I remember when the USA Channel did little more than shows about angels. Yet, in a relatively short time frame, the channel has transformed itself into a network with a number of excellent, well-known and well-received shows. At the core of this transformation has been their “characters welcome” brand. The reason that USA’s brand is so strong, and only becoming stronger, is because they understand the importance of transmedia storytelling.
This is strongly reflected in their channel, which stakes it’s shows not on plot, type or location, but on their central characters. Though many other networks would soon follow, USA was the first to have transmedia characters in their shows. At USA you can (among many other things) straighten up rooms with Monk (from Monk), play detective games with the cast of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, read blogs by Shawn from Psych, and get text messages from the characters in The 4400 which reveal plot elements. This is part of an excellent transmedia strategy that spreads across all the network’s properties.
You can see the focus on transmedia character building in the launch of USA’s new show In Plain Sight, a show about bringing people in to the witness protection program. The network has already launched the show’s website in which you can “get a witness to protect” according to the network’s advertising and find out more about each of the characters. The advertising too is notable in that, unlike many pilots, they focus on the characters. The character focus is so strong that they almost exclude the plot from these ads. We see a number of witnesses that the main character of In Plain Sight will presumably have to protect over the course of the series, however the focus is on the main character, what her problems are, what her accomplishments are, how she feels, what her identity is, and what her relationships are. Even before the series had a launch date, the USA network made sure that we knew who the protagonist was in preparation for extending her over multiple media.
It is notable how strongly the characters are promoted on USA, while other companies might promote the world as opposed to the characters. The reason for this is simple, these characters live right next to us, along with USA’s (real-life) characters of the month, in the real world. This idea is reinforced by instances in which the characters break the fourth wall, the most notable being the promotion of USA’s purchase of Law and Order: CI. In the ad, the main characters of CI notice (right under the severed hand) the USA logo on the corner of the screen, one of them going so far as to reach out and try and touch it. The message is that despite being boxed inside the screen, these characters exist outside of their TV shows.
The most interesting reflection of this strategy has been the character mash-ups. These mash-ups (a type of transmedia that Chris Dahlen seems to be a fan of) are a great deal of fun and are built to reward TV viewers who watch the network and characters, not just the shows. In these ads various characters from each of the shows meet up with each other. Monk is thrilled to meet The 4400 who had to live in a clean room, Psych‘s fake psychic Shawn brushes past the real psychic Johnny from The Dead Zone, and in the latest ad, Detective Goren drives up from his New York police department (from CI) welcomes Mary, the protagonist of In Plain Sight, to the network with a pie.
It’s very interesting to see how a successful convergence strategy plays out on TV, and how it slowly gets picked up by the other (larger) networks.
Oh, and I’m sort of looking forward to In Plain Sight, it looks good.