Christy Dena argues that there are other ways to expand content across media platforms in addition to Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling. She describes three types of multiplatform segmentation: series, serial, and hybrid.[1] In a multiplatform series, each transmedia text continues a storyline, but primarily stands alone as an individual experience. An example might be Season 8 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which was in the form of a comic book after Buffy had left television. Dena also cites 24: The Game, a video game that filled in narrative gaps between seasons two and three.

Multiplatform serials are the most rare. They refer to texts of a transmedia story that are highly dependent on one another. One example in television might be the CSI: NY/ Second Life crossover in October 2007. In the CSI episode, the investigation team pursues a killer by entering Second Life, a massive virtual world. There is a cliffhanger however, and viewers are told that they won’t be able to see the identity of the killer until the following February. That is, unless they log into Second Life, follow the clues, interview suspects, and solve the murder featured in the CSI: NY episode themselves.[2] This isn’t the purest form of a multiplatform serial, since Second Life players could solve the murder without watching the show, but nevertheless, the core narrative carried over from the television show into Second Life.

Lastly, Dena defines multiplatform hybrids as combining serial and series tendencies. She draws on the television theorist Robin Nelson who introduced the term “flexi-narrative” to describe television shows consisting of self-contained episodes and unresolved narrative threads.[3] This narrative structure is evident in the relationship between Homicide Life On the Streets and the accompanying web series The Second Shift. The web series was generally self-contained, featuring a unique cast of detectives solving crimes after the television detectives went home. But Dena describes a special crossover episode:

[U.S.] viewers of the NBC television show Homicide: Life on the Street, were treated to a special “crossover episode”. It was not a crossover of worlds or brands, instead, it was an intraworld, cross-platform traversal.  On the 3rd and 4th of February, detectives started investigating a webcast killing. These detectives were not those seen on air though, they were the second shift detectives who existed only on the Net. The Second Shift detectives deemed the case closed, but then the detectives on the television  show reopened the case in their television episode called “,” which was broadcast on Feb 5th. The Net detectives then concluded the case the following week on the 12th and 19th online.[4]

Dena’s definition of multiplatform hybrids is most in line with Jenkins’ use of “transmedia storytelling.” In Jenkins’s model, each text is self-contained but also continues the narrative in some way. In the case of Homicide, it would not be unreasonable to either watch the web series or the television show, but viewing both improves the overall experience. As Thomas Hjelm, the executive producer of Second Shift explains, “The episode on Friday is self-contained and makes sense by itself…But if you go online for the [continuing] 'Second Shift' chapters, it just makes more sense.”[5] Thus, the content from the web series would only be an enhancement, not a requirement. Of course, producing optional yet valuable narrative enhancements is an incredibly difficult task, an issue I explore in Chapter 3.

Geoffrey Long classifies transmedia stories based on how they were first conceived from the outset.[6] He outlines hard, soft, and chewy transmedia narratives. Hard transmedia narratives are designed and coordinated from the very beginning. Long cites Orson Scott Card’s Empire franchise and Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerebus as examples. But in television, the most interesting case study is Push, Nevada. Produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Push, Nevada combined a television show with an alternate reality game[7] and a million dollar prize. The show could be enjoyed as a traditional television drama or as a scavenger hunt, as many viewers scrutinized episodes for clues ranging from web addresses to hidden codes in order to unravel a mystery.[8] The alternate reality game component was planned from the beginning to accompany the show. Unfortunately, this real-time contest, however innovative, was a commercial failure, lasting 7 episodes before it was cancelled. [9]

Soft transmedia narratives are those that are expanded across media only after a core property proves to be successful. For example, after Buffy the Vampire Slayer grew in popularity, a whole ‘Buffyverse’ began to emerge, complete with books, comics, and video games. Shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek are the extremes of such soft transmedia narratives. They involve many authors, many characters, many plot lines that span decades, and they often adapt to different audiences along the way. These “unfolding texts,” as Lance Parkin calls them, include so many stories in a variety of media that the franchise as a whole has completely overshadowed the original television series.[10]

Long’s last category, “chewy,” is somewhere in between hard and soft. A chewy transmedia narrative becomes hard only after the core property’s initial success. The Matrix may be the best example, as there are very few chewy transmedia narratives in television. Lost may be the closest to ‘chewiness’, after it set a definite end date at six seasons, allowing the producers to plan out all future transmedia extensions.

