A Literacy of the Imagination

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On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media, Part 1 #transmedia #crossmedia #media


As a companion piece to a recent post we wrote over on the WWTID blog regarding curation, and as a follow-up to my last piece on proving out models within the creative industry, I wanted to expand on the concept of storytelling in today's highly charged, highly fragmented and highly regulated Internet environment.

By now, you've probably heard the terms "crossmedia" "intermedia" and "transmedia" ad nauseum in conjunction with the notion of multi-platform storytelling and experience design. This will not be a post about term definition (I promise -- I've all but given up on that endeavor), but rather an exploration of business challenges revolving around any one of these terms.

In short, it seems we have two core challenges:

1. What it means to actually tell stories;

2. What it means to distribute and scale stories across platforms.

Telling stories -- at least those with which a number of people seem to gravitate toward, interact, participate and share -- is incredibly difficult in an increasingly intermediated landscape (yes, you heard that right). The cost of production has gone down, while the cost to distribute, even among a variety of channels and device options, has gone up. At the end of the day, it probably has less to do with creative abundance as it does with the struggle between Old and New Media.

Here's some personal backstory on this paradigm, and why, even as we improve storytelling disciplines, a real battle needs to be waged in the board rooms and legislative confines of corporations and institutions.

An Imperfect Evolution

[from Wikipedia]: The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) was the first notable attempt by the United States Congress to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. In 1997, in the landmark cyberlaw case of Reno v. ACLU, the United States Supreme Court struck the anti-indecency provisions of the Act.

The Act was Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It was introduced to the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation by Senators James Exon (D-NE) and Slade Gorton (R-WA) in 1995. The amendment that became the CDA was added to the Telecommunications Act in the Senate by an 84–16 vote on June 14, 1995.

In Europe around the same time, EU policies would present a different side to the same coin: Self-regulation. This would eventually rear its own ugly head in terms of how people could access and share information on their own terms.

What this meant: A threat to the constitutional notions of free speech, and something that prompted a wave of issues tied to content creation, content sharing, technology adoption, and copyright law.

1997. I'm three years out of undergrad. Mobile and email are just starting to take off. Websites are being built for as much as $5M a pop (or more). Web companies are being funded for obscene amounts based on ideas, not revenue models or pro formas. Content creators, of all types, are starting to experiment again beyond the CD-ROM or interactive DVD fold.

I remember sitting in an office at NBC, literally a room in a trailer on the studio lot that I shared with some of my friends and co-workers, having these long, drawn-out chats, sometimes hours long, about convergence and the future of media. We were convinced that the world was changing and that "format" would no longer be an issue in the world of storytelling. We talked about how characters in a story could take on media lives of their own, how fictional and non-fictional elements might blend into stories or contribute to emergent narrative arcs, how formats would actually change because of it, and how new markets would form around it.

I'm pretty sure that it was the first time I ever heard the word "transmedia" or "crossmedia" used in a sentence.

A few of us had interesting professional lives: We were writer-producer-directors at the network (show segments, on-air promotions, broadcast design campaigns, early web and digital properties) who would come in early (usually 5 AM), produce our material, ship it for air, and then go to our "other" gigs in the afternoons.

Being ambitious to the point of sadism, I had three of them.

One was a startup called "Homemade Entertainment" that was backed by a co-founder of EDI (which later became AC Nielsen-EDI). We were basically an early version of YouTube. We had lots of great ideas, an interesting website, a little bit of cash on the books... And no distribution. At that time, all the telcos couldn't build Internet pipes fast enough. We didn't have broadband. There wasn't enough of an audience, not enough eyeballs, not enough justification for an ad or a subscription model. We lasted almost a year and then let our lease go to another company.

Around the same time, ventures like DEN (Digital Entertainment Network) and iFilm were flaring up, becoming the darlings of Wall Street, as well as Madison and Vine. Those of us who were content creators for these platforms were having somewhat of a field day -- we were not only experimenting with format, but we were creating material that could live on multiple screens. It was a lot of fun, and we made pretty good money, even if the companies themselves didn't.

Again, we didn't really have an audience. And without much revenue (if at all), we operated at a burn rate that would give investment bankers and venture capitalists ulcers.

Most of these companies would go under; a few (like iFilm) would survive through acquisition and by building up asset libraries, diversifying, and pivoting to different areas of growth as extension arms of other media companies.

I moved on and started creating feature film campaigns, as well as got involved in some independent film projects and some related software projects, wondering when something like "transmedia" or "crossmedia" and true convergence would take hold of the digital and analog worlds.

That same year, in 1997, Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos would create "The Last Broadcast", described as "the first desktop based feature film".

Stories, Technology Acceleration & The Problem of Scale

Cut to 1999. "The Blair Witch Project" becomes a mega success. We all know about what it did, and probably what it meant, and all I could say was: "Yeah -- that!"

