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New media, fan muscle will mold TV future

Henry Jenkins
Henry Jenkins

How will we enjoy entertainment in the future? Via a high-definition plasma TV screen, computer, cellphone or iPod? Who will create entertainment? Will it be mega studios, independent producers or the whiz kid on his laptop--or a network of whiz kids? And who will watch the result when the audience is also the writer, critic and marketer?

Experts--from network executives, academics and game designers to gadfly media artists--peered into the "Futures of Entertainment" at a two-day conference, Nov. 17-18, sponsored by the MIT comparative media studies program and the Convergence Culture Consortium. The future they sketched reached way beyond the buzzword of "interactivity" to a time when the line blurs between media producer and media consumer.

"We now live in a networked society where we're seeing the ability of communities to rapidly pool information," said Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program and conference organizer. "This new environment both creates community opportunities and creates activities for this community."

His examples? Characters on "Veronica Mars" have profiles. Fans plot the resistance movement of "The Matrix" trilogy. Fans decipher maps flashed during "Lost" or use Google's map technology to track the fictional journey of Jack Bauer in "24." Dialogue of the movie "Snakes on a Plane" is changed to fit Internet expectations.

"It is an age when we all want to participate and we want to see ourselves participate," Jenkins said.

The death of must-see TV

In a session on "Television Futures," panelists questioned whether the producers of "old media" were prepared for this brave new media world.

"We're stuck in spin cycle," confessed Andy Hunter, a planning director at GSD&M, an Austin, Texas-based communications agency.

Forrester vice president Josh Bernoff outlined four cautionary principles: Don't assume that nothing is going to change; don't assume everything will change; don't assume it's about the ideas, not the biz; and don't assume business drives everything.

But he was clear that "there will still be TV 10 years from now."

A point of some contention was the effect of digital video recorders such as TiVo on television advertising and whether advertisers were deserting TV for the Internet. Currently, the Internet lacks the "metrics" of measurement that will tell advertisers their money is well spent, Morgan noted.

But the metrics of such institutions as the Nielsen ratings are also dated. Networks should consider the popularity of shows globally and the degree of ardor shown by fans, said Mark Warshaw, a writer/producer who helped build the CW's "Smallville" into one of the most popular TV properties online.

The DVR's time-shifting capacity may spell the end of "appointment TV" or "must-see TV" scheduling. "You're not able to thread people through the night like you used to," Morgan said.

Major media "gatekeepers" will remain, but those gatekeepers have an eye on the upstarts. "A lot of TV executives look at the web like a farm team," said Warshaw.

Consumer-created entertainment media is not that different from quilting bees and barn raising, noted panelist Caterina Fake, developer of Flickr, an online photo sharing application, and now Yahoo! tech development director, during a session on "User-Generated Content."

Companies should solicit customer participation; game players, for example, can come up with solutions that elude even game designers. "You can't be more clever than the Internet," said Rob Tercek, executive vice president of MForma Group, a mobile entertainment publisher. But he warns that companies must be prepared for "emergent behavior" among consumers and there's no predicting what that will be.

Take the creation of online community. When L'eggs tried to create a community of women for its pantyhose, the company did get a community--of eager males with a pantyhose fetish, Fake said. "You can never predict how an online community will evolve," she said.

From Wizard to Wiz to Wicked

A session on "Transmedia Properties" examined how narratives and characters flow across media platforms, opening new markets as well as expanding storytelling. It's not a new concept: Frank L. Baum's 1900 children's book "The Wizard of Oz" inspired the 1939 Judy Garland film, the 1975 musical and 1978 film "The Wiz," the 1995 novel "Wicked" and the 2003 Broadway musical of "Wicked."

"You have people building Troy on top of Troy on top of Troy," said Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics.

Creating transmedia property often means imagining a "world" as well as characters and a plot. Showing they "got" the concept, the creators of the hit TV series "Heroes" established a large web presence and online comic that expands the lives of the superhero characters, said Alex Chisholm, founder of (ICE)3 Studios, a media research and development consultancy. "They wanted it to be a universe," he said.

The growth of transmedia indicates "fan culture has become more mainstream," said Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship, a New York-based creative agency. Where once TV executives cancelled anything that made audiences scratch their heads, "complexity is now an accepted form of storytelling. It means we won--everyone in this room," Levitz said.

The conference also featured sessions on fan culture and virtual worlds. Bloggers' responses to the two-day event have been linked at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 22, 2006 (download PDF).

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