Inviting Exploration

Once the foundation for a world is set, a transmedia creator must then motivate audiences to explore its various extensions across media. The television show should invite hard-core fans to track down ancillary content and improve their overall experience. At the same time, these invitations must not make casual fans feel obligated to participate in transmedia consumption. In order to understand how this might work, we must first consider the unique capabilities of television.

In his book Television Culture, John Fiske draws on Roland Barthes to distinguish between two types of texts: ‘readerly’ texts and ‘writerly’ texts.[1] Readerly texts are most popular because they invite a narrow interpretation – the audience can easily uncover the text’s pre-determined meaning.  For example, when viewing Die Hard, audiences expend very little effort to make sense out of the film; rather, they can enjoy its thin plot and action sequences as pure entertainment. Writerly texts, on the other hand, resist closure and coherence, requiring much more interpretive effort. They involve an unfamiliar discourse that is difficult to decipher. Avant-garde films are writerly because they rely on the audience to find some semblance of meaning and as a result, do not attract a wide audience.

Yet some texts are both readerly and writerly. Fiske expands on Barthes’s categories to offer a third: producerly texts. Like readerly texts, producerly texts are popular and easy to read, but they also have the openness of writerly texts. Producerly texts incorporate many “loose ends” and “gaps” but audiences can draw on their own feelings and experiences to fill them in and produce their own meanings. Producerly texts may be open, but different readers can easily read them in different ways. Fiske argues that television, as a medium, operates in this way:

Television is a producerly medium: the work of the institutional producers of its programs requires the producerly work of the viewers and has only limited control over that work…The pleasure and power of making meanings, of participating in the mode of representation, of playing in the semiotic process – these are some of the most significant and empowering pleasures that television has to offer.[2]

Television is producerly because no single author can impose a single meaning on the audience. Rather, television viewers participate in a “semiotic democracy,” where they bring their own experiences and beliefs to engage with a text and thereby produce meanings that give them pleasure.[3]  For example, Fiske notes that live sports games invite disagreement and interpretation from the audience. The commentators may offer their opinion on a particular play or call, but the viewer can look at the footage and disagree based on their own experiences of playing the sport. Similarly, Fiske argues, viewers form strong emotional connections to characters on television because they can understand and relate to how the characters act out problems. Fiske says that because television characters enter a viewer’s home at a set time each week, there is a sense of “nowness” and “liveness.” Characters become familiar faces as they continue to return week after week, seemingly existing even when the television is turned off. Television’s characters thus invite the viewer to draw on their own experiences and relate to the characters as if they were real people. This producerliness is attributed to why “cult” fans become such loyal and devoted followers of a television show – they assign deeper, more personal meanings to the characters of the show than non-fans.[4]

A producerly text is one that can be enjoyed and accessed on multiple levels. Its openness can be read on the surface level, or it can promote more active interpretation.  As an example, consider Twin Peaks. At first glance, the show appears to be writerly due to its avant-garde and surreal tendencies. It also appears to be writerly because it encourages the use of VCRs to figure out the meanings of many hidden clues—subscribers to exchanged videotapes, deciphered cryptic dialogue, and analyzed sequences of events.[5] This would suggest that Twin Peaks is writerly because of the tremendous effort expended to make sense out of the show. Yet Twin Peaks was also a popular culture icon, garnering huge ratings for ABC in its first season[6] – how do we account for such mass appeal? If we understand Twin Peaks as a producerly text, the answer becomes clear. As Jenkins puts it:

‘People who didn’t get it’ might have related it to another level, either as part of the plot, or as invoking a different set of references that meshed with their own personal experiences…Here the viewer is central and meaning derives from what people make of the program, through their interactions with what they see and chains of association it forms with them. TP was very open this way. There was something for everyone and that added to the pleasure.[7]

Twin Peaks was not so writerly that it was absolutely incomprehensible; rather, people could relate to it on different levels. The show’s narrative was complete with cryptic messages, riddles, conundrums, dreams, clues, secret passages, idiosyncratic characters, ominous figures, and a soap opera narrative structure.[8] Viewers were satisfied in making meaning from any combination of these elements.

Producerly texts are incredibly important in balancing hard-core and casual fans. In the case of Twin Peaks, casual fans could assign their own meaning to the show while hard-core fans had the opportunity to work harder and find deeper meanings. Producerly texts, then, carve out room for transmedia storytelling, inviting hard-core fans to increase their expertise and create deeper meanings by seeking out further narrative information.

