Techniques for Segmenting Content Across Media

On September 4, 2008 by christy

Hello everyone! Today we’ll delve into segmentation techniques. By segmentation I refer to the various ways unique content can be continued across different media platforms. This doesn’t mean cutting up content created for a single session (a feature film for instance) and then delivering it in parts (although you can do that!). But here I’m referring specifically writing or designing the production with a certain episodic structure in mind. While the notion of episodics is fairly understood, what isn’t is the variety of episodic techniques available and how these can be utilized in a cross-platform project. So, in this post I’ll outline ways a production can be designed for multi-platform segmentation.

It should be noted first that across countries and industries, terms such as ‘episodes’, ‘serial’ and ‘series’ are employed with different meanings. In what follows therefore, will be a provisional listing based on terms employed in narrative and television studies. They are not intended to be prescriptive, so feel free to alter the terms according to your own use. But in this article an ‘episode’ denotes each unit (for instance each book, film or TV episode), and the following denote the types of segmentation: 1) series, 2) serial, 3) hybrid, 4) story/game.

Multi-Platform Episodic: Series
A multi-platform series delivers self-contained episodes in different media platforms. Of all the segmentation techniques employed in the multi-platform context, the series format is the most popular. So, although there are hundreds of examples I could give you, for the sake of pith I offer three. The first is 24: The Game (published by 2K Games, developed by SCEE), a digital game that was released in the US and Europe early 2006, during season five of the television broadcast of 24 (Fox Broadcasting Company) in the US. The narrative of the game is not an adaptation of a TV episode but a unique story in itself: it was set six months after season two and two and a half years before season three.

Director and writer Joss Whedon has also employed this technique for his Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Firefly/Serenity properties. For instance, although the narrative of Buffy ended in the TV series, the graphic novels continue the storyline into a multi-platform season eight – with closure at the end of each comic. The narrative of the cancelled TV series Firefly (2002-3) continued in the three comic books Serenity: Those Left Behind (2005) and webisodes with stories that prefigured the narrative of the feature film Serenity (2005). All of these multi-platform continuations were not conceived at the time of series. Although Whedon has experience with writing for a variety of platforms, it is only in the last few years that he has experimented with utilising them for the same storyworld. His more recent explorations with Dr Horrible and Dollhouse show that Whedon is certainly pursuing multi-platform writing (yay!).

In these examples, the multi-platform episodes continue a primary storyline, but each episode in each medium is self-contained. The primary reason for this self-containment approach is to ensure accessibility for audiences entering the property for the first time or out of order. Each episode in another media platform is viewed by the creators as another point-of-entry that appeals not only to fans but to new audiences. But the likelihood of people following the property across media platforms is considered less than the influx of new audiences. Which is why, the thinking goes, you need closure along the way.

Multi-Platform Episodic: Serial
A multi-platform serial has episodes in different media platforms that are highly dependent on each other, they are not self-contained. An example is ‘See What Happens’, a television commercial for Mitsubishi. In 2004 Mitsubishi broadcast a thirty second advertisement during the Super Bowl. The TVC features two cars in an accident avoidance test. The cars sped along a highway, chasing two trucks that have men hurtling objects out the back of. The thrown objects increase in size from bowling balls, to barbeques and finally to two cars. The cars tumble out and just as they are about to hit the competing cars the screen cuts to black and shows the super: ‘seewhathappens.com’.

Mitsubishi: SeeWhatHappens.com – Mitsubishi

Posted Jan 29, 2004

The website provided the ending of the sequence in a 20second clip. Within 6 hours of the broadcast the site had 11 million hits (Jaffe, 2004), and over 31 million hits up to last count (Internet Retailer, 2004). Mitsubishi foolishly let the website go, but the multi-platform cliff-hanger technique still captures the imagination of many. Ironically, however, this multi-platform cliff-hanger approach is implemented rarely. I say ironically because of all the motivations to move to another media platform, the with-holding of information is quite effective. But of course satisfaction can only be gained when attending to the other platform. That is why those who do employ this technique usually do so in a single session context. That is: the multi-platform traversal happens right there and then.

Multi-Platform Episodic: Hybrid
A multi-platform hybrid is a combination of a series and serial in that it has continuing AND self-contained strands. This technique was described as a ‘flexi-narrative’ by TV theorist Robin Nelson. Nelson studied the TV shows in the 1970s, like Hills Street Blues, and found that the hit TV shows mixed both series and serial techniques:

“The blurring of distinction between the series and serial affords schedulers the joint advantage of an unresolved narrative strand — a cliff-hanger to draw the audience to watch the next episode — and a new group of characters and self-contained stories in each episode.” (Nelson, 1997, page 34)

It is a technique that, among other things, aids in satisfying the needs of long-time audiences/players as well as providing accessible storylines and closure for casual audiences/players. I say audiences and players because all of these segmentation techniques are not specific to narratives. They can be used with challenges in games. Indeed, game designers and educators Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams describe the same technique as an “episodic delivery”:

An episodic delivery is a cross between serial and the series. Like the series, the episodic delivery contains a limited number of episodes, with an overall story line that is followed across the entirety. Unlike the series, however, there is often fairly tight integration between episodes and significant overlap of plot threads.” (Rollings and Adams, 2003, page 117)

A multi-platform hybrid example is the often cited path of the Osiris message in the Wachowski Brothers franchise The Matrix. I”m sure you’re all familiar with this one but: In 2003, the Wachowski Brothers released three units in different media: a short anime, digital game and feature film. Each of these has their own self-containment but also a continuing narrative that ran across all of them. In the short anime, ‘The Last Flight of Osiris’, the character Jue and her crew discover the machines are drilling to Zion. Their aim is to warn Zion of the impending danger by sending a message to the Nebuchadnezzar crew. At the end of the story Jue manages to post the letter (thus ending a narrative thread), but we do not know what happens to the letter (a continuing thread). What happens next is dealt with in the digital game, Enter the Matrix where the first mission for the player is to retrieve the letter from the post office. The player succeeds in continuing the narrative and experiences resolution of the events in the game, but the player still does not know of the consequences of the letter. The narrative strand ends at the beginning of the second film, The Matrix Reloaded, when Niobe (who is one of two characters in the game) reports on the “last transmissions of the Osiris”: the transmissions posted by characters in the anime and retrieved by players in the digital game.

These are not the only ways you can spread content across platforms — you can replicate, adapt and provide non-plot-significant content (or challenge-significant content). These are also not the only examples. In the next post I’ll talk about some of the ways these and other techniques can be used to balance fans and newcomers. For now, I’d love to hear your experiences with these approaches and any examples you may have.

References

Jaffe, J. (2004) ‘Case Study: “See What Happens”, iMedia Connection, 18 Feb [Online] Available at: http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/2821.asp

Internet Retailer (2004) ‘Mitsubishi drives its ad campaign entirely to the web’, Internet Retailer, 5 Aug [Online] Available at: http://www.internetretailer.com/dailyNews.asp?id=12581

Nelson, R. (1997) TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values, and Cultural Change, New York, N.Y., St. Martin’s Press.

Rollings, A. and E. Adams (2003) Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, 1st ed., Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders.