An inside look at how Starlight Runner develops social TV storytelling

By Natan Edelsburg 

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back and are taking over multiple platforms as Nickelodeon grows the brand for a new generation of kids (and pizza lovers). To help the Turtles take over multiple screens, Nick tapped Starlight Runner Entertainment a social TV company that was tasked with taking all of the brands assets and painting them in the right way on different platforms. We interviewed CEO Jeff Gomez about their role in the Turtles growth.

Gomez describes how as the Ninja Turtles grow Nick will continue to build the brand and grow their storytelling using “social and second screen content, as well as multi-platform content of all kinds.” He adds that “all of that content will nurture and grow the story world of Ninja Turtles.” Here’s an inside look at the “mythology” his company puts into developing  social TV.

Lost Remote: Why are you working with Nick on Turtles, how did it come about, what are the social and second screen highlights?
Jeff Gomez: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a classic, evergreen brand that had recently been acquired by Nickelodeon when Starlight Runner Entertainment was first contacted. There was an enormous amount of assets and content to sift through. The story of the Turtles had been told many times over, some times more successfully than others. There were hundreds of characters, contradictions in the different incarnations, some silly stuff that wouldn’t be accepted by a contemporary audience of kids. As a huge media company, how do you approach all of that, and make sense of it? How do you build a strong connection between the TMNT property and the Nickelodeon brand? How can you be sure that you are playing to the strengths of the Turtles story world on each of the traditional and digital media platforms you have access to? That’s where Starlight Runner comes in.

My team here at Starlight Runner have this remarkable skill set that allows us to see the forest for the trees. The showrunners at Nickelodeon were hard at working making the animated series as good as it can be. They didn’t have the time or wherewithal to deal with all of these issues. Starlight Runner has built a reputation for pinpointing the essence of a property and tuning into the vision of the creators behind it. We’re trusted by some of the biggest studios and producers in the world, so it stood to reason that Nickelodeon decided to come to us