Game of Thrones, transmedia tactics pay off

Article  by  François QUINTON  •  Published 15.10.2014  •  Updated 03.11.2014
Mélanie Bourdaa - Entretien InaGlobal Game of Thrones HBO
The start of season 4 of Game of Thrones has firmly established the exceptional success of HBO’s series. How can this phenomenon be explained? How much of it is due to the channel’s transmedia strategy? Interview with Mélanie Bourdaa.

Mélanie Bourdaa is associate professor at Université Bordeaux Montaigne and researcher at the MICA (Mediation, Information, Communication, Art) laboratory. Her research largely focuses on transmedia production strategies and fans of TV series. She recently created a Francophone network devoted to fan studies, the GREF, and published an article devoted to HBO’s transmedia strategy as well as an interview with Mike Monello, artistic director of Campfire, the agency that developed the transmedia campaign used to promote the first seasons of True Blood and Game Of Thrones.
 
 
The start of the fourth season of Game of Thrones once again met with huge viewer enthusiasm. It is said that the first episode has become the most pirated episode in history, with over one million illegal downloads in half a day. According to TorrentFreak, the series was already the most downloaded of 2013 and 2012. How can this phenomenon be explained? What tactics has HBO used to attract both fans of the book by George R. R. Martin and/or the heroic fantasy genre, as well as people less familiar with this sometimes-disparaged universe?
 
Mélanie Bourdaa: With Game Of Thrones, HBO has succeeded in developing a strategy that is simultaneously transmedia, as an extension of the show’s universe, and digital, involving its fans and stirring up enormous enthusiasm about the show. Javier Lozano Delmar refers to this as “fanadvertising”, a combination of official promotion and fan-generated content.
I’ll give a few examples that best illustrate this. For the launch of the series, they asked Campfire – an American marketing agency – to promote the series and its universe in original, interactive fashion. The channel had the dual objective of attracting fans of the literary saga to the televised series format, and promoting a fantasy show – far from the channel’s specialty and a genre with a reputation for being camp. The channel had the dual objective of attracting fans of the literary saga to the televised series format, and promoting a fantasy show – far from the channel’s specialty and a genre with a reputation for being camp  Campfire thus decided to focus its strategy on transmedia promotion based on the five senses, with a platform for each sense allowing for the discovery of one facet of the show’s universe. To promote the DVD/Blu Ray, Campfire placed the fans at the center of its strategy, allowing them to contribute their activities and creations. It launched a banner generator and promoted the sharing of creations on social networks, thus enhancing the circulation of content. The ninth episode of season 3, with its bloody ending, generated widespread reaction on Twitter with the hashtag #RedWedding, turning this into the most-commented episode in American television on this social network. The channel then asked fans to film their own reactions to the episode, and included the best reactions in the DVD bonuses. Lastly, for season 4, a website known as beautiful death, launched 30 days before the first episode of the season, summed up the 30 most memorable deaths in fanart fashion on a tumblr – a social tool that is particularly well-liked by fans.
All of these promotional actions reveal that HBO is using digital strategies inspired by fan activities (live tweeting, fan video, fanarts, tumblr, creativity) and based on the ability of fans to create content and share it with the community, the fandom, and in the public sphere.  HBO is using digital strategies inspired by fan activities and based on the ability of fans to create content and share it  
 
Can this strategy be reproduced for other types of series, or is it really linked to the heroic fantasy genre? Does the involvement of Game of Thrones fans reveal specificities? You’ve notably studied the strategies used for the series True Blood.
 
Mélanie Bourdaa: In a growing competitive environment for American series, and in particular, those broadcast on the networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and CW), producers and broadcasters are seeking to develop their story universes to allow for the interactive involvement of fans and spectators and promote commitment in terms of reception.
To my mind, there are two ways of using transmedia strategies for television series. The first is to use this strategy of narrative extension to promote the series, thus presenting the characters, settings, atmosphere and universe prior to the broadcast of the first episode. This is what HBO did with Game Of Thrones and True Blood.
 
