A quick search of recent scholarship about digital narratives will yield results for digital storytelling in the classroom, the digital narratives of video games, and hypertexts. However, one gap that exists within this scholarship is an analysis of the relationship between narratives of television shows and the digital narratives produced by their webpages and social media profiles. Do they influence and affect the narrative of the show itself? How do the stories presented on these pages change how the audience views the narrative of the show? This paper will examine how the digital narratives of the webpages for Once Upon a Time and Grimm function: how the use of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and interactive web pages create communities from the audience, how these digital narratives influence the audience, and how audience input and contribution to these digital narratives influences the narrative of the television shows. I will argue that this interaction between the narrative of the television show, the digital narrative of the webpage, and the audience forms a new relationship that functions in ways similar to the original transmission of fairy tales and folktales.
Frank’s criteria for socio-narratology are an excellent starting point for analyzing fairy tale television shows and the digital narratives associated with them. Frank lists six basic traits of narratives, five of which easily translate to analyzing television shows, specifically television shows that have oral narratives as their source material.
- The audience comes to the media with wide knowledge base, one that is made up of multiple sources, supporting Frank’s concept of stories “depending on shared narrative sources”.
- Originally, the live, physical audience used stories, and the group interactives to create their “narrative selves” and make the stories social. Now, this occurs through the interactive mediums (discussion boards, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds) associated with a particular show
- Shows such as Once Upon a Time, and Grimm, with their mix of romance, horror, detective and action are perfect examples that stories have no “pure genre”
- Discussion boards and fan pages allow for fans/audience to “open up a story for various interpretations and possible uses” through their detailed analysis of episodes, and with the creation of fan fiction
- Analyzing the webpages of Once Upon a Time and Grimm as contributing sources to the primary narrative, connects to soci-narratology that “analyzes how stories breathe as they animate, assemble, entertain, and enlighten, and also deceive and divide people”. Certainly anyone that has experienced a discussion board troll or a flamer, can attest to the “divide people” part.
The viewing audience of shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm come to these texts with a vast knowledge of folklore, often presented through popular culture. Perhaps they are familiar with fairy tales from early viewings of Disney’s adaptations, or perhaps they know the stories from the darker Fairy Tale Theatre series from the early 1980s. References to fairy tales can be seen in a wide range of television shows and genres: shows such as How I met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory. may just reference them, while others may dedicate whole episodes such as “Gingerbread” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Warehouse 13’s “Where or When”.
Texts do not exist in a vaccuum, instead operating in what Brooker calls the “matrix”. More and more authors don’t just assume an audience’s familiarity with these other texts, they depend on it. For example, when Snow, in Once Upon a Time, releases a bright blue bird, the audience is meant to connect that to the story of the Bluebird of Happiness, as well as every animated Disney princess that has a scene featuring cute, woodland creatures. Just as authors depend on intertextual knowledge in order to understand primary texts, fans are now not only interpreting texts in light of secondary texts but are also contributing to the narrative of primary texts.
For some fans, their conception of the text of the show is also formed by the discussion boards they post on, the fan fiction they compose, and the fan art they create. While fans/audience have participated in these secondary texts for years, technology has enabled fans/audience to instantly share their opinions with other fans and creators. Not only do the fans/audience create a community through social media, but they also add to the secondary texts with the creation of their own.
Zipes also states that fairy tales are both “an elaborate and simple narrative” and these tales can only be understood if “we grasp its hybrid nature” and how it continues to build on storytelling qualities of other genres (9). He also states that “fairy tales have been changed while changing the media” (20). While Zipes was not specifically addressing Once Upon a Time and Grimm, or any other fairy tale based show, he might as well have. It is the “hybrid nature” of these narratives that is interesting as technology now allows an interaction between storyteller and audience, that I would argue has not been present since the beginning of oral narratives.
There is not yet a specific approach for analyzing the narratives of webpages such as those created for movies or television shows so I have used a combination of those used for the digital narratives of video games and a cinematic approach. Analyzing mis en scene: color values, composition, form, and framing all easily transfer to analyzing the narratives presented by the webpages of these television shows.
For example, the background of the Once Upon a Time site is the same background as the opening credits. The color scheme is blue, which calls to mind shadows, but not necessarily the dark. The main page has several menus on the right hand side that frame the page: Preview Gallery, Full Episode, Latest Trivia, Episode Recap, and Once: 101. Each one of these frames focuses on a close up of a character’s face, with the background presented as fuzzy. There is also a color differential in each picture between the foreground and background, serving to pop out the character’s face. This choice reinforces that Once Upon a Time is a character driven show.
