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A History of Transmedia Entertainment

Derek Johnson
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As embraced by industry professionals and media consumers alike, transmedia storytelling promises to bring greater institutional coordination, added narrative integrality, and deeper engagement to the various pieces of contemporary media franchises. Comic books, video games, and other markets once considered ancillary now play increasingly significant and recentered roles in the production and consumption of everyday film and television properties such as Heroes, Transformers, and the reenvisioned Star Trek in ways that only very few innovators (such as George Lucas and his carefully elaborated and expanded Star Wars empire) had previously conceived in the twentieth century. Yet, while contemporary convergence culture has set the stage for a greater embrace of transmedia entertainment, the processes by which stories have been spread across institutions, production cultures, and audiences from different media have a much longer history. Although we might recognize transmedia storytelling as something newly emergent, we also cannot deny its relationship to long-established models of media franchising whereby the creative and economic resources owned by monolithic corporate entities were nevertheless widely used and shared across production communities and industry sectors. The franchise models that multiplied one Law & Order into several sister series and turned X-Men comic books into action figures worked by spreading resources among a network of stakeholders brought into social relations by virtue of their parallel (though often imperfectly aligned) interests. Thus, neither transmedia entertainment nor convergence point to the end of industrial models of cultural production in favor of some new social media; instead, the transmedia storytelling of convergence offers an opportunity to see how spreadable media extend, reorient, and reimagine existing historical trajectories in the industrial production and consumption of culture.

Understanding transmedia in terms of cultural exchange across and transformation through different media experiences means recognizing traditional processes of adaptation and translation of content as a foundation for the social exchange of spreadable media today. In ancient Greece, for example, mythological narratives based in oral traditions were simultaneously drawn on as transmedia in the visual artistry of potters. Similarly, the Bible might be considered one of the most successful transmedia narratives in history: its stories have been passed down over centuries not only through written word but also through religious paintings and icons that framed those stories in new ways. As processes of adaptation became industrialized, films such as the multiple screen versions of The Ten Commandments made that transmedia narrative mass producible, and products such as the Left Behind novel series and video series transformed stories such as the Book of Revelation into properties repeatedly leveraged and extended over time to create an ever-renewable stream of content. Despite this fundamental formal characteristic of transmedia entertainment—its ability to spread promiscuously across media contexts—much has changed in this process of industrialization. Most crucially, culture and mythology have been reconceived as proprietary, manageable property. As a part of that ongoing management and desire to leverage properties, today’s transmedia entertainment has embraced a serialized production in which each adaptation of a property offers a unique, differentiable experience to encourage consumption across multiple markets. Corporate managers increasingly consider the development of a video game to accompany a film, for example, not in terms of adaptation but in terms of extension, in which stories are elaborated rather than retold. But, as scholars from George Bluestone (1957) to Sarah Cardwell (2003) have insisted, adaptation has never been a process of retelling but a process in which stories are transformed and evolved in exchange across media. Today’s spreadable media, therefore, extend from a much longer history in which entertainment culture has been generated and regenerated over time and across production contexts.

Though the industrialization of transmedia culture sought to impose proprietary industrial logics on these exchanges, specific legal, economic, and creative structures simultaneously sustained potential for shared social use by a wider network of media institutions, producers, and audiences. As Avi Santo (2006) and Michael Kackman (2008) have shown, transmedia “brands” such as The Lone Rangerand

Hopalong Cassidy historically depended on practices based in trademark law, whereby cultural production and consumption were assigned to specific markets and territories. Moreover, licensing agreements proved to be key mechanisms for managing the social and economic terms of that exchange. As Santo (2010) argues, the licensed relationship between 1960s broadcast network television managers and stakeholders from outside that industry offers much insight into the collaborative relationships later experimented with by television in convergence. If spreadable media has come to increasingly propagate transmedia entertainment across institutional lines, we have to ask what changing legal practices enable that acceleration. On the economic level of labor, for example, licensing helps us to consider how users of social media are actually integrated into industrial modes of production. Franchises such as Batman developed not only in relation to the formation of media conglomerates such as Time Warner in the 1980s and ’90s and cross-promotional practices that promised synergy between subsidiaries such as Warner Bros. and DC Comics but also in relationship to the digital informational economy and its emphasis on what Tiziana Terranova (2000) and others call “free labor.” In games such as DC Universe Online (2011), Time Warner and its partners license users not only to play a game but to craft new characters to fight alongside recognizable heroes such as Batman—enlisting the player as a co-creator of content. Crucially, the terms of this creative license are laid out by an end-user licensing agreement that formalizes the productive position of users within that franchise. At the same time, of course, new forms of nonproprietary licensing agreements such as Creative Commons challenge this industrial tradition, supporting new creative practices based in networked collaboration, dubbed “produsage” by Axel Bruns (2008). Yet, even as we recognize these new possibilities, the persistence of licensing as a means of managing and reorienting collaborative cultural production and consumption speaks to a critical history of legal, creative, and economic exchanges in which transmedia continues to take part. The history of transmedia entertainment, therefore, is a history of reorientations within these practices.

On another level, however, understanding the history of transmedia entertainment means understanding how those shifts in practice have been understood and reimagined through industry trade narratives and scholarly analysis alike. It is at this level of discourse that the difference between concepts such as franchising and transmedia entertainment are made perceptible and palatable—despite the historical continuities we can otherwise observe. Thus, one of the newest dimensions of contemporary transmedia entertainment is our recognition of it as such. In scholarly analysis, one of the first uses of the term “transmedia” can be traced to Marsha Kinder’s (1991) examination of children’s culture as newly constituted by “entertainment super systems” organized across film, television, and video games. Kinder’s analysis provided one of the germs of a new cultural theory emerging at the end of the twentieth century to make sense of the spreadable and transformative exchange of culture across media. In the new millennium, that theoretical imaginary has not only received increased scholarly attention but has also been adopted by practitioners working within the culture industries. In 2006, the management of Heroes, for example, became a job for a professional “Transmedia Team” charged with implementing creative coordination across television, comics, and the Internet. Just as the discourse of “franchising” emerged in the late 1980s to imagine the persistent exchange of the resources of cultural production in a way that made sense to the needs of the culture industries, this transmedia discourse has worked to generate new meaning from the spreadability of culture. Transmedia entertainment is not altogether new in its spreadable exchange; however, the conceptual frames with which we imagine and make sense of that social use often are.

Transmedia entertainment makes a great deal of sense in the context of convergence, offering content that can be liberally extended and multiplied across a range of possible cultural experiences. Yet transmedia entertainment is intellectually useful as a concept not for its newness but because it can help articulate a longer history of production and consumption from socialized exchange of culture. By conceiving transmedia entertainment in historical terms, while also understanding its evolution in the contemporary context, we can better understand the real interventions that spreadable media might make within traditional cultural models.


Bluestone, George. 1957. Novels into Film. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bruns, Axel. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

Cardwell, Sarah. 2003. Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kackman, Michael. 2008. “Nothing On but Hoppy Badges: Hopalong Cassidy, William Boyd Enterprises, and Emergent Media Globalization.” Cinema Journal 47 (4) (Fall): 76–101.

Kinder, Marsha. 1991. Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Santo, Avi. 2006. “Transmedia Brand Licensing Prior to Conglomeration: George Trendle and the Lone Ranger and Green Hornet Brands, 1933–1966.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas.

———. 2010. “Batman versus The Green Hornet: The Merchandisable TV Text and the Paradox of Licensing in the Classical Network Era.” Cinema Journal 49 (2): 63–85.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. “Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text 63 (18): 33–58.

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