For example, fans looking to solve the mystery, ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ had the option of buying The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a hidden diary with missing pages. The book provided a candid look into Laura Palmer’s life as she balances prostitution and cocaine with her status as a homecoming queen and high school student. But the novel also added insights into Laura’s relationship with BOB, a mysterious being who sexually abuses and terrorizes her, and suggested that perhaps he may be her father.[9] The knowledge allowed hard-core fans to interpret references in the show at a different level than the mainstream, casual fans. Transmedia storytelling, then, legitimates “cult” fans by giving them the resources with which to experience a producerly text in a more meaningful way.

To give fans more ‘interpretative tools’, a television/transmedia producer should incorporate strategic gaps into a core narrative and reserve these gaps to be filled in or better understood through narrative extensions. A strategic gap may be the cornerstone of a show or a minute detail. But in both cases there must sufficient room for a narrative extension to add distinct and valuable information. Narrative extensions can offer clues to solving important mysteries and/or provide explicit answers to nonessential questions.

First, narrative extensions can contribute to a kind of game, where viewer-players try to figure out the core mysteries of a show. Matt Hills describes these “endlessly deferred narratives” as promoting infinite interpretation and speculation regarding a particular question.[10] This “undecidability” of cult television is exemplified by questions like, What is Rambaldi’s endgame? Who is Doctor Who? What is the mysterious island? These central mysteries are often repeated and alluded to, but never fully resolved (until the end of the series). Endlessly deferred narratives postpone solutions to encourage investigation, providing a goal and a quest for hard-core fans to hunt down transmedia content and scrutinize episodes for clues towards their next theory.

Fans of Twin Peaks centered their discussion around Palmer’s murder, examining even the smallest gesture from one character to another.[11] The Internet intensifies this process of hunting and gathering information, comparing notes with one another, and collaborating to develop theories.  Transmedia extensions such as The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer can be another tool for fans to produce their own meanings and theories as they make sense out of endlessly deferred narratives.[12]

As Jenkins notes however, fans assumed that David Lynch, the creator of Twin Peaks, had reasons for his madness: “the complexity of Lynch’s text justified the viewers’ assumption that no matter how closely they looked, whatever they found there was not only intentional but part of the narrative master plan, pertinent to understanding textual secrets.”[13] Invariably, the very fact that a specific question had been built up to become an obsession increased the likelihood that the answer would be disappointing. David Lynch reflects on the anticlimactic nature of ending an endlessly deferred narrative:

It’s human nature…to have tremendous let down once you receive the answer to a question, especially one that you’ve been searching for and waiting for. It’s a momentous thrill, but it’s followed by a kind of depression. And so I don’t know what will happen. But the murder of Laura Palmer is…it’s a complicated story.[14]

Indeed, after the revelation of Laura Palmer’s murder, the show lacked narrative focus and ratings plummeted.[15] This suggests that perhaps the fun and playfulness of traversing media in an attempt to solve an endlessly deferred mystery can actually be more rewarding than the narrative pay-off itself.[16] Fans take pleasure in hypothesizing about many aspects of the story, demonstrating their expertise in the process.[17] As one fan put it, “I don’t care who killed Laura Palmer. I just love the puzzle.”[18] For many fans of Twin Peaks, using their collective intelligence to match wits with David Lynch, the “trickster author,” was the main appeal in watching the show. [19] Unfortunately, Twin Peaks’ jarring resolution and ratings downfall illustrates the problem of centering a show on a single endlessly deferred mystery. So while transmedia extensions that offer clues to a central enigma can promote a ‘playfulness’, they can also promote frustration by ‘hyping up’ the resolution and setting up fans for disappointment. As a result, television shows can invite transmedia exploration in more subtle ways.

Geoffrey Long argues that transmedia stories should create “passing references to external people, places, or events” which act as “potential migratory cues” or signals towards future narratives.[20] These passing references can be developed or “actualized” in other media, adding insight into the story world without becoming a requirement for comprehension. For example, in season one of Heroes, the character Hiro goes back in time and falls in love with a waitress named Charlie. While viewers only see glimpses of that affair on television, Heroes released an entire novel called Saving Charlie revolving around their relationship. In this case, the potential migratory cue of Charlie and Hiro’s relationship was actualized in the novel.

Long also draws on Roland Barthes’ hermeneutic codes to provide five categories for potential migratory cues: cultural (anything hinting at a larger culture), character (characters that do not appear on screen), chronological (referenced events in the past, present, or future), geographic (places that appear only briefly on screen), environmental (flora and fauna), and ontological (the existential nature of the story).[21] Casual fans have the capacity to fill in these gaps with their own imagination in the core narrative, but crucially, these gaps have the potential to be actualized or explained in secondary texts.

