House of Cards: The TV series’ universe expands

For this week’s release of Season 4 of House of Cards on Netflix, the U.S. video-on-demand leader launched a big transmedia campaign. Decoding this communications initiative.

Written by  Cécile Blanchard (Méta-Media)

“Transmedia” A slightly barbaric word whose definition is ... well, clear, according to Henry Jenkins, an eminent U.S. professor and one of the first transmedia storytelling theorists. According to Jenkins, it is a “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”

Transmedia promotion uses these springboards to generate engagement in and referrals for a story. The phenomenon is not as new as we might believe.

Film, transmedia promotion pioneer

As early as 1999, the Blair Witch Project generated enthusiasm with an advertising campaign that created doubt: was it a story or a documentary? It put a website online featuring the pictures of vanished students. Flyers were even handed out on U.S. campuses to help locate them. A transmedia campaign that did not yet speak its name was born.

In 2001, the effort was even more ambitious for the launch of Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence. 666 Websites were created, and the story’s characters were suddenly driven into the real world. Later, in 2008, marketing teams went all out to promote Batman The Dark Knight and opted for an alternate reality game  (both online and in real life) that was launched a year before the movie hit the big screen. The game encouraged fans to look for clues around the world, and then share what they found.

There are many examples in American film: Tron: Legacy, The Amazing Spiderman, Prometheus, and so on.

These ambitious projects draw on an already powerful group of fans. Except for the Blair Witch Project, transmedia campaigns target blockbusters. When they succeed, they help fuel the buzz around the launch.

The TV show is especially suited to a transmedia campaign.

Now, when TV series have a galvanizing effect on audiences as well as “cinematographic” ambitions, they are often promoted via transmedia campaigns that put together all of the ingredients of the grandest productions. Campaigns with the greatest number of views create a frenzy and their respective fan bases are often very, very active on social media. Each new season’s launch usually raises a lot of excitement, fuelled by rumours, the first clips, teasers and even media leaks …

A universe that is particularly conducive to transmedia campaigns

“A good transmedia campaign deploys the story in the real world and online to blur the boundary between truth and fiction and bring the fans into the story. Most important, it must always be careful to maintain consistency among the different media,” says Melanie Bourdaa, a lecturer in communication sciences at Université Michel-de-Montaigne - Bordeaux III and teacher at MOOC (understanding transmedia storytelling).

Netflix has gotten the picture, as shown by the launch of the fourth season of its flagship series House of Cards in the middle of the U.S. presidential campaign. Perfect timing!

Vote for Frank Underwood!

It all starts with the first major debate broadcast on CNN, featuring the candidates for the Republican party’s December 15 presidential primary. That was when Netflix timed its release of the first teaser for the new season of House of Cards.

The teaser, in the form of a presidential campaign ad, uses the codes inherent in this type of video. We see candidate Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) address the nation as the sun rises over the fields, American kids run with flags in their hands, soldiers reunite with their families, and patriotic music plays. At the end, we hear “I’m Frank Underwood and I approved this message,” like a “real” ad clip for a “real” presidential candidate. In fact, it’s a legal obligation.

The spot’s blurring of fiction and reality is especially effective because it was broadcast in the thick of the primary campaign.

A website FU2016 continues the experience: it features the campaign ad, and selected excerpts from the new season, along with goodies to allow viewers to campaign for Frank Underwood themselves (stickers, posters, prospectus, etc.), mottos, and the official campaign hashtag, #FU2016, to use on Twitter and Facebook. Lastly (a hint at the agreement between Frank and his wife in the new season?), a click on Claire Underwood’s section brings up a “404” error.

Later, on February 23, Frank Underwood reappears in the real world, inaugurating his portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, where it hangs alongside the portraits of other U.S. presidents.

A transmedia campaign (TV, Internet, real world) that blurs the lines between truth and fiction allows fans to step right into the story, raising even more anticipation.

Therein lies the real talent of a successful transmedia campaign: when it is consistent with the story and fully respects its universe, the creativity deployed for publicity creates an even stronger desire to discover the creativity of the story’s screenwriters.

This article was originally published on Méta-Média and is presented here as part of the editorial partnership between CMF Trends and Méta-Média.  © [2016] [Méta-Média]. All rights reserved.

Méta-Media is France Télévisions' collective blog that focus on the evolution of traditional media, new media and journalism.
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