Transmedia Storytelling: What we learned from 'Lost'
Michael Niederman
Issue: October 1, 2012

Transmedia Storytelling: What we learned from 'Lost'

Getting lost is seldom a good thing, but in the case of J.J. Abrams’ ground-breaking series Lost, it would have been nice to see media industries truly “get it.”  

Lost captivated viewers and transformed television into a vehicle that propelled transmedia storytelling into the mainstream, reshaping how we entertain ourselves. The ability to tell a large-scale story across multiple media, while having a presence in the culture for a long time (think Wizard of Oz) really transformed with the addition of television and then the Web to the storytelling opportunities. Lost demonstrated how a narrative can effectively extend to multiple platforms, engage a diverse audience, and succeed both fiscally and intellectually. But then, after its success, not much really followed. The world of media has appeared to lose track of the lessons learned from this program. 

 At Columbia College Chicago, transmedia education crosses platforms, including the third screen for filming and viewing. (Credit Alexa Rubinstein)

To a small degree, many of the lessons of Lost have been translated into minor successes for a variety of narrative properties, with more coherent integration of elements created to extend a story. Unfortunately, many media creatives still think of the story itself as a brand to be sold rather than a story to be told. Financial concerns will always be present, as they should be (this is show business after all), but the major challenge is in part one of determining how to predict success in the world of transmedia. It can’t just be based on short- term financials — creative needs to consider short- and long-term narrative success as well.  Not everything can be The Avengers (nor should it be) and having a financially profitable TV show or game isn’t a guarantee of becoming a successful transmedia property (though it doesn’t hurt…). So, what should we have learned from Lost?

The team behind Lost showed that they cared about their audience. They made choices because they thought they were cool and when the audience showed interest, they offered more of the same. The executive producers also realized that there are different audiences and worked to engage these different audiences in appropriate, specific ways. Most importantly, they always did things in an authentic way, remaining true to their fans, realizing that audiences can smell condescension a mile away. Too many producers think a game using the voices of the real actors that is not connected to the larger narrative expands the time in a respectful way. It doesn’t, it is just an alternative to playing Angry Birds.

When presented with marketing opportunities, the Lost producers turned them into storytelling opportunities. This required a network willing to give the creatives some freedom, and the right kind of marketing partners to work with. Ultimately, everyone involved appreciated the attention of their audience and wanted to make sure that the viewers saw value in additional audience experiences. Too many story extensions particularly on the web tend to feel like one long product placement experience. 

Columbia College’s Media Production Center hosts student film, interactive media and TV projects such as “Freq Out” an annual student TV broadcast also streamed on line. (Credit: Dan Svoboda)


Sometimes you have to accept that you won’t see money immediately. Audience engagement needs to come first and you need to prioritize keeping viewers invested as the story progresses. The fans have kept many a property afloat when needed, but you can’t ask them for a few bucks every time they want some more story.

Too many shows focus solely on a quartet of interesting characters and that’s about it. If you expect to have a property that has a diverse and engaged audience, you need a diverse and engaging universe. Universes that are successful have multiple points of engagement, which comes down to the characters that populate the universe.  More story opportunities equal more potential audiences.

The issues of how to manage story arcs in transmedia are similar to the issues every TV series producer faces. You need to tell enough of a story to keep viewers satisfied, while teasing enough mystery to make the audience want to know what's around the next corner (and come back for that). Between the smoke monster and the polar bear, I couldn’t wait to tune in each week...

Lost was lucky; nobody knew what kind of story it was (at least at the start). It engaged a more diverse audience, an audience that might not have not watched a science fiction/fantasy show if they hadn't been hooked by the mystery and rich storytelling first. This is one of the great challenges of transmedia storytelling, to get beyond a niche genre audience that is typically of the nerdy variety (I count myself in that group). I realize they are needed, but also that they are not enough (ask the fans of Firefly — they get it) for a true large-scale property.

Columbia College’s cross-disciplinary Media Production Center includes a professional motion capture studio for video animation and game design. (Credit: Robert Kusel)


The biggest mistake is forgetting what got you there — the mothership, the core property that was the initial hook. In an interview with Carlton Cuse for the forthcoming book One Story, Many Media, one of the many insights he shared was about the care taken with the TV show, the mothership.  While all the other story threads — ARGs, web, novels, music videos — were being rolled out to the hungry fans, the mothership remained the engine that made the story go, no matter how much excitement or interest was generated by the other elements.
The biggest problems facing transmedia creators and their backers are that everybody thinks they will hit gold, and that there is some magic, unknown formula that will give birth to the next transmedia bonanza. The truth is it just won’t be that easy. The reality is that some really smart people are working on great properties and something will succeed, eventually. Technological evolution will offer solutions and the right stories will be created that will better support the approach. The answer is just like it was for Lost; the right stories and technologies will line up and we will have the next big thing to talk about.

Michael Niederman is an award-winning film and video maker and is currently the chair of the Television Department of Columbia College, Chicago. His award winning projects include the dramatic film The Paled Man, the documentaries Voices from Northern Ireland, shown on the PBS network, 7 Day Wonder, Presumed Guilty, and Shades of Grey all of which have aired on WTTW/Chicago. He has worked extensively in corporate and educational media production, writing films for a wide variety of organizations. He has written and lectured extensively on television, popular culture, and emerging narrative forms. He recently collaborated with three Columbia College professors on the new book Transmedia for Creatives and Producers: Storytelling Across Worlds.