…and the truth about ARGs.
Now that transmedia is everywhere and the Producers Guild of America have turned the ‘transmedia producer’ into a bona fide (or at least recognised) professional role one thing that rears it’s cross-media head is, who and where are the best transmedia producers going to come from? I have spent a good part of the last 15 years mentoring & training traditional & non-traditional media types in multiple platform content and now question where the best producers of this multifaceted ‘new’ content will come from – academia, film, book authors, social media consultants, game designers, TV, web developers, radio, advertisers, young, old, not yet born? Read on, a ‘hypothetical’ interview follows and this is an opinion piece I cannot put in my book or lecture about!
TRANSMEDIA – AMBIGUOUS CONCEPT?
Firstly what is it and does it actually mean anything at all? It is fantastic that the term ‘transmedia’ is now so widespread across the industry and with the official credit (attached ironically to film primarily) but is it a bubble about to burst – is what we have come to know as ‘transmedia’ in danger of being blown out of all proportion.
Here are some of the problems:
- Everyone is a transmedia producer - yes you’ve made a website that is attached to a TV show, your a TP. Created a mobile game that has a line or two from the comic, you’re a TP. No one will police this – is it a truly integrated story environment, does it have clever plot links or consistent characters?. A TP is a decathlete (multi-skilled, hard to get a one word answer about what they do in a bar!), gone is nice and simple mono media, a TV producer makes TV shows, film director directs films. You can be a TP if you merge your story across two or more media areas? But more on this later in the post.
- Transmedia as a concept is not focused. OK I know Henry Jenkin’s original definition has been spread around the web but it is a definition that is too broad. Perhaps I should exercise my floccinaucinihilipilification and suggest that something that tries to describe everything is actually worthless? Transmedia like a black hole in the universe it tries to describe sucks in everything that has come before (cross media, 360, social media, augmented reality, pervasive gaming and so on). At the other end of this spectrum citing Matrix or Blair Witch or other brand to justify the ‘field’ as mainstream it becomes apparent that the quoted definition itself is rather vacuuous. To quote Jenkins again from an LA Times article, transmedia - “means telling a story across different platforms, each element of which may or may not stand on its own but contributes to an enriched, dynamic, more participatory and “lifelike” experience.”
- We are still in the hype phase. Basically anything cool and different those transmedia types (and I point the finger at myself too btw) will take ownership of. I even heard the other day someone say Transmedia is the new Social media and augmented reality even gets a look in. I am not surprised those still getting their head around the ‘story’ potential of social networks or a cute mobile game find it all rather, dis-jointed. Also the increase in experimental and experiential ‘event’ based marketing suddenly meant transmedia is now inextricably linked with brand extensions (TV, film, product) – anything that is not a linear, branded film or TV show. I think for those who live in the transmedia echo chamber this has been the case for many years.
- It feels rather academic. Trans-media used to be an alternative semi-academic term to ‘cross-media’ (trans, from the latin ‘crossing’) but is now used to describe everything, non-linear, interactive, extension, participatory, social, brand, play, multi-platform, pervasive and so on. The idea that stories would be told in different places goes back thousands of years but in a modern media context a rich target for study and theorizing. Along came Henry Jenkins who coined the term transmedia almost a decade after the first basic cross-media incarnation. Henry admirably self confesses as being ‘too busy lecturing and presenting about transmedia, to partake’ of the industrial flavour of transmedia “some of it is not well done yet”.
- It is still a teenager. It has grown up before it’s time and become a troublesome big headed teenager without any true home and turned into a dysfunctional orphan at once protectively nurtured by over possessive academics, hijacked by experimental ad agencies and hardly understood by flailing stuck-in-time broadcasters. Originally cross-media was an intellectually stimulating concept – memories of mid 90s, pioneering BBC days also my old friend Brian Seth-Hurst who is “Referred to as “the father of cross platform” Hurst coined the term in 1998 as MD of Convergent Media at Pittard Sullivan”. Earlier definitions just talked about story based ‘crossing platforms’ element but since the exponential increase in social media as a place for millions to dwell it has suddenly had the participatory/social part added and also a suggestion that it is now a more integrated form of storytelling, I suppose I should have added a level 5 to my 5 year old (but about to be removed!) wikipedia cross media definition!
- Danger of being hijacked - Alongside all of this we have a ‘clique’ of so-called experts who try to describe something which is so simple on one hand (stuff on multiple platforms) yet so ambiguous on the other (fragmented narrative effervescence) – time will expose the Transmedia echo chamber I suppose.
Of course I have nothing against the term per-say in the absence of alternatives having created transmedia entities/sites like Transmediadesign.org or lamp.edu.au or muvedesign.com – all transmedia in focus – but lets start thinking about the emperors clothes. Indeed the Producers Guild definition of the TP, however bold in its intention, is still a little ambiguous about the precise elements of the role to say the least
A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.
A Transmedia Producer credit is given to the person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms. Transmedia producers also create and implement interactive endeavors to unite the audience of the property with the canonical narrative and this element should be considered as valid qualification for credit as long as they are related directly to the narrative presentation of a project.
Transmedia Producers may originate with a project or be brought in at any time during the long-term rollout of a project in order to analyze, create or facilitate the life of that project and may be responsible for all or only part of the content of the project. Transmedia Producers may also be hired by or partner with companies or entities, which develop software and other technologies and who wish to showcase these inventions with compelling, immersive, multi-platform content.
TRANSMEDIA – CONTENT (THE TRUTH ABOUT ARGs?)
But this post is not just about the word – there are hundreds of blog posts even now still trying to really get under the surface of what transmedia means and it is too easy to fall down the semantic rabbit hole of terminology and the endless subjective splits between academics, industry and wannabes. Perhaps something more concrete can be found in the ‘transmedia stuff’ itself. What is this stuff and who is making it?
Lets choose three reference points.
- At one end of the spectrum we have the dabblers. Those who create a website for a TV show, a mobile game and if pushed ‘something else’ and call it transmedia. It may or may not have a parallel, adapted or continuous story thread, any social element whatsoever but they call themselves multi-platform, transmedia producers.
- In the middle we have those who wave the flag of ‘alternate entertainment’ but in reality are doing nothing more than TV or film programme extensions and putting 80s style ‘interactive’ (ooooo!) CD Roms on the web – you know those point, click, watch a video, solve a puzzle, quest efforts, perhaps a bit in a magazine or on a billboard but (note the cynicism) really a bunch of ‘video rich’ websites sitting on the coat tails of a TV brand that already has a few million followers eager to bond and help each other out.
- At the far end we are into pervasive gamer territory, experimental academics and installation artists – always trying to counter formulaic mainstream media for their audiences of tens or at most hundreds.
I realise I probably sound overly cynical here but there is a palpable, odd smell in the air as the umpteenth major article on transmedia incessantly cites decade old Blair Witch, I Love Bees, Matrix and recent big brand ‘stuff on multiple platforms’ without any grounded references to the profoundly deeper transition phase we are in.
The change only just begun and which is not about the ‘superficiality’ around linear brands but a much more profound journey towards social media entertainment and people powered play.
One of the poster boys of Transmedia Storytelling is of course the Alternate Reality Game – and indeed I rave about this as a form having the best synergy with multi platform narrative. But I also mention that broadcasters (film and TV) need to be wary of academics and trendy ad agences with their formulaic, transmedia templates, often sold with an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) label. There are way too many that now follow a regimented formula that has evolved over the past 5 or so years, yet they still call these ‘services’ innovative. Templating itself is a road to production efficiency but also ‘creative’ failure as we have seen with so many other forms, interactive TV, web 1.0, the TV cop show etc: all lead to mediocrity. I personally cringe when I see an ARG structured along these rather broadcast lines –
- Trailheads – USB sticks with crackly video, defaced billboards, inserts in TV ads, intrusive/spammy sms
- Dodgy corporate videos – often tongue in cheek ‘dark or light’ – good/evil overtones
- Even dodgier circa 1990’s corporate websites – supposed to be realistic but come out like a cowboy town film set, 1 level deep and stereotypical copy
- 2nd division acting by wannabes pretending to be pollies or pseudo private eyes or trapped victims on quickly setup YouTube accounts
- Endless cryptic web or outdoor clues. Regurgitated 80s CD rom, anagrams or hyroglyph puzzles – Toynbee anyone?
- Poorly executed social network component, rushed install of a SN engine with endless cross-links to new characters on Facebook
- Set outdoor pieces. The obligatory bill boards or broadcast projections
- Flash mobs – many and various
Good ARGs and transmedia storytelling are like a high quality wine, carefully planned, allowed to grow and mature and drunk with an appreciative social group.
OK I am as guilty as everyone else creating a bunch of thrown together mini ARGs over the last few year but ARG’s are held up as the most ‘evolved’ example of the transmedia form – listening to many of the experts you would think the term ‘transmedia’ and ARG are interchangeable in fact. I also use ARGs a great deal when lecturing on how multi platform or networked media design can be utilised to great effect while demoing my own transmedia projects. The creative force of ARGs is all about crossing platforms, distributing story fragments in wild and wacky places then giving the connected users/audience/players something to chew on and do – mostly. But in showing the form as good example one is then confronted with a key question from students and nay sayers, those who likely see the ‘lack of’ emperors clothes. “Surely ARGs (that require a lot of work on the part of the player) are dependent on existing brands & film/TV properties, and will only work with a reasonably large fan base of the initial property – the bottom line wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have big ‘advertorial’ sponsorship?” So
Are Alternate Reality Games leeches or leaders? Are ARGs and transmedia just a subset of social media? How is the success of ARGs measured?
