Transmedia: Saviour for Canadian TV, or its successor? Part 2

Playback Daily shows producers how to take advantage of low barriers to entry in transmedia production to develop, produce and distribute content that catches on like catnip with audiences.
01-24-11 Tim Burton Cadavre Exquis

Second in a three-part series

In the first installment of our investigation into transmedia in Canada, Playback Daily questioned whether digital producers can successfully escape the control of domestic broadcasters and funders to exploit their cross-platform production globally.

The short answer, of course, is they can.

It isn’t easy, but the key is taking advantage of low barriers to entry in transmedia production to develop, produce and distribute content that catches on like catnip with worldwide audiences.

“If you create, keep it simple. You need to think as a marketer, and not an entertainer,” insisted Jay Bennett, creative director at Smokebomb Entertainment.

Forget Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. How about 15 seconds?

That’s how long a digital producer has to engage a user of their content before, with just one more click of a mouse or press of a button, they’re onto the next window or website.

To better your odds, Bennett, who mentored a transmedia team last week at the Merging Media 2012 conference in Toronto, said digital producers don’t have to pursue a film, a video game, a live event or a spin-off comic book as options for their transmedia project.

“Just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you should,” he tells Playback Daily.

“Audiences want characters, snackable content and to share their thoughts. It may not be ARG (alternate reality game) that they want,” Bennett adds.

Just how simple can transmedia be?

Tim Burton’s Cadavre Exquis (based on his character, Stain Boy, pictured) invited users to collectively tell a story by contributing a line that builds on the last line revealed, and all via Twitter.

Canadian digital producers also need to take advantage of the low barriers to entry for transmedia production.

A typical budget for a Canadian digital extension on a TV show runs anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000, and the budgets are falling.

And that’s a good thing, insists Alan Sawyer, a transmedia producer with Changing Channels Entertainment in Toronto.

Sawyer, who also served as a mentor at Merging Media 2012, said transmedia budgets once included the steep cost of building infrastructure to host a digital community around a property.

“If you were doing a TV show five years ago, you’d build software to facilitate the community,” he recalls.

Today, there’s social media already in place for distribution.

“They [audiences] will talk about your TV show on Facebook anyways. So there’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” Sawyer says.

Most likely, a digital producer will hire someone on staff as a social media engineer, not least because there’s no gatekeepers online, as there are in film and TV, or transmedia distributors.

“It’s not a one-to-many model,” explains transmedia guru Anita Ondine, who led the Merging Media 2012 seminar/lab, organized by the Canadian Media Productions Association, in Toronto last week.

“You don’t need a distributor for your property. You can do it yourself. It’s not a fixed concept. It’s part of the design experience, how to get your story to the user, the participant, the audience,” she explains.

Once you reach an interested user, introduce yourself to them and their community, and ask questions to get to know them, as you would when walking into a cocktail party.

“Strip it down to what it is – getting to know who’s in the room,” Ondine advises, on the principle that, if you ask people about who they are, they’ll reciprocate.

As you then continue building a community for your transmedia project, embed hooks to move users from platform to another, and continually weave together experiences into one story world for consistency.

It’s all about using the community to help research and develop your story world.

“You’re on a constant loop of R&D. You come up with a concept, you test and redevelop the concept and bring it out again to test with the community. It’s a never-ending process,” Ondine says.

And along the way, use game mechanics to provide incentives or rewards to keep users engaged and experimenting once they are through the door and into your story world.

“You get stuff, access and status,” Ondine says of the offer to audiences.

Above all else, keep it simple.

“The simpler, the more willing people will be to come on board and join your community,” Ondine says.

And don’t treat all users of your transmedia content as equals.

Not everyone moves at the same speed in the movement from passive to the participatory in digital media today.

You need to design the media architecture for a transmedia project with three constituencies – producers, players and passives – in mind.

The producers, or creators – high-interest early adopters – will be the most zealous users of your content as it’s rolled out, and they need heavy participation for gratification.

Players, on the other hand, need challenges and rewards to stay engaged.

And passives are users who just want ways to see what’s going on as the transmedia project evolves, without doing much work.

Another strategy for transmedia producers is to secure funding from ad agencies, who will often forego rights as long as their product is marketed.

An example is Temple Street Productions’ Recipe to Riches reality series on Food Network Canada, where Canadian home cooks compete to have their original recipes become a President’s Choice product.

The TV show had sponsorship and product integration from Loblaw, which wasn’t paying to advertise on Recipe to Riches as much as supply a community for the TV producers to work off of.

Elsewhere, GlassBOX Television’s Aux TV channel pacted with Bacardi on a brand campaign called Bacardi Together Tour that developed original content for summer music festivals to promote the alcoholic beverage through social media.

Here Ondine sees transmedia players seizing the advantage as traditional sources of financing and credit for media content dry up, and producers are forced to rethink content, and to innovate and find solutions to survive and thrive.

What’s more, audience patterns are changing, not least because of emerging digital technologies.

“People are no longer content to be passive consumers of content. They want to participate. The desire and demand for transmedia is there,” Ondine, ever an evangelist, told the Merging Media 2012 conference.

Of course, it’s hard enough for Canadian producers to secure financing for their film and TV projects in the best of times.

In these uncertain economic times, it’s harder, and still more difficult to finance a transmedia project that finaciers and funders know little about.

So in the third and final installment of our series on transmedia, we’ll look at where to find financing in Canada for cross-platform production.