Satisfying both hard-core and casual fans is a major dilemma in transmedia storytelling. As The Matrix franchise illustrates, if the components of a transmedia narrative rely too heavily on one another, they can be incomprehensible for the average consumer. Yet in franchises like Hellboy, if the components of a transmedia narrative are too loosely connected, with some purely functioning as conjectural narratives, devoted fans may lose interest.[1] Thus, transmedia creators face “the Goldilocks paradox”: too much interdependence and the core narrative is confusing, too little interdependence and the extensions are worthless.

To further complicate matters, many different types of consumers watch television. Jenkins introduces three broad categories: zappers, casuals, and loyals.[2] Zappers watch snippets of episodes rather than investing in a particular show whereas loyals are people who form a prolonged relationship with a television show. Casuals fall somewhere in between, watching a full episode when they have the time. These same categories can also be applied to the multiplatform environment. A Zapper might watch the Star Trek movie trailer briefly on their way to Facebook, but a loyal will scrutinize a site like Memory Alpha[3] for more information on the Trek universe. Thus, television producers must not only balance catering to loyals and casuals in the television show (shifting between episodic and serial tendencies) but they also must cater to different types of multiplatform users.

Alexander Austin, in his master’s thesis Expectations Across Entertainment Media, discusses the role of the implicit contract between audiences and media providers.[4] He breaks down the agreements of the contract in its simplest terms:

The Audience offers the Provider
Their time
Their attention
And sometimes (e.g. movies, cable TV) their money.

The Provider offers the Audience
Entertainment
And the delivery structure they expect.

Whenever an entertainment provider violates the implicit contract created by the audience’s expectations (through intrusive advertising or clumsy product placement, for example), they risk alienating their audience. [5]

The implicit contract is much more complicated, of course, and Austin develops the intricacies in his thesis. Hard-core fans might expect a deep, complex narrative world to explore, whereas a casual fan might want an understandable and familiar story line.[6] A hard-core fan may be satisfied with a small bit of learned information in a narrative extension, whereas a casual fan may expect to learn a great deal of information for having to migrate to other media.

I do not mean to suggest that all dedicated, hard-core fans will migrate across platforms and participate in the alternate reality game, play the videogame, or watch the webisodes. Nor will all casual fans be limited to watching the television show. But for purposes of this thesis, I’d like to focus on two distinct ends of the spectrum: hard-core fans and casual fans.

Hard-core fans are the equivalent to typical “cult” fans. They watch and re-watch every episode. They enthusiastically consume ancillary texts and join communities to actively discuss the show. Most often, hard-core fans are interested in the dense mythology of the show. In the era of Television 2.0, their implicit contract might looks like this:

The Hard-Core Fan offers the Provider
Their time
Their attention
Their commitment to all media texts
Their money
Their free labor (by implicitly marketing the show through blogs, social networks etc.)

The Provider offers the Hard-Core Fan
A compelling, coherent story
Multiplatform entertainment
“Insider” information (interaction with the cast and crew)
The opportunity for mastery

Casual fans, in the sense I’m using the term, only watch the television show.  Not to be confused with Jenkins’ ‘casuals,’ these fans most likely have seen every episode of a television show, but do not venture into the multiplatform environment. Instead, their knowledge is limited to the plot of the show, however extensive that may be. Casual fans may be intrigued by the mythology of a show, but they do not pursue narrative extensions to build on their understanding of it. Their implicit contract might look like this:

The Casual Fan offers the Provider
Their time
Their attention

The Provider offers the Casual Fan
A compelling, coherent story

By focusing on these two extremes, I will have a more appropriate vocabulary for discussing how a television show might uphold both sets of implicit contracts. Most fans fall in between these extremes, but by satisfying both sets of demands, television producers can be assured that viewers who are comfortable as casual or hard-core fans will be equally satisfied.

[1] Long notes that the Hellboy universe may have been a commercial success, but it also contained many inconsistencies and oddities that frustrated fans. Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company.
[2] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture.
[3] Fan wiki for all things Star Trek.
[4] Austin, Alexander. Expectations Across Entertainment Media. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Master’s Thesis, 2007
[5] Ibid., 7.
[6] Ibid.,17.
[7] Abbot, Stacey. “How Lost found its audience: The Making of a Cult Blockbuster.” Reading Lost: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show.  Ed. Roberta Pearson. London: IB Tauris, 2009.

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
Tags: Uncategorized

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