We may look at NBC’s Heroes as an example. Heroes tells the story of ordinary individuals who develop superhuman powers. The show excels at actualizing character hermeneutic codes and developing back-stories. One of the main characters, a genetics professor from India, discovers important research from his father, who died early in season 1. A Heroes graphic novel fleshes out the relationship between Mohinder and his father, revealing that Mohinder came to trust his father’s scientific beliefs at an early age. In another example, the graphic novel “The Crane” reveals that Hiro’s grandfather had survived Hiroshima, providing another reason why Hiro was so motivated to save the world from a large explosion. These back-stories are based off questions that a casual fan would not think to ask during the television broadcast, but they provide greater depth into the world of Heroes for hard-core fans.

Heroes also makes use of cultural migratory cues. In season 1, Hiro believes that a Japanese Kensei Sword holds the power to focusing his ability. While the television show never fully explains the history of the sword or why it is important, a five-part documentary about its founder Takezo Kensei provides an in-depth look at sword’s legend, complete with epic battles, dragons, and princesses. Again, this back-story allowed hard-core fans to increase their mastery and knowledge of the show without confusing traditional television viewers.

In both Hills’ endlessly deferred narratives and Long’s hermeneutic codes, narrative gaps exist for transmedia extensions to emerge.  Transmedia extensions can help fans hypothesize about an endlessly deferred narrative, allowing them to produce more informed meanings and interpretations, or, as with Long’s hermeneutic codes, transmedia extensions can explicitly answer questions that were not essential to a core narrative. Either way, the process of filling in narrative gaps has unique potential in television. Consider John Fiske’s assessment of television’s “nowness:”

The future of television serial appears to be unwritten, like the real future, but unlike that in a book or film, whose readers know that the end has already been written and will eventually be revealed to them. The suspense in television, its resolution of uncertainty, engages the viewer more intensely because its enigmas appear to be unresolved and the viewer is invited to experience their resolution, not merely learn of it.[22]

Television’s “nowness” and immediacy allows hard-core fans to pursue migratory cues and attempt to fill in gaps all while the primary text’s narrative is still unfolding. This creates a  ludic quality to the meaning-making process. Viewer-players scavenge for narrative information across media texts and can receive seemingly instantaneous reward for their efforts, as I will discuss in 3.4. In the case of endlessly deferred narratives, viewer-players can use ancillary texts to improve their hypotheses on central enigmas and then tune in each week to see if the next episode confirms their theories. Likewise, by pursuing Long’s migratory cues, viewer-players can increase their expertise and develop their ability to find deeper meaning in future episodes.

[1] Television Culture. New York: Routledge, 1987.
[2] Ibid., 235.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Porter, Patrick. “Buffy vs. Dracula. Intertextuality, Carnival, and Cult.” Refractory Journal of Entertainment Media. 9 (2006).
[5] Jenkins, Henry. “‘Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’:, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery.” Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Ed. David Lavery. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. 51-70.
[6] Carter, Bill. “The Media Business: ‘Twin Peaks’ May Provide A Ratings Edge for ABC.” The New York Times. 16 April 1990.
[7] Quoted in Reeves et al. “Postmodernism and Television: Speaking of Twin Peaks.” Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks.
[8] Jenkins, Henry. “Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?” Full of Secrets.
[9] Desmet, Christy. “The Canonization of Laura Palmer.” Full of Secrets.
[10] Fan Cultures, 101.
[11] Jenkins, Henry. “Do you Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?” Full of Secrets.
[12] The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer became a New York Times Bestseller. In Askwith, Ivan. TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television as an Engagement Medium.
[13] Jenkins, Henry. “‘Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’” Full of Secrets.
[14] Hayward, Jennifer.  Consuming pleasures: active audiences and serial fictions from Dickens to soap opera. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
[15] Abbot, Stacey. “How Lost found its audience: The Making of a Cult Blockbuster.” Reading Lost.
[16] This theory is further supported in my Chapter 4 discussion of Lost.
[17] Jenkins, Henry. “Getting Lost.” 25 August 2006.
[18] Jenkins, Henry. “Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’ Full of Secrets.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Television Culture, 97.

One thought on “Inviting Exploration

  1. Marc

    Hi, Aaron. Nice work on this. Glad to see you picked up on migratory cues– it’s an important concept that Geoffrey Long grabbed from me a while back, and has evolved quite a bit since then. If you’re interested in any further reading on the subject, shoot me an email!

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