A ‘Step into the Abyss'?: Transmedia in the U.K. Games and Television Industries

A ‘Step into the Abyss'?: Transmedia in the U.K. Games and Television Industries

Keith M. Johnston (University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.) and Tom Phillips (University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.)
DOI: 10.4018/IJGCMS.2016040104
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This article uses a media industries studies perspective to investigate the current state of transmedia production in the United Kingdom. Analyzing the discursive statements of a range of industry participants from both U.K. television and games industries, the authors reveal a series of contradictions and misunderstandings that may be limiting the effectiveness of multi-platform projects. By comparing overlapping discursive patterns around attitudes to risk, measures of success, authorship between the two industries, and repeated concerns over the balance of creative and commercial imperatives, the authors argue that existing hierarchies of power between media industries threaten to derail future convergence.
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While the technological infrastructure is ready, the economic prospects sweet, and the audience primed, the media industries haven’t done a very good job of collaborating to produce compelling transmedia experiences… much greater coordination across the media sectors is needed to produce transmedia content. (Jenkins, 2006, p. 109)

A decade since Henry Jenkins’s landmark book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), it is unclear what progress has been made in creating and defining transmedia narratives and experiences that occur “across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 97-98). While scholars and industry professionals appear wedded to the term, with “Transmedia Producer” a commonplace credit in U.S. television programs such as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Whedon, 2013), it remains a broad catch-all label that covers disparate examples of narratives, promotional materials, merchandise, and/or fan activities that shift, develop, and cross-fertilize across different media platforms. Scholars have made varying claims for the viability and success of transmedia, yet the broad focus has remained on textual analysis of individual films (The Matrix: Silver & Wachowski, 1999), television programs (Lost: Abrams & Lindelof, 2004) and producers (Tim Kring, Damon Lindelof), or assumptions around an increase in fan participation and engagement (Jenkins, 2006; Mann, 2009; Hills, 2010; Evans, 2013; Jenkins, Ford & Green, 2013). This article offers a new perspective on debates about what transmedia can offer by moving away from the products of transmedia experiences to the people who make them (or who struggle to make them) and how they describe changes to existing practices. Through an analysis of practitioner testimony and experience within the U.K. television and games industries, the article demonstrates another side to transmedia: how media workers discuss their role in transmedia production; how media companies define their interactions with partners from other media; and how the discourse around the institutions and broadcasters who want to develop transmedia projects is based around control and hierarchy rather than participation and expansion.

Havens, Lotz and Tinic have claimed that the study of media industries has taken “a more prominent role in cultural studies research at this particular historical juncture… [of] digitalization and globalization” (Havens, Lotz & Tinic, 2009, p. 235). Yet the recent expansion of production and/or media studies and/or cultural industries studies has rarely overlapped with the parallel developments claimed around transmedia production and cross-media convergence. Valuable macro- and micro-level studies have explored different aspects of the film, television, and games industries (Kerr, 2006; Caldwell, 2008; Lotz, 2009; Kerr, 2012; Perren, 2013; Banks, 2014), but few investigate the push toward such collaborative work across media and media partners, and how that is complicated by industrial “talk” around notions of risk, success, and industry cooperation. Equally, explorations of media convergence offered by “digital optimists” (Hesmondhalgh, 2013) have tended to lose sight of the “particularities and diversity of formerly distinct practices” (Deuze, 2009, p. 144) within those industries. While this article is not explicitly developing a “digital pessimists” view, we will demonstrate that bringing a media industries studies approach to bear on the claims made for transmedia reveals how industry discourse has identified sites of both conflict and opportunity. At the same time, it reveals how established hierarchies and business models are being defined as restrictions to any potential innovation.

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