08/21/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Transmedia Makers: Frustration + Opportunity = Magic

When the frustrated imagination of a generation meets the opportunity to bring its dreams to life, will magic occur?

For some time, I've been bothered by malleable use of the term "transmedia"; it seemed that the term could mean whatever a children's media content creator wanted or needed for the situation, and therefore meant nothing. Transmedia got worked into every bible, pitch, press release and request for proposals (even from the U.S. Department of Education!). It was de rigueur across platforms, genres and age groups.

In part, that's exactly its purpose -- transmedia should be ubiquitous. Still, the term teetered on the brink of buzzword, lacking the intellectual foundation to distinguish it from cross-platform, brand synergy, or simply "my TV show has a website."

I've always leaned toward Jeff Gomez's definition, that includes the proviso that content be developed and distributed in ways that "leverage the specific features of that platform." This ought to be self-evident; each medium's unique affordances should be front and center in the development process, but market pressure for "360 commissioning" too often resulted in content being sprayed out rather than cultivated.

I noticed at the recent Children's Media Conference in England, however, that conversations about transmedia seemed to have a new, more organic and natural flow to them. These presentations and discussions came from experts across mediums -- publishing, broadcasting, games, virtual worlds, mobile media -- and in sessions with varied themes -- creative content, audience engagement, financial models.

Their approach bespoke a coherent development process, in which pieces of the story were parceled out to the appropriate platforms from the start, rather than beginning from one device as the omphalos and tacking on other pieces. Even (or perhaps especially) the executives spoke of being in the business of developing immersive stories, not of filling a particular silo of content.

Often, they didn't even use the term "transmedia"; their basic assumptions simply bespoke an internalization of its essentials. (It's worth noting that this was the case, too, before the term came into fashion -- Star Wars was transmedia without even knowing it!)

I am engaging in conjecture, since I didn't check speakers' biographies; however, it seemed to me that most often, these were the working models for the newest generation of executives and creators. After all, who knows the unique potential and shortcomings of the varied places and devices where stories live better than those who've grown up immersed in them?

Today's young producer was a teenager around the turn of the century -- let's say concurrent with the release of the PS2 in 2000, but before Xbox Live introduced networked gaming, in 2002. Online and on TV, people were waiting to see what extraordinary content synergy might result from the AOL-Time Warner merger; in Scandinavia, a very few teens were exploring the new Habbo; for others worldwide, bulletin boards were their "social network," supplemented by e-mail and instant messaging. Music was mostly still packaged, though Napster was already making waves with its file-sharing model.

In other words, teens of 2000 were cocooned in ubiquitous but discontinuous content. The stories they consumed were being made by the TV generation, raised on its linear and visual storytelling.

To be fair, this is a torch-passing that comes to every emerging medium. The TV generation had themselves revolutionized the small screen, wresting creative control from the film and radio generations, and inventing the fast-paced, mixed-media magazine show for kids, and much more.

It's easy to imagine teens of 2000 bouncing medium to medium, while longing for a connective thread -- a TV-show website that goes deeper than cast bios and "printables"; magazines that explore the worlds of their favorite games; the book-based backstory to the film they just saw.

Over time, from that longing would have grown dreams -- strategies -- for "when I run the show." Now, not only are these twenty-somethings taking charge, they've been handed a previously-unimaginable technology arsenal with which to realize their vision: mobile smart media; broadband everywhere; affordable and easy-to-use production tools; social networks to extend and democratize storytelling; and much more.

Suddenly, the world of "transmedia" isn't a buzzword, or even necessary to say; it's just surrounding and engaging the audience in story.

This article was published originally in Children's Technology Review.