My simple chart captures some of the commercial vs self sufficient ARGs and those self confessed show extensions and it is pretty clear 90% of the player base will be in the branded/marketing zone. As regards the social element and given the natural collaboration in the games, the fact that media is mostly scattered on open social platforms (including the real world) and fictional characters often inhabit existing social networks, surely this is just ‘social and participatory storytelling’? Again there is no real answer beyond a semantic cross-over and common timeline.
Which came first crowds flooding across platforms driven by social motivations (think mobile twitter, facebook, youtube) or media services encouraging consumers to move across platforms fuelled by their wonderful storytelling?
I personally believe what we currently define as transmedia has been piggy backing on what we now call social media for the past 15 years. I was lucky to have a few drinks with Chris Sandberg a few months ago in Sydney. Many will know him as a key creator of ‘The Truth about Marika‘. We agreed in no uncertain terms that ARGs have two clear sides – ones that are purely big buck promotional and others that are about new form storytelling, creating something different, involving audience in a co-creative way. I won’t quote him on his view of ‘the commercial ARG’ but will in a longer post about to be published on the differences between story and brand based ARG and Augmented Reality – I extensively quoted from his talk on his own efforts in the area with Marika.
THE BEST TRANSMEDIA PRODUCERS – THE INTERVIEW
OK this is the point in a post where you realise you have gone on way too long and not yet really tackled the intention of the title.
It is always going to be difficult in a not so clearly defined medium to identify the traits that make up the ideal person to create the content in that medium. But taking my perspective that transmedia (as an evolved, experiential form) is nearer to my many previous posts on this topic (eg: here and here and here) a balanced combination of
- social media networking
- wisdom of crowds gaming
- multi level, responsive dynamic AND richer static story
- community created content
- clever technical bridges across platforms
vs a locked-down authored branded or advertorial maze, lets see which of these existing media creators are most suitable for this new media role? BTW I am sure you are expecting a conclusive ‘combination of all the skillsets’ coming up – which I will try to refrain from! So in alphabetical order and based on my meandering experience with each of these type of folk, some pro’s and con’s as to their suitability for the role Warning note: stereotypes abound – excuse
- The Academic - Often motivated by learning outcomes and therefore willing to put measurement and experimentation over a compelling story experience and practical implementation this type are good in research or early consultant roles but not in a producer role. Some academics are very useful in identifying emerging technology too – which might give you some PR or ‘cool’ness’ value, but nothing more.
- The Filmmaker – From a background of telling ‘their’ stories and putting their name and/or company first and foremost these are not the best social or game creators in a transmedia context but the good ones obviously create the best ‘produced’ video material for a transmedia production. But although they can sometimes create compelling fixed content and at a push fragmented (webisode-like) rich story it is often over authored, rigid so the transmedia elements are after-thoughts or superficial add-ons. Also they themselves are unlikely to be ‘properly embedded’ in online social arenas or play games so therefore removed from giving some of the story creation to the users. They see transmedia primarily as a way to promote their real interest in the space and get eyeballs on their real passion, the mothership films. Also something even more alien to the filmmaker is the evolving story – as the transmedia experience progresses “you mean I have to create more material on the fly!!” and even louder “listen to the audience!!!”
- The Book Author – Ideally suited to planning the distributed story as good writers meticulously structure the narrative arcs to create something that in the mind of the reader really takes them on a mental, experiential journey. But as TPs (transmedia producers) these folk are not ideal as they are motivated again by control and authorship and even more worryingly locking down their content into the printed form (as if that somehow is the pinnacle of storytelling). “I am a published author therefore…” you know the rest. So they understand the social aspects even less than filmmakers but there are some good writers who really get gaming principles, to a certain degree.
- The Social Media Consultant – A new category of potential transmedia producer emerging. Ideally suited to build community over time and forge interplay between the social network members. There is a far richer synergy between social media and gaming/contributed media than the traditional media candidates and they understand what drives participation vs passive consumption. That said these folk are not usually storytellers or able to construct powerful and immersive ‘temporal’ fictional narrative – a good blogger, a magic realism storyteller does not make. They often fall down in ‘production value’ areas, coming from a mostly web background where good transmedia needs ‘authentic’ well produced video/audio as part of its mix, they are often left lacking.