Long’s classification system is difficult to apply to television, since in general, television shows only support soft transmedia narratives. That is, they are either expanded across media after they have proven to resonate with audiences (Star Trek, Alias, 24) or after they have left television (Sex and the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly). One reason for this is that most television producers do not have the luxury of planning out a transmedia campaign as the Wachowski brothers did after the first Matrix film.

In the United States, most new series do not last much more than a season.[11] Designing transmedia extensions from the outset is obviously pointless if the show is cancelled after three episodes. In addition, because television writers do not know what will happen in every episode of every season, planning out hard or even chewy transmedia narratives becomes problematic. Television shows constantly adapt and change their storylines based off fan feedback, actor availability, and network pressure. As Carleton Cuse, executive producer of Lost, points out:

Television shows aren't made in a vacuum. They're made in the real world, and the real world is complicated by the fact that you are coordinating your creative plans with hundreds of other people... You can sort of dictate to a certain degree what you want the show to be, but you have to listen just as hard to what the show is telling you it wants to be. [12]

Indeed, as I will discuss with Lost in Chapter 4, actors may leave television shows, budget cuts may limit certain scenes, and some plot lines may no longer be relevant. With all these variables, it is incredibly difficult to plan out transmedia extensions early in the development phase. Especially when dealing with seriality, a common characteristic of cult TV shows, many writers struggle to maintain a consistent and coherent narrative in the television show alone. Yet as Maureen Ryan, a writer from The Chicago Tribune, explains, television producers are discovering that their job description is changing:

They’re [writers and producers] doing all sorts of extra stuff — they’re expected to be multimedia producers as well…I think they’re being asked to wear a lot of hats right now. Because the stakes are so high, because viewers are expecting and demanding such high quality, the season doesn’t end. You reply to fans’ questions, write a blog, record a podcast, record a DVD commentary, and oh! Come up with a show that can compete in this incredibly difficult environment.[13]

This endless television season may be a headache for writers and producers, but because television shows rarely have an end-date in the United States, it is a necessity to compete in the content market. Today, when television shows do have transmedia aspirations, they are most often produced by a network’s marketing division. Heroes may be one of the few exceptions, with a writer/producer overseeing and orchestrating transmedia development. Yet the question remains: can transmedia storytelling be an art form or is it merely a marketing gimmick?

[1] Dena, Christy. “Techniques for Segmenting Content Across Media.” 4 September 2008.
[2] Jenkins, Henry. “Producing the CSI:NY/Second Life Crossover: An Interview with Electric Sheep's Taylor and Krueger (1 of 2).” 24 October 2007.
[3] Dena, Christy. “Techniques for Segmenting Content.”
[4] Dena, Christy.  “Patterns in Cross-Media Interaction Design: It’s Much More than a
URL… (Part 1)” March 10, 2007.
[5] Wolk, Josh. “'Homicide' welcomes its website cast to the show -- a first step in NBC's plans to nab TV defectors.” Entertainment Weekly. 5 February 1999.
[6] Long, Geoffrey. Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Master’s Thesis, 2007.
[7] I explain alternate reality games in 2.3,  3.3.3,  and  4.3.3.
[8] Askwith, Ivan.  This Is Not (Just) An Advertisement: Understanding Alternate Reality Games.  White Paper for MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. October 2006.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Parkin, Lance. “Truths Universally AcknowledgEd. How the Rules of Doctor Who Affect the Writing.” Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Eds. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. 13-25.
[11] Wyatt, Edward. “New Serials: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t.” The New York Times. 10 January 2007.
[12] In Murray, Noel. “Lost's Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.” The A.V. Club. 22 April 2008.
[13] Ross, Sharon Marie. Beyond the Box, 228.

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
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