Grimm’s webpage on the other hand, visually points to the grittier nature of the show’s mood- the background picture is the shadowy Portland forest, the foreground is a set of scrolling images from the show- Nick Burkhardt, our Grimm, featured hefting an axe; Nick researching Wesen, Nick and his partner Hank with flashlights investigating a crime. Each of these scrolling images presents a section of the story with the emphasis on the primary genre (detective/mystery). The lighting is dark, and the color scheme uses dark greens and blacks. the resulting atmosphere is foreboding.
The Once Upon a Time website is fan oriented and adds a lot to the existing narrative of the show with its additional information. It contains blogs based on characters/episodes where the fans/audience are encouraged to point out things that the writer (of the blog) may have missed. There are announcements for live Tweet events where fans/audience members can use a hashtag #UnlockTheMagic to get clues on episodes, or get looks at future scripts. The show’s webpage also has trivia quizzes, Snows Gallery (Sic), and a discussion board. The discussion board, not surprising given the nature of the storytelling on the show, focuses mainly on speculation about what Storybrooke characters are what fairy tale counterparts, what the relationships are between these characters, and who unrevealed characters could be.
This interactive section of the sites is billed as “Your 24/7 fan portal to the real time conversation surrounding Once Upon a Time”. However, while the live Tweet events and discussion boards create a sense of audience and narrative interaction that replicates an approximation to the original oral narrative/audience interaction, the language of the interactions, interestingly, places it firmly under publicity rather than narrative.
Every week there is a new episode, someone prominently featured with the show live tweets either the East Coast or West Coast showing. Recent Live Tweets have featured Jane Espenson, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Lana Parilla. The language of both Espenson and Goodwin’s Tweets fall firmly under marketing- language such as “It’s On!”, and “Watch” as well as repeated use of the #OUAT hashtag and even @ABC_Publicity make it clear that the purpose of these Tweets is to increase the show’s profile, and publicize that evening’s episodes.
In contrast, when Lana Parilla, the evil queen Regina, live Tweeted an episode, her Tweets appeared more personal, more along the lines of the commentary track on a DVD, making personal comments and connections to the scenes in the episode as it aired. However, even her Tweets make frequent use of the @ABC_Publicity, @DIsney, and @Disneyland with the purpose of publicizing the show, and its owner. It is impossible to know whether the tone and language of these Tweets is something that the cast members/writers have been directed towards, or whether they are the choices of the those involved.
Of interest is the similarity between the marketing heavy language in the Tweets of the official @OnceABC account with those of the actors/writers. It is clear that the purpose of the Tweets is to add incentive to people watching the episodes in read time, and to provide the feeling to fans that they are interacting with their favorite characters or writers, whether or not this feeling is real. While no real relationship exists, this does not seem to matter to fans, who eagerly participate on both Facebook and Twitter. Conclusions as to how influential the fans/audience’s input is on the narrative, such conclusions are anecdotal at best without confirmation from the authors/creators, which is problematic.
For instance, the favorite character of the Huntsman recently returned to Once Upon a Time in the flashback heavy episode, “Welcome to Storybrooke”. Was he brought back because the fans have flooded the discussion boards, Facebook page, and Twitter feeds begging the creators to find a way to bring him back, or was his return planned out months ago in keeping with the storyline? Given the reputation for long arc storytelling that Lost writers/creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have, it would not be hard to argue that they planned out this return.
Perhaps a clearer example of the impact of fans on the narrative would be when Grimm premiered Season 2 this past fall. There was an elaborate opening narrative over the credits that provided background on the main character Nick. The fan/audience reaction to this new narrative was swift, overwhelming, and negative. Discussion board threads were full of criticism. By episode 4 “Quill”, the narration was pulled, and replaced with a shorter opening that featured the same images, but with the narrative track removed. It’s hard not to draw a connection between the two. Short of an interview with the creators that addresses what specific decisions are informed by fan/audience feedback, there is no way to know definitively.
The Grimm website, while not as well organized as Once Upon a Time’s, offers more (although also more controlled) information. There are a lot of “Exclusives” such as background information on Grimm and Wesen history, Grimm Guide to episodes, interactives of both Aunt Marie’s trailer and the Spice Shop. There are also photo exclusives, video exclusives, games, and behind the scene looks.
While Grimm’s webpage does feature a blog, it is a Production Blog, and while there is a place for fan/audience comments, there is no fan/audience created blog. There are few blogs that have comments on them, and it is hard to tell if this is because the webpage is disorganized and the production blog is buried, if it’s because the blog is monitored closely and comments have been deleted, or if fans simply don’t find it engaging and therefore don’t comment. In comparison to the Once Upon a Time board the Production Blog appears less used, and therefore, a less likely source of either fans/audience creating communities or of interpretations of the narratives.
A better place to see fan/audience interaction is on the Twitter feed of @NBCGrimm, or to follow the #Grimm. The Twitter interactions, especially when the creators, writers, and actors are tweeting, gesture towards the paradigm of storyteller ←-> audience, as @OnceABC and #OUAT does. Three main stars, Sasha Roiz, David Guintoli, and Bree Turner, often Tweet reminders of upcoming episodes, short notes and pictures from set, and thank yous to the fans for watching. Notably absent on Twitter is Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays fan favorite, Monroe. The tone of the Grimm actors seems more interactive, although there is still the publicity language of hashtags with #Grimm, and Twitter mentions of other Grimm actors. @Grimm’s Tweets provide video clip links, questions to fans that ask for their opinion, and are geared towards increasing interest. The tone of their Tweets is similar to @OnceABC, the purpose is to encourage viewership, and while both have the appearance of “true” interactions with fans/audience, the marketing/publicity language belies this. Again, the interaction and sense of community appears to be more illusory than real.
The Facebook fan pages of each show are pure marketing vehicles- fans are allowed to post, but it is moderated. The majority of the posts are done by the author, and act as marketing- there is a strict control of how the story on the Facebook page is presented. The Facebook pages offer much of the same material as gets posted on the official Twitter accounts of both shows- language meant to increase interest, links to video clips, and both reminders and “talking up” for upcoming episodes. If fans/audience are watching their episodes online, they are also able to click on the screen and share on either their own Facebook or Twitter accounts that they are watching the episodes. While both Facebook and Twitter would seem to create a connection through the storyteller ←> audience interaction, it is an illusion. Fans/audience may feel as though they are creating a relationship, but the lack of specific response from the actors/writers, the distant language of their postings and tweets, as well as the marketing/publicity language used, all points towards this technology being used simply as a tool.
According to Zipes, “Storytellers strive to make themselves and their stories relevant, and if they succeed, those stories will stick in the minds of the listeners, who may tell these stories later and contribute to the replication of stories that form cultural patterns (5). One of the main purposes of the digital narratives created by the Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds for Once Upon a Time and Grimm is to make themselves relevant. Likewise, the additional information provided in the digital narratives of the webpages of the shows themselves seek not only to contribute to the the primary text, but to also encourage fans/audience to create and participate in the secondary texts.
One of the difficulty in analyzing the secondary texts of these shows is in determining how much of the content is driven by the narrative of the show, and how much is smart marketing by the studios. Who the storyteller is. Is it the studio executive who insists that their cast members Tweet to increase the show’s profile? Or is it the writers that write specific, additional content just for the webpage and the fans? As is often the case with television or film, the question of what is driving the content is worth acknowledging.
There’s a counterargument to be made, that the use of Twitter, and Facebook are not part of the narrative of the show, being only marketing tools used by the studios. That only the shows’ webpages can be seen as secondary texts and digital narratives. I would argue that because of the participatory nature of both Twitter and Facebook, and because of the sheer number of conversations fans/audience are involved in, that it is necessary to view these interactions as part of the intertextual matrix, because again, these narratives do not exist in a vaccuum.
Right now, there is no way to measure whether or not shows being talked about on social media are actually successful, or reaching an audience. This will soon change though as Twitter and Nielsen are joining together this fall with the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating which will track “how social media is affecting TV viewing” (Stransky 33). However, the push through social media by networks does create “a must-watch community atmosphere. Now networks and showrunners hope to replicate that effect by making their real-time airings as relevant as they were before the advent of the DVR” (Stransky 33). Nowhere does it mention the narrative, but the emphasis here is on creating community. Once these numbers become available, future research could examine them and it would be of interest to examine the language of the social media to see if a determination could be made as to “marketing” versus “narrative” language.
As analyzing the discourse or narratives presented by webpages, particularly webpages that are connected to primary narratives is relatively new, there is much to be explored. Examining how the language of these digital narratives differs from more traditional narratives, the problem of authorship of the webpages and other secondary texts and how or if this authorship is different from the authorship of the primary texts, as well as the complication of corporation/studio as author are all topics that need to be explored.
Stransky, Tanner. “Pretty Little Phenom”. Entertainment Weekly #124B 1 March 2013. Print.
Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale” The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton University Press, 2012. Print.