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The episode “Two for the Road” appeared to be just like any other Lost episode. There was a showdown between Jack and Sawyer, a tense moment with a member of the mysterious ‘Others,’ and a shocking twist ending – the death of two prominent characters. Yet for many devoted fans, “Two for the Road” delivered another level of excitement. The last commercial break featured a 15-second spot for the Hanso Foundation, a fictional institution from Lost, which encouraged viewers to call 1-800-HANSORG. The advertisement launched a five-month, interactive “multimedia treasure hunt,” complete with e-mails, phone-calls, newspaper ads, physical events and web sites, allowing participants to investigate the Hanso Foundation as if it were real. [1]  The episode “Two for the Road” thus propelled Lost into a multiplatform narrative, with the producers telling fans: “you can TiVo it, but don’t skip the commercials.” [2]

As I write this thesis, television is changing significantly. No longer is it realistic for networks to deliver programming at a fixed time and expect mass audiences to passively consume it. Instead, television executives must cater to a new audience—one that has fragmented into niche communities and one that is not satisfied in merely consuming, but also producing, sharing, and interacting as well. These are the audiences that mark the era of  ‘Television 2.0’ and to engage them, television executives have begun designing stories that extend across multiple media platforms, far beyond the television set.   These interconnected cross-media stories, such as the aforementioned Lost example, are a new form of entertainment known as transmedia storytelling.[3]

The concept of transmedia storytelling is so new to television that neither a concrete economic nor artistic model exists yet. Television executives realize they must change how their business operates, but they are not willing to embrace Television 2.0 audiences at the expense of traditional television viewers. [4]  John Boland, an executive at PBS observes, "We're going through what's going to be an extended period of time with one foot in 20th century, and one in the 21st century.” [5] As the gap continues to widen between consumers who expect a quality television show and consumers who expect a quality multiplatform experience, television producers struggle to satisfy both sets of demands.

This thesis thus tackles the question: how can television producers create a transmedia narrative? And more specifically, how can television producers develop transmedia content that is optional to consume, but still contributes “distinct and valuable” narrative information to the TV show?  After analyzing how many ‘cult’ television shows experiment with transmedia storytelling, I propose a model for crafting television narratives across media platforms. My goal is not to provide the solution to television’s identity crisis or to pinpoint the elements of every successful transmedia story. Rather, I’m interested in identifying potential techniques for designing multiplatform narratives that are deeply engaging for hard-core fans, but optional for casual fans.

Chapter 1 discusses the three types of convergences – economic, technological, and cultural – that create an environment for transmedia stories to thrive. In particular, transmedia storytelling creates multiple points of entry into a franchise, develops new modes of engagement, and increases fan involvement. Now more than ever, transmedia storytelling is becoming a viable and attractive form of entertainment.

Chapter 2 provides a broad overview of transmedia storytelling. A transmedia story, in its most basic form, is a story that unfolds across multiple media platforms. Each transmedia extension can be experienced individually, but it must also contribute distinct information to an overarching narrative. To explore this definition further, I will map out the research in the field, focusing on some recent examples. I then note the major challenges facing transmedia storytelling, such as staying in canon, overcoming the ‘marketing mindset,’ and my paper’s main focus, catering to hard-core fans without alienating casual ones.

Chapter 3 examines some techniques, primarily from American cult television shows, which help build transmedia stories.  In this regard, I propose a potential model for designing a transmedia narrative, arguing that a transmedia/television producer should emphasize the spatial dimensions of a world, motivate exploration through narrative gaps, concentrate on satisfying experiences in the extensions, and use the “validation effect” to reward consumers for their transmedia efforts. In this way, consumers can shape their own level of engagement and become not only observers of another world, but also active participants within it. At the same time, television shows can employ certain narrative limitations that prevent transmedia extensions from becoming essential for comprehension.

Finally, Chapter 4 analyzes the transmedia storytelling tactics behind ABC’s Lost.  Because its core narrative hinges on a complex mythology, Lost struggles to supplement a stand-alone television show with distinct and valuable narrative extensions. By examining how Lost enables consumers to define their own participation in ‘playing’ the show, we can better understand the extent to which Lost offers an optional, yet compelling experience through its expanded text. However successful at balancing casual and hard-core fans though, Lost represents the future for many television shows because it strives to immerse fans within a vast transmedia universe while also promising an internally coherent television show.

Television is in period of transition, but storytelling as a whole has evolved along with the medium. In this thesis, I hope to provide creative insight on how television producers can adjust to the changing media landscape and weave stories outside the television box and into the multiplatform environment.

[1] Miller, Lia.  “To Counter the Doldrums During Summer Reruns, ‘Lost’ Fans Can Get Lost in a Game Online.” The New York Times.  24 April 2006. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/24/business/media/24lost.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print>
[2] Ibid.
[3] Also known as cross-media storytelling or multiplatform storytelling.
[4] Arango, Tim. “Broadcast TV Faces Struggle to Stay Viable.” The New York Times. 27 February 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/business/media/28network.html?_r=3>
[5] Borland, John. “The TV Is Dead. Long Live the TV.” Wired. 6 April, 2007. <http://www.wired.com/entertainment/hollywood/news/2007/04/tvhistory_0406>

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
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Scott Ellington on paragraph 1:

Season2 Episode16. The Hanso Foundation ad violates or subverts one of the most familiar viewer protocols of fictive television narrative. This advertisment isn’t the inevitable, time-honored break from immersion in the storyworld of content, but a triggering hyperlink to audience participatory action; a kind of double negative precedented in ads for “the home game” of GE College Bowl, Jeopardy, The Jack LaLanne Show exercise regimen…but subtly different in that it facilitates personal investment by the viewer on a massive scale, creating a more-connected web of significantly-invested viewers, and not just isolated pockets of home-game-players.

November 9, 2009 2:40 pm
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