Or DIe

Ted Hope, Producer/Partner/Founder, Double Hope Films

Sheila C. Murphy, Associate Professor, University of Michigan

By many accounts, the comics industry is failing. Yet, comics have never played a more central role in the entertainment industry, seeding more and more film and television franchises. What advantages does audience-tested content bring to other media? What do the producers owe to those die-hard fans as they translate comic book mythology to screen? And why have so many TV series expanded their narrative through graphic novels in recent years?

Moderator: Geoffrey Long, Lead Narrative Producer for the Narrative Design Team at Microsoft Studios.


Katherine Keller, Culture Vultures Editrix at Sequential Tart

Joe LeFavi, Quixotic Transmedia

Mike Richardson, President, Dark Horse Comics

Mark Verheiden, Writer (Falling Skies, Heroes)

Mary Vogt, Costume Designer (Rise Of The Silver Surfer, Men In Black)

For those of you who live on the East Coast, here's the latest news from Sam Ford, who is hard at work planning the next Futures of Entertainment conference:

We have just announced that FoE6 will be Friday, Nov. 9, and Saturday, Nov. 10, in the Wong Auditorium at MIT. Panels will tackle subjects such as the the ethics and politics of curation, corporate listening and empathy, "the shiny new object syndrome," new distribution models in a digital age, and rethinking copyright. We will also look specifically at innovations in storytelling and sports, in video games, in public media, and in civic media.

Information on the tentative schedule, as well as registration, is available here.