Syfy’s Defiance and Transmedia TV Gold

My interest in transmedia storytelling exists at the intersection of my obsessions with participatory culture, new media, and entertainment. I believe storytellers can create deeper experiences for their audiences when they unfold a story and its world via multiple venues, and when they invite audiences to participate meaningfully in that world—especially when storytellers strategize the unfolding of the adventure on multiple media from the outset of the project.

High engagement yields high-payoffs. In politics, this would be like when you turn your orgs’ mission statement into a narrative that reads like a DIY movement. The Dean campaign was that kind of thing. Similarly, Sleep No More is my kind of theatre project. And on TV, Syfy‘s Defiance is what I want to see more of. There’s a lot more TV shows with cool transmedia integration every season. And the demand is growing.

A few definitions of transmedia: From the academic, techno-utopian perspective comes Jenkins who describes it this way: “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” In other words, balanced transmedia.

But more realistically, a definition from a practitioners perspective (via Jason Mittel): “For the industry, transmedia extensions might provide an additional revenue stream, but their primary function is to drive viewers back to the television series. For creators, transmedia storytelling must always support and strengthen the core television narrative experience. These goals are particularly important within a serial form, as the gaps between episodes and seasons provide time for viewers’ attention to wander—for many within the industry, transmedia is optimistically regarded as a magnet to sustain viewer engagement and attention across these periodic gaps.” Jenkins might call this, unbalanced transmedia because it’s so TV-heavy.

I call it TV-Plus. Consider the landscape: so many channel options, combined with our limited time, combined with ubiquitous second screen presence… means that audiences are in urgent need of well-crafted, convenient “TV-plus” projects. To keep people engaged, to keep pouring out payoffs. The data suggests people use devices while watching TV for the purpose of searching out more information (which they hope will enhance the story they’ve got an itch for). The data also suggests that this second-screen creative work drives viewership back to the TV show.

Lots of networks are moving forward with projects which include transmedia apps, crafted to bypass conventional web browsing in order to offer a specific alternate experience of a network’s most valuable commodity: their stories.

Most of these second screen apps fall into two categories; There’s the co-viewing apps like Showtime Sync app which automatically listens to the episode, then presents synchronized special features: trivia, polls, predictions, and other features. Without a TV show running in the background, the app is available to browse for limited bonus content.

And the other category is more of an experiential addition to the story of the TV show. TNT’s ”Falling Skies” app lets fans become part of the 2nd Mass Defense, a regiment of humans fighting the alien hordes in the sci-fi epic show. It also listens to the show and synchs up “takeovers” – which literally take over the viewer’s smartphone or tablet with content relating to the storyline on TV. But notably, it adds to the story.

Not all shows are a good fit for major second screen forays, though thrillers and mysteries feel like a good fit. Cult on CW from Rockne O’Bannon is perfect for — and better have — a fleshed-out second screen collection of drillable online easter egg websites and secret forums. (The show partly features  characters who go sleuthing online for secrets about a mysterious cult.)  On the other hand, something period like Starz’ Da Vinci’s Demons, less so.

Action-Adventure concepts also seem like a no-brainer. Starting in 2003 when Battlestar Galactica rebooted, they smartly licensed video games set in the BSG universe. Inexplicably though, the first videogame was a prequel to the original TV 1978 series… not the reboot. Then, in 2007 a series of new BSG games were released, games that increasingly featured multiplayer action and storyworld tie-ins. But infamously, NBCUniversal fought with BSG’s millions of online players over IP rights vis-a-vis their sims. The missteps backfired terribly.

Lesson: the next space epic should plan their off-screen peripheries better. They should learn lessons from what Syfy is attempting with Defiance. I am in awe. I love it because it promises to be so thoroughly engaging.

Defiance is a sci-fi drama series that was conceived from the beginning as both a massively multiplayer online (MMO) videogame as well as a television series from inception. Although the producers of both the TV show and the videogame world collaborated on creating a transmedia reality that bridges flat and interactive storytelling, players of the game will have no influence over major plot points in the TV show. TV is most important.

Executive Producer Kevin Murphy said, “The game has its own narrative and story lines. They are shared universes with dual portals.” He said the game will create an illusion of spontaneity, but “if you are supposed to get the gadget, you (the player) will get the gadget.” Even if the whole video game is just some B-Story to the show as it unfurls on TV, I have to give praise. This is innovative and daring. More please.

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