- The Game Designer – Yes a strange breed. In theory if transmedia has a significant element of collaborative gameplay (to at least motivate some of the trans’ing) then a game producer should be ideally suited. Able to understand play and powerful quest techniques the game creator will also make the transmedia experience more ‘immersive’ and active (vs just picking up morsels of content here and there). But as usual from a long background of rather superficial and thin story this candidate will again fall down on the ‘deep’ story category. Unless the users feel that there is something beyond a simple alien invasion or strange outbreak of zombie’ness they will loose interest quickly and carefully structuring back-story and reveal is not often the true domain of the game developer – mostly. (This is changing of course and we shall review this candidate in 2 years time!)
- The TV Producer – Driven by eyeballs (either to justify public service remit or advertising dollar) this is all about volume. The most powerful ally of transmedia is broadcast episodic, able to bring story in a structured way over time to many people and move them around and across platforms. But even more than the filmmaker the TV show dominates. At first seen as a supporting role, the TV producer themselves reports upwards and even the most enlightened channel controller is more interested in TV ratings than web engagement. So the transmedia components are again relegated to a supplementary role. But these are probably one of the best candidates, producing content often in a live and rapidly produced context, a history of some level of discussion and experimentation with the audience – but TV to many transmedia consumers is now just part of video delivered to a screen and therefore unless it is appointment to view (live) the TV producer’s role is strong but not critical anymore.
- The Web Developer - Yes the obvious choice. Tell me about yourself. “Well I know php and mysql, developed a range of API mashups and …” Hold it there. Sure some webbies are great storytellers and many are not techies but spending most of their time producing web environments has produced a person suffering rather from ADD. They are great multi-taskers, able to respond quickly but cannot manage or create the 3 or 6 month story. Constantly shifting between mini stories on tens of key sites, some pushed (web 1.0) many pulled (soc media) it is all about the 3 minute YouTube-bite or 13 lined twitter thread and not about the enigmatic deeper story universe.
- The Radio Producer - A dark horse candidate. The talk-back producer especially understands how topic of conversation and story can be great call to actions for its listening community. Radio is also deeply embedded into location, not tied to cinema/tv/book but can exist almost ambiently yet powerful enough (as we found out with the 1950s War of World broadcast) to convince people that fiction is reality. The background and training of the radio producer though means they have had years of being locked in dark, dank studios and not had time to really understand multiple media – but definitely a candidate for the future.
- The Advertiser - OK those pesky advertiser types. Always quick to jump on the next big bandwagon and spread their messages. They understand how to grab eyeballs when and wherever they are – on the bus, in the toilet, lying on the grass in the park (oh and all those screens too). Adept at pulling attention towards them and locking people into experiences – but wait those experiences last a minute, ten minutes, maximum a few days. Not good enough Mr/s Advertiser. Short head experiences do not cut the mustard – you must extend, have longer stories and engage at multiple levels to be a real candidate for the job. Try harder.
- Young, old or not yet born – Right, hedging my bets or rather scraping the barrel now. People who are either too old to be caught up in the ‘confusion’ of current multiple platforms OR too young to even see the confusion. Of course it is likely that the best transmedia producers will come from those who do not care about the word ‘transmedia’ or what we (as media experts) think it is. They live and breathe this stuff without recourse to definition or formulaic trend. Out of ignorance comes bliss – ‘Being but Men’. Review this candidate in five years time.
CONCLUSION – ISH
So ends the interview and there are no doubt many other candidates – event organisers, musical directors, managers etc spring to mind. OK all this is mildly tongue in cheek but it does raise an important dilemma. What exactly is and what is made by a transmedia producer? I will have to say that ideally the transmedia producer like a good ‘music producer’ will have had experience at ‘all’ areas they are giving direction in (and perhaps making themselves). So to get the obvious out of the way –
If you are considering becoming or calling yourself a transmedia producer make sure you are experienced in and/or deeply embedded across games, film, TV, media business, social media, advertising, web tech. If not consider becoming a great multi platform team manager.
It is going to be hard to also identify experienced transmedia producers – those who are supposedly already good at it. Ones that have made a documentary with a contributory YouTube based element and won an award are hardly good cross media storytellers but will happily advertise themselves as ‘award winning transmedia producer’! Neither are those advertisers who made a cool augmented reality marker ad linked to a 30 second spot or a filmmaker who created a spooky ‘outdoor’ event in a city club related to their film. We will indeed have to wait for the stars to emerge. Which actually raises another critical question – Until we get a few stars (beyond brand focused agency types) what will attract the wannabe talent. Those ideal renaissance folk, adept in film & web & etc etc: who will see transmedia storytelling as something that will meet their needs, a part of their ego-system. For another post.
So this post must end on a bit of a anti-climax. A medium that is too broadly defined and a new role that is even less defined means it is nigh on impossible to identify the perfect transmedia producer. One thing is clear though. Any of the above who is willing to put themselves in the spotlight and experiment, try something new and original across multi platforms, take risks, keep away from trending formulaic previous experiments, should, in my mind, be awarded the job – at least on a trial basis