Many scholars and critics have noted that media ownership is controlled by an increasingly smaller number of mega-corporations.[1]  Viacom, Time Warner, NewsCorp, Clear Channel and Disney all include separate divisions for the development of TV shows, films, comics, and video games. Media conglomerates can retain a percentage of the profits from each branch, rather than having to outsource such components to a competitor. Due to this horizontal integration, the entertainment industry has a strong incentive to produce content that moves fluidly across media sectors. Justin Wyatt describes such marketable content in High Concept, arguing that the most lucrative franchises are those claiming a cast of stars, a distinctive style, and an easily digestible premise.[2] Star Wars might be the most powerful transmedia franchise, earning more than 22 billion dollars in 30 years.[3]

The domination of mainstream media outlets by corporate conglomerates makes maintaining and nurturing a franchise relatively easy. Media conglomerates attract diverse audiences into their franchise through various entry points — films, magazines, TV shows, news programs — and continue to barrage them with promotions in virtually every other medium. Despite their ubiquity however, traditional cross-promotions are becoming less effective. People are so bombarded with advertisements and sponsors that they are becoming more skilled at ignoring them.[4] As a result, many corporations have discovered that creating emotional attachment to a product yields more responsive and loyal consumers. As Henry Jenkins points out in his influential book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide:

Franchise products are governed too much by economic logic and not enough by artistic vision. Hollywood acts as if it only has to provide more of the same, printing Star Trek (1966) logo on so many widgets. In reality, audiences want the new work to offer new insights and new experiences. If media conglomerates reward that demand, viewers will feel greater mastery and investment; deny it, and they stomp off in disgust.[5]

Indeed, fans are looking for deeper experiences in the stories they love. They crave more information about their favorite characters and events and are willing to go to great lengths to find it. As a result, Jenkins argues, “if each work offers fresh experiences, then a crossover market will expand the potential gross within any individual media.”[6] That is, an Alias fan may not be a video gamer, but they’d be more than willing to try Alias: Underground if the game contained valuable information to the story world. Simply barraging consumers with branding is not enough. The trick is to add something new and worthwhile to a franchise in order to facilitate an emotional connection with it.

Before going any further, it is important to understand the relationship between convergence and divergence because the two processes are inextricably linked. Derek Johnson argues that shows like Lost and Heroes disperse narrative information across media platforms in a process that is more like divergence than convergence.[7] Johnson sees “divergent narratives” as a more appropriate term to describe narratives extending not just through digital content, but also through newspapers, novels, magazines, and spaces of everyday life. Yet I tend to agree with Jenkins in that convergence and divergence are complementary, not opposing forces. Dispersing content across a wide range of delivery channels (divergence) ensures multiple points of entry into a single media franchise (convergence). Similarly, dispersing narrative information across a wide range of channels (divergence) encourages consumers to pull together all the information and form a unified story (convergence). Either way, technological convergence and divergence have huge implications for the television industry.

[1] Robert McChesney has argued that media ownership threatens our democracy. In Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
[2] Wyatt, Justin. High Concept. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
[3] It is unclear, of course, how much of this money goes to NewsCorp and how much goes to LucasFilm. Greenberg, Andy. “Star Wars' Galactic Dollars.” Forbes.com. 24 May 2007. <http://www.forbes.com/2007/05/24/star-wars-revenues-tech-cx_ag_0524money.html>
[4] “Advertising the Digital Age.” Team Digital Company Blog. 13 March 2009. <http://promotions2.com/2009/new-rules-of-advertising-in-the-digital-age/>
[5] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York Press, 2006. 105
[6] Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling.” MIT Technology Review. 15 January 2003.  <http://www.technologyreview.com/biomedicine/13052/page3/>
[7] Johnson, Derek. “The Fictional Institutions of Lost: World Building, Reality, and the Economic Possibilities of Narrative Divergence.” Reading Lost: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show. Ed. Roberta Pearson. London: IB Tauris, 2009. 27-51.

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
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