Lions Gate acquires the film and uses it as means to build its own asset library. With every intention to blow it out as a franchise, not much happens after that.

Cut to 2001. BMW Films releases its first web series "The Hire" and all I could say was: "Yeah -- that!"

The brand garners a lot of views and a lot of buzz, and even redefines how agencies can market, how stories can be told across platforms, and how brands can sell their products beyond advertising. Save for a few exceptions, this would remain an anomaly in the "branded content" space.

Cut to 2003. I get involved in a spin-off of a military simulation and gaming company. We architect a pre-visualization and real-time rendering software that allows media companies to integrate digital properties and distribute them with ease, as well as save tons on post-production costs. We were solving a pretty major business problem, and a big media problem.

All I could say was: "Yeah -- that!"

Unfortunately, we have issues selling it in as a product to different companies and different verticals. At one point, a big cable net wants to buy us for a nice chunk of money, but we don't have enough due diligence on the core model, and we run out of money after 18 months. We are absorbed by the parent company, us principles leave, and the assets are split up or sold off.

Cut to 2005. A friend of mine who works with a big music label recruits me to help him build a platform that allows new artists to be discovered. This is a storyworld with various characters (industry archetypes) and a narrative about building a creative business (a record company), utilizing early social media (MySpace), microsites, widgets and social games, each asset and character contributing uniquely to the overall narrative, and enlisting audiences as participants. We have phenomenal adoption -- over 200,000 fans on MySpace alone within the first two months, and we create a websidoc series, a documentary series (early reality TV) and a feature film around the property.

On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media, Part 1 #transmedia #crossmedia #media

We were actually solving a significant business and cultural problem...

On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media, Part 1 #transmedia #crossmedia #media
... But ran into issues of scale. Scale of all types and sizes.Including what regulators at the music labels were going to think.

And what happens?

No proven revenue model. The label pulls the plug after several months and the rest is history.

Same year: The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues a Broadband Policy Statement (also known as the Internet Policy Statement), which lists four principles of open Internet,[16] "To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to:"

Translation: "We're going to determine what is lawful in terms of content and how it is shared."

Cut to 2006. Henry Jenkins comes out with his critically acclaimed book, "Convergence Culture". All I can say is, "Yeah -- that!"

Same year: At a digital agency, we build one of the first broadband platforms for a major brand, which comprises a number of interactive storytelling elements, including audience participation across channels. It launches, takes on a few iterations, and eventually runs out of funding.

Cut to 2007. I work on an interactive narrative game that I later find out is called an "ARG" (alternate reality game). All I can say is, "Yeah -- that!"

The game does fairly well, but we run out of money. And as a platform, it is shut down.

Cut to 2008. I'm recruited to develop a gaming property in which we implement a similar construct -- we build an amazing story world -- and more or less the same thing happens.

Same year: At my own agency, we build two multimedia storytelling platforms, both for non-profits, and both launch but run out of funding within several months. They would later be revamped as different projects.

Same year: [from Wikipedia]: The FCC auctions off the 700 MHz block of wireless spectrum in anticipation of the DTV transition; Google promises to enter a bid of $4.6 billion if the FCC requires the winning licensee to adhere to four conditions:[17]

Translation: Licensors and licensees are at the beck-and-call of regulation, which can be bought and sold by the highest bidder(s).

Cut to 2009. Same scenario involving a military project I join, same outcome. The cause? Believe it or not, government regulations.

[from Wikipedia]: In September of that same year: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposes to add two additional rules on top of its 2005 policy statement, viz., the nondiscrimination principle that ISPs must not discriminate against any content or applications, and the transparency principle, which requires that ISPs disclose all their policies to customers. He also argues that wireless should be subject to the same network neutrality as wireline providers.[19]

Translation: Policies, not regulation, will dictate Internet distribution. Again, those can be bought and sold by the highest bidder(s).

2010 to present day. I get involved in several projects, some film-based, one TV-based, one game-based; they get some traction, but more or less experience the same scenarios as listed above.

[from Wikipedia]: In May 2010, after it was believed the FCC would drop their effort to enforce net neutrality, they announce that they will continue their fight. It was believed they would not be able to enforce net neutrality after a Federal court's overthrow of the agency's Order against Comcast. However, under commission chairman Julius Genachowski, the FCC proposes reclassifying broadband Internet access providers under the provisions of Title 2 of the Communications act in an effort to force the providers to adhere to the same rules as telephone networks. This adjustment is meant to prevent, "unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities or services."[21]

Translation: Redefining classifications and regulations such that other bigger cable operators don't go bankrupt or telcos don't abuse their power while they surreptitiously monopolize.

Further translation: Practices will change where the money changes hands in Washington.