The second option for channels, and the most-used, is to employ transmedia strategies in order to secure viewer loyalty, and particular, that of fans. This is what I refer to as the principle of augmented narration: channels ensure a solid fan base for the series in order to subsequently use narrative extensions on various media platforms, both digital and non-digital. Fox and ABC used this strategy for Fringe and Lost, offering story complements to the plots and characters in the form of comix (The Fringe Comix), websites (Massive Dynamic), augmented reality games (The Lost Experience, Find 815), and online courses (The Lost University), for example. Syfy rolled out a whole augmented universe around Battlestar Galactica in the form of comix, novels, webisodes, board games and MMORPG, during and after the broadcast of the series on the channel in order to keep the fans in the fictional universe.
 
These strategies are clearly not strictly limited to genre series. Sitcoms, those short-format comedic series, also use transmedia to develop their storylines. For example, the producers of How I Met Your Mother put a blog online for the character of Barney Stinson and published his two books, The Bro Code and The Playbook. NBC also used a transmedia strategy for Parks and Recreation to promote interactions with fans, who were asked to vote for Leslie Knope’s campaign poster on her website, with the winner featured in the series. There are numerous examples, and I certainly can’t mention all of them here.
 
These strategies are particularly visible these days, largely thanks to the sharing, broadcasting and circulation undertaken by fans on social networks. But it must be recalled that these narrative extensions already existed at the time of Twin Peaks in the early 1990s. The producers created The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which provided better insight into the character, whose dead body is discovered at the start of the series. They also developed a tour guide for the city of Twin Peaks, with its hotels, shops and landmarks. Lastly, Dale Cooper’s investigation notes and recordings were made available as well. 
 
Does HBO set itself apart from its competitors in terms of transmedia strategy?
 
Mélanie Bourdaa: HBO is an American pay cable channel that is attentive to its values and brand culture. Its slogan, “This is not TV. This is HBO” reveals its efforts to set itself apart from other channels and TV programs through its offer of quality programming. It helped renew television series by developing the principle of complex narration (seriality, meticulously developed characters, anti-heroes, delinearization) with series such as The Sopranos and The Wire in the late 1990s. These days, HBO is facing competition from basic cable channels (AMC, FX for example) that offer ambitious TV series (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Americans). Its objective is thus to promote its series in original fashion, while maintaining the values that embody the HBO brand today, which is carried out via the development of promotional, immersive and participative transmedia strategies.
 
For the networks, NBC had this ambition with the launch of interactive platform NBC 360, allowing it to extend the story universes of its series online. It tested out this strategy with the series Heroes, offering an interactive game, collaborative fanfiction, webcomix and satellite sites for each character, in this way strengthening the series’ world and fleshing out its characters. 
 
Also of note is the fact that HBO seems “flattered” by the appetite stirred up for the series, satisfied by illegal practices. This attitude is surprising, given that it contradicts traditional industry discourse on content victimized by piracy. How might this be explained?
 
Mélanie Bourdaa: Indeed, television channels often blame piracy. Viewers are turning into web users to watch shows via VOD, P2P, streaming and catch-up TV. There are furthermore two interesting points in this respect. Firstly, Nielson, the U.S. viewer ratings agency, includes 3 and 7-day catch-up TV audiences in its calculations, which has saved certain series from being cancelled, notably Fringe, which doubled its viewer ratings thanks to this calculating system. Secondly, in terms of French broadcasting, a number of channels, including TFI with its VOD service and Canal Plus with its “American time” system and OCS, show American episodes in English with French subtitles the day following their U.S. broadcast, in this way adapting to fan viewing modes. Meanwhile, as we have seen, HBO depends on fans, their creations and sharing activities in order to promote its content, having understood the value of fans and the evangelical role that they may play. Furthermore, for HBO, massive downloads are a symbol of the quality of its programming and the enthusiasm that its stirs up. Lastly, these downloads inevitably lead to discussions on social networks, blogs and fan sites, once again allowing for the channel’s content to be known and recognized.
 
Translated from the French by Sara Heft

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