There also exists a subset within cultural convergence—“cult convergence” if you will—where cult media intersects with the mainstream culture. Many people think of cult television in terms of a sci-fi or fantasy show yielding a small yet devoted following. Yet this assumption breaks down when you consider other genres of TV shows, like Veronica Mars and Arrested Development, which attract a small, but passionate community. Similarly, sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost, are difficult to classify as purely “cult,” since they have attained such high profile, mainstream success. Sara Gwenllian-Jones focuses her definition of cult TV based on a myriad of narrative traits that invite fans to revel in a show’s complexity:

Cult television’s serial and segmented forms, its familiar formulae, its accumulated multiple storylines, its metatextuality, its ubiquitous intertextuality and intratextuality, its extension across a variety of media, its modes of self-reflexivity and constant play of interruption and excess, work together to overwhelm the processural order of cause and effect, enigma and resolution, extending story events and other narrative and textual elements across boundless networks of interconnected possibilities.[1]

This laundry list of narrative qualities is rather overwhelming, but it is a fair assessment of the various elements that promote collective intelligence and loyal fandom.  However, Matt Hills argues that cult media is not just “found” based on the content and structure of a text, but “created” based on “a raft of overlapping and interlocking versions of ‘us’ and them.”[2] In other words, what makes a media text “cult” is dependent on the complex processes by which fans position the text in opposition to the mainstream. The distinction between cult and mainstream is even more complicated today, especially as industry professionals seek audiences that engage with programs in “cult-like” ways.[3]

Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner, observes this trend at Comic Con, an event that used to be a small gathering of comic book enthusiasts has now become a commercial portal into “cult” realms:

Each year, Comic Con attracts well over 100,000 "gatekeepers," fans of niche, cult or genre entertainment who make it their business to spread the word about the newest and coolest content to their friends and acquaintances both in their home communities and on the Internet. It used to be that one of these gatekeepers would have a circle of five to ten contacts back home to whom he or she would convey what was best about the convention. Now in the age of social networking and pop culture web portals, that number has multiplied exponentially. Add to this the mass media coverage given to Comic Con and content producers can reach untold millions through it.[4]

As described in section 1.3, the reason why cult fans are so valuable is because the Internet enables a small yet vocal fan community to potentially reach a global audience.  As Steven Johnson puts it:

[Showmakers] are relying on the amplifying power of the serious hard-core fans, who are 1% of the audience, to broadcast some of these cool little discoveries to perhaps 10% of their audience. Those are the great evangelists for the show, the 10% who are out there saying, Oh, God, I am so addicted to this show." And they help reel in the other 90%, which is where gratifying the superfans pays off.[5]

Hard-core fans can effectively provide free labor for television shows, but at a price. As the line between commercial and grassroots continues to blur, cult fans look for new resources to maintain their separation from mainstream culture. In 1992, Henry Jenkins observed that fans legitimated their identity through “textual poaching,” appropriating and repurposing the meanings of commercial materials for their own interests and needs.[6] While this certainly is still the case, the era of convergence makes it possible for the entertainment industry to provide unique experiences to cult fans, justifying their distinction from, and even their superiority to, mainstream fandom. Cult fans now expect to interact with the cast and crew of a show through online forums and chats. They expect extratextual content with which they can increase their mastery over regular viewers. And the industry is seeing the economic value in legitimating the most loyal cult fans as “insiders,” as members of an elite group.[7] Ed Sanchez, co-creator of the Blair Witch Project, explains:

If you give people enough stuff to explore, they will explore. Not everyone but some of them will. The people who do explore and take advantage of the whole world will forever be your fans, they will give you an energy you can’t buy through marketing.[8]

Sanchez’s comments suggest that the more narrative resources available for cult fans, the more opportunities exist for them to increase the breath of their knowledge, connect with other fans, form communities, and generally feel more involved in their experience of the fictional world. In an era where ‘geek properties’ are consistently being converted into mainstream ones (X-Men, Star Trek, Lost, Heroes), television producers are learning they must find ways to reward the most enthusiastic fans by giving them a sense of value and appreciation.

In conclusion, one might understand the various types of convergences as follows: Media conglomerates want money from many different media sectors. The television industry wants to compete in an expanding content market. Consumers want to increase their participation and freedom within the media environment. And cult fans want to maintain their identity as separate from the mainstream. In Chapter 3, I offer a creative model for designing transmedia narratives, a mode of storytelling that can help address these goals. First, however, I must provide background on a more basic question: what exactly is transmedia storytelling and how does it work in television?

[1] Gwenllian-Jones, Sara and Pearson, Roberta. Cult Television. Eds. Sara Gwenllian-Jones and Roberta Pearson. University of Minnesota Press, 2004. xvii.
[2] Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2002. 27.
[3] Ross, Sharon Marie. Beyond the Box.
[4] Gomez highlights other reasons for the mainstreaming of cult media, including the rise of baby boomers and gen-Xers in the entertainment industry, the A-list treatment of sci-fi serials, the greater quality of storytelling, and the reflective mood of politics in genre content. In “Talking Transmedia: An Interview With Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (part one).” Henryjenkins.org. 28 May 2008. <http://henryjenkins.org/2008/05/an_interview_with_starlight_ru.html.>
[5] Quoted in Poniewozik, James. “Why the Future of Television is Lost” Time Magazine. 24 September 2006. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1538635-3,00.html>
[6] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
[7] Ross, Sharon Marie. Beyond the Box.
[8] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture, 103.

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
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