The next big thing on television

A TV show isn’t just a TV show. These days, programming for the tube is a multi-platform endeavour, encompassing online, gaming, music, DVDs, toys and tours in a bid to keep budgets in the black and eyeballs glued to the small screen.

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TORONTO — A TV show isn’t just a TV show.

These days, programming for the tube is a multi-platform endeavour, encompassing online, gaming, music, DVDs, toys and tours in a bid to keep budgets in the black and eyeballs glued to the small screen.

From Heroes to Lost, High School Musical to Glee, recent experiments are pointing to radical shifts in the way stories are told and the way viewers consume them, with observers predicting bold changes to the TV business as it emerges from a decade of fragmented audiences and dwindling advertising revenues.

“Over the next 10 years, literally what we consider traditional ways of telling stories are going to completely fall apart,” predicts Peter Vamos of the Banff World Television Festival.

“If it’s a good story, it’s a good story and if it entertains you, it entertains you and you’re not going to have to fit these things within certain types of story arcs — there can be any number of different ways of doing this sort of stuff.”

“There will be a fairly dramatic shift soon, even for content that’s established in Canada,” adds Jeff Gomez, head of the New York-based digital production company Starlight Runner Entertainment.

“There’ll be more and more of this kind of cross-platform implementation. … You’re going to see really artful and emotionally engaging implementation.”

What they’re talking about is a phenomenon known as transmedia, in which a story might start on television, evolve online in a new direction and then shift again to take shape as a novel.

It may be slight but Gomez draws a distinction between the many cross-platform offshoots of “American Idol” and the transmedia aspects of “Glee.”

While both shows offer songs online, Gomez says Idol downloads don’t add much to the viewer’s experience, while Glee downloads “amplify the themes and experiences of that episode.”

Mediawire CEO Ned Sherman points to Heroes as a prime example of the transmedia phenomenon, noting it’s generated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue for NBC Universal through things including online content, magazines, action figures, interactive websites, graphic novels and webisodes.

Boosts like that are crucial as much of the TV industry attempts to rally from the economic downturn.

“Every sign is that network television is on the decline and cable continues to do well,” notes Sherman, whose trade magazine hosts an annual conference called The Future of Television.

“From what I hear out there the whole system is under evaluation right now. … You kind of see what’s been going on with Jay Leno and looking at his numbers … (they are) worse than what they expected. What does that mean for prime time? Does prime time really mean anything anymore, and in an on-demand world what’s going to happen?”

To a large degree, transmedia is just old-fashioned brand marketing in a new guise, says Vamos.

But he notes it does gain greater importance as competition for eyeballs ramps up. Blows like the U.S. writers strike of a few years ago didn’t help in retaining viewers’ loyalty, but extra initiatives helped keep fans engaged and shows afloat, he says.

“During the writers strike you kept seeing little episodes of Lost showing up (online) that kept the story going,” notes Vamos.

New, off-screen content created during the strike, like Dr. Horrible became enduring cult classics.

Canadian TV production is poised to see an influx of such interactive initiatives with the merging of the Canadian Television Fund and the Canada New Media Fund into the Canada Media Fund, set to launch in April 2010.

The new fund will require applicants to make their projects available on at least two platforms, one of which must be television. Projects produced in high definition will be favoured.

Gomez, whose clients have included Showtime’s “Dexter” and the 3D film “Avatar,” says he’s met with several Canadian media companies to discuss ideas that could be funded under the new program.

Michael Dowse, a filmmaker and the creator of the Showcase series The Foundation, says he’s excited by the new directions that technology is charting.

“It’s such an interesting time in television right now because I think we’re right at that point where it’s switching, where the old broadcast days are becoming the Internet days and people are watching on DVD and they’re watching online on Apple or streaming on whatever broadcaster’s website it is,” says Dowse.

“It’s totally changing and it’s totally exciting.”

Gomez notes that initiatives like these can even keep a series alive well beyond its due date, pointing to the Star Trek franchise as benefiting greatly from brand extensions and fan loyalty.

“I think that Star Trek survived as long as it did because the fan base was fed ancillary content for years and years. They kept that torch burning when that property should have been killed two or three times in its lifetime,” he says.

Once on the verge of cancellation, NBC’s Chuck is reportedly harnessing social media sites to fuel its troubled TV run with a game called Mission: Chuck Me Out.

Similar to Fox’s Biggest Gleek game used in August to promote the show Glee, this game tracks users who mention Chuck on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. Every tweet that mentions Chuck can earn the user a point, and the fan with the most points by March 10 gets their photo inserted into the show.

Gomez says more and more viewers need to be rewarded for their participation and feel like they’re part of the fold.

“That is the way of the future. We have a generation of kids who are getting older now, they’re headed toward puberty and all they’ve ever known is the Internet, and so all they’ve ever known is the validation that is derived from self-expression through two-way communication through the Internet,” he says.

“It’s a culture that emerges out of the fact that it is easier now than ever to express yourself to many people and get feedback from many people. And so why shouldn’t our entertainment do the same thing to us?”

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