On December 21, 2010, the FCC approves new rules banning cable television and telephone service providers from preventing access to competitors or certain web sites such as Netflix. The rules also include a more limited set of obligations for wireless providers. The rules would not keep ISPs from charging more for faster access. Republicans in Congress have announced plans to reverse the rules through legislation.[22] Verizon has also indicated that it will challenge the FCC's decision in court,[23] and Colin Crowell, the former Senior Counselor to the FCC Chairman, has called such court challenges "inevitable."[24]

All the while: Piracy and privacy concerns mount as revamped fodder for special interest groups, especially those supported by Big Media companies and Hollywood studios. In 2012 alone, we see legislative bonfires sweep the Internet world over in the form of SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, with more on the way...

Translation: Policy formation and regulation are completely out of whack; for one, they become a party incentive, not a policy imperative. For another, no one seems to be reading between the lines; Old Media -- starting with the MPAA, primetime and cable nets -- are trying to destroy the openness of the Internet. And with that, we not only have a media problem and a distribution problem, but a democracy problem.

Patterns, Patterns, Patterns...

There's a central theme running here.

No, it's not the fact that you or I are gluttons for punishment (which we may be); in every case stated above, we had an opportunity to tell stories in very interesting ways, but would be stymied by distribution and scale. Sometimes this came in the form of cut-off in funding, in media dollars, in time, in interest, or all four.

Looming in the shadows have been regulators of all types, looking to "control" stories and their respective media for their own monetary gains, and not for the benefit of audiences.

To be perfectly clear, I absolutely love the idea of "transmedia" or "crossmedia" or "intermedia" storytelling. I love the idea of agnostic (or even channel specific) storytelling, but to be honest, I don't really know what it means anymore, at least not in terms of a business or even a value proposition. To be more clear, I don't position anything I do in this realm as a "storytelling project" anymore; it's either a platform, an audience-building mechanism or both.

More on that in a bit.

I remember when social media first exploded onto the scene. Everyone got so excited (as they should have) about all these new networks, and conversations, and sharing, and whatever else, and soon enough people started to realize, "Oh yeah -- we need good content! (And maybe we need to learn how to tell better stories!)" And so began the notion of earned, paid and owned media, throwing traditional models out of whack and putting media companies on their heels.

Lost in this mix, of course, was an emphasis on telling stories themselves -- this became another play on media. And we all have some idea where media has landed in the mix of distribution.

A good buddy of mine, an exec at a media holding company, said to me recently that multi-platform storytelling should be what good integrated communications planning is, just that folks in the agency business tend to think that stories and messages are the same thing, and they probably aren't. Sort of like, by default, how social media and content development have been thought of in the same way.

I tend to agree, but for different reasons; among them, advertising art and copy, or social network interactions, or commercials, or webisodics typically don't employ narrative structures that can be scaled through clear archetypes, identifiable conflicts (like real social issues) and extended narratives (sub-plots, what have you). Why? Because media buying and placement get in the way.

Also because, ironically, creative ideaology gets in the way.

There's another argument to consider here, which is that marketing and storytelling might not be the same thing. Yet, I would assert that they've been put into that position via, among other things, rigid media buying practices (in part, controlled by lobbying and legislation). More important, they should be the same thing if they want to be, shouldn't they?

So back to the theme of being "cut off".

Multi-platform storytelling, crossmedia storytelling, transmedia storytelling, whatever you can or want to call it, is really, really hard to do.

I'm not talking about franchise properties like Star Wars or Lost or The Simpsons that have been blown out over the years into myriad other narrative or franchise properties. I'm not talking about game companies who can do all sorts of interesting things beyond the console, or creative shops who can tell such good stories that you don't think you're actually being marketed to, you're just taking part in an incredible experience, with a fan base that participates in truly unique ways.

I'm talking about the notion of "pure transmedia" or "pure storytelling adoption" or "pure multimedia creation", you know, building a brand and a property and a storyworld from the ground up -- creating a platform that can sustain itself and its fans -- free of media and distribution and legislative biases.

I'm talking about how folks are using this construct to create or tap into social movements. I'm talking about telling story in a way that actually transcends the media and channels through which it runs. I'm talking about how to sustain a relationship, a dialogue, with an audience even when it's not watching or buying or interacting directly with your material or your product.

Does a pure transmedia or crossmedia or multi-platform play like this actually exist? Maybe. Are any of these platforms sustainable beyond the life of a project or a campaign? Not usually.

To do that, it takes money, time, commitment, and most of all, belief from the "power structure" that is already in place. If you think that's a load of crap, or defeatist in some way, then think of it from this angle:

If you create an independent project, you don't have to go through a studio or a network or a big production company or big design shop or a big brand. But you still have to fund the project somehow. Everyone from private capital investors to private equity to venture capital to banks and even microlenders (yes, them) are going to look at examples. Where do examples come from? Most commonly from commercial successes. And even most commercial successes fall short, in some ways, because they have challenges of scale.

In other words, they're not true platforms. And that's a whole 'nother issue at hand.

We'll explore what this means in Part 2.