Transmedia Legitimation: Dark Score Stories and the A&E Brand
November 21st, 2011
When I was alerted to the existence of Dark Score Stories, the transmedia marketing initiative that serves as a prequel to A&E’s upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, I was interested for two reasons.
The first is that Bag of Bones, a two-part miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George (among others) was actually filmed in my home province of Nova Scotia, which resulted in a large number of Brosnan sightings for friends and family and which meant that the photographs that comprise much of Dark Score Stories were in many ways a trip “home.”
The second, meanwhile, is that the campaign is being handled by the good folks at Campfire, who were kind enough to send along their work for their campaign for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and who have been equally kind in assisting me with further research in that area since that point. As a result, I was curious what their next major television project would entail, and how some of the transmedia lessons on display there have been transferred over to this initiative.
However, as effective as I think the campaign might be, I’m somewhat more interested in exploring the existence of the campaign than the campaign itself, although the two plainly go hand-in-hand. Looking through the book of photographs that A&E has sent out for the project, and the Dark Score Stories website, it is clear that Campfire has offered a vivid entry point into King’s fictional community, capturing the author’s trademark style while simultaneously introducing characters that will become more important in the film itself (which I have yet to see, but which I am interested to check out in December).
What intrigues me most, though, is the idea of how these kinds of transmedia experiences function in relation to channel brands, and in particular how those functions might differ with a television movie as opposed to an actual series. Obviously, there is an element of promotion to any initiative like this one, and the wide range of media coverage around the site was likely in many cases people’s first exposure to the film’s existence. However, while the momentum gained from Game of Thrones‘ campaign will carry into fans’ long-term engagement with the series over a number of years, Bag of Bones is an example of “event” programming, which to me creates a different set of expectations both for potential viewers and, perhaps more importantly, for the cable channel in question.
When I wrote about the “authenticity” of the Game of Thrones scent box Campfire created for that HBO series, I explicitly linked that to the HBO brand, something that is common throughout the marketing for any show on that channel. Dark Score Stories, while aiming for something a little bit more contemporary than that “artifact” from Westeros, is nonetheless tied up in discourses of authenticity, although in this case it has less to do with “historical” accuracy and more to do with legitimating the A&E brand.
Melanie Kohnen, who is currently teaching a course in Transmedia Storytelling at Georgia Tech, remarked on Twitter that her first impression upon receiving a copy of the coffee table book tied to the campaign – which she has since shared with her students, who are in the process of evaluating the campaign – was that “Someone’s really trying to reach for the Quality TV label here.” Quality TV is one of a number of legitimating discourses found within television branding, and the idea of how television is being legitimated has become the subject of an exciting new book (that I sadly haven’t had time to read) from Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman.
In this instance, I think Melanie is right, and the book (which is very well made, and which features a selection of the black and white images collected on the Dark Score Stories site) and the campaign writ large are definitely aiming to legitimate what could be perceived as a “TV Movie” (which has taken on a low culture connotation when viewed in the context of basic cable) so that it might be more readily considered a “Four-hour epic miniseries” as the press materials suggest. This is not to say that the campaign isn’t also intended to make more people aware of the miniseries’ upcoming premiere, but the nature of the campaign seems designed to make a statement about its quality rather than to sell it more broadly.
On this level, I’m wondering if we might consider transmedia campaigns like this one as an example of channels looking for a way to translate the potential for “spreadability” (or, if you prefer, “virality”) within an online space into a more mediated, and more controlled, context that we might better associate with discourses of quality. Dark Score Stories is still able to be spread by people on Twitter, including a tweet over the weekend from prolific Tweeter Alyssa Milano, but visitors to the site will find something different from the traditional “viral” product, something that’s comprehensive and detailed rather than something designed to capture a moment in the zeitgeist.
That content, by the way, comes in the form of a series of photo essays, accompanied by audio commentary and featuring a number of subtly animated images in addition to traditional photographs (some of which hold hidden secrets). They are designed to offer a glimpse of life at Dark Score Lake in the period leading up to the film, and feature some characters that will be important in the film and others whose absence will be a key function of the plot. It’s a nice introduction to the world (especially for someone like me, who hasn’t read much if any of King’s work), and it makes me more interested in the project. However, while the fact that Campfire is able to offer transmedia storytelling opportunities is great, that it will read as “Quality” seems to be one of their biggest selling features, especially when campaigns are closely linked to the brand of the channel in question.
A&E, as a channel, is at something of a crossroads in terms of its branding, given that its most successful programs are either reality series (which have a tricky relationship with quality, even if I’d argue that is somewhat unfair in some instances) and procedurals (with their one original fictional series, The Glades, and reruns of shows like Criminal Minds). Indeed, a visit to the channel’s website over the weekend revealed the challenge facing Bag of Bones: while the film is the first item featured in the website’s flash animation was Bag of Bones, the next was Monster-in-Laws, which is then followed by the stars of Storage Wars. [This has since changed today, with Bag of Bones no longer present.] Like so many other cable networks, A&E bought big into cheap reality programming and the “basic cable procedural” trend in recent years, and it’s resulted in a strange environment to find the kind of “epic miniseries” that we more often associate with HBO or, in recent years, AMC.
Dark Score Stories feels like an effort to bridge this gap, a space in which the A&E brand can be clearly defined relative to discourses of quality television. While the miniseries seems out of place on the network’s general webspace, the spaces exclusive to Bag of Bones (including both the official site for the series, and the additional material at DarkScoreStories.com), are free of any additional A&E synergy beyond the logo and the network’s slogan – Real Life. Drama. – which is in this case seems to be emphasizing its second half (unlike the majority of the channel’s programming).
We can see some of this playing out in the coffee table book sent out to select sources (which in this instance does include me), as it ends up being trapped somewhere between an actual artifact – a book of photography ostensibly published within the story world of King’s novel and the small town he created – and the branding of the series’ marketing campaign. The materials suggest it is a “photojournalism portfolio,” diegetic within the world of the series, but at the same time the A&E logo is all over it (including on its cover), and the foreword comes from the film’s director, Mick Garris.
Now, this is not to suggest that this is simply a marketing tool, given that there are some really impressive touches that aim towards something that transcends its advertising function. For example, the book is supposedly published by “Zenith House,” which is a fictional publishing house that lies at the center of Stephen King’s The Plant, an unfinished novel that King began to publish in a series of e-book chapters in 2000. At least from what I can gleam from Wikipedia, the very idea behind the Dark Score Stories website is at least connected with the plot of The Plant: the fact that these photographs contain elements of the supernatural seems to reflect the role of photographs within King’s unfinished work. There’s also, on a more basic level, something fitting about an experiment in online distribution being directly referenced amidst an unconventional transmedia campaign of this nature.
However, it’s hard to ignore that these references embedded within the book are forced to sit side-by-side with the A&E logo, and that one of the final pages in the book removes all auspices of authenticity in favor of promoting the miniseries (complete with Brosnan’s name, the date it’s airing, etc.).
It is here where I sort of want to draw a generic distinction between series and miniseries. Obviously, any campaign for a series is tied to the channel on which it airs, but with a series the goal is to get you watching that channel over a series of weeks, which will in the process reinforce elements of brand identity over an extended period of time. By comparison, an event miniseries of this nature will be over after only a few days, and therefore has a greater chance of being ephemeral from a branding perspective. When a series runs for an extended period of time, it is constantly reinforced in its connection with the brand, traveling through word of mouth and through online discussions, but with miniseries you need to capture all of that potential energy (and all of the potential association between the product and the brand) in the course of just two days.
From a story perspective, a transmedia campaign for a miniseries like this one makes sense, and I’m more interested in the project now than I was before looking through the book and the website. However, I think at least part of me associates transmedia with a larger story world than a four-hour miniseries, and would expect this sort of buildup for a project more like ABC’s The River (which has a similar supernatural feel to it, and an extensive back story to be mined) or even something like The CW’s The Secret Circle (which taps into a history of witches within a small community). There, the story being introduced is the foundation for a serialized television experience, and could help foster the kind of fan interaction and fan engagement which could sustain that series for a greater period of time. While spreadable campaigns like this one have obviously dealt with more standalone projects from a cinema perspective (Campfire is, after all, always mentioned in connection with The Blair Witch Project, which their founders created), I do think that transmedia television campaigns are more generally imagined (at least for me) as something like what we saw with Game of Thrones which offers an introduction into something that might run for multiple seasons.
However, beyond simply wanting to draw more viewers, there seems to be a clear effort here to associate A&E with this project in order to position themselves as the home for “quality” television projects in the future. Dark Score Stories is a compelling piece of transmedia storytelling, but it’s also something that we might not normally associate with A&E as a network, which is perhaps why A&E’s logo is so prominent throughout. While the Game of Thrones campaign felt as though it was meeting expectations placed on the HBO brand, Dark Score Stories is confounding the expectations we might place on A&E (at least based on the channel’s current programming output), which feels like a message not only to viewers but also those in the industry who may have television projects of this nature that are looking for a home. It’s a message that A&E isn’t just the network for Storage Wars and Monster-in-Laws, but also a place where “Drama” can mean a supernatural thriller, and where television movies can be viewed as four-hour epic miniseries.
What Dark Score Stories offers is a way for that statement to be made for an entire month within an online space, as opposed to simply being located within the two-night broadcast (provided that the miniseries itself, free from the promotion, lives up to the billing). In a way, it serializes the discourses of legitimation found within a “quality” television event over a greater period of time, maximizing the potential for the brand and simultaneously increasing the potential audience for the project.
We’ll be waiting until December to see how successful they will be on that front, but exploring Campfire’s transmedia installation of sorts now offers us the ability to see whether Dark Score Lake is a place we want to visit (and a place that could help put A&E back on the Quality TV map).
- I’ll admit that, while there are probably a whole host of secrets embedded in the photo essays, I haven’t had time to search for all of them (although the one I found in the final set was creepy enough to give me an idea of what I might be looking for – zoom in on the seventh photo in that set).
- I focused more on the branding issues above, but I really like the audio function of the website: as beautiful as the photos are, it’s the audio essays that really draw the story and the characters to the surface. On the whole, there’s a really evocative sense of “Tone” to the project that fits the King aesthetic nicely, and aesthetically speaking I think there’s a lot of impressive work here.
- I don’t actually recognize any of the locations from the photos in terms of where they might be in Nova Scotia, but I can certainly recognize Nova Scotia in many of the images. I spent three summers working a job where I traveled around the province and explore many areas that I wouldn’t have normally visited, so I look forward to seeing how they’ve captured the beauty to be found there in the film (especially since it’ll be filtered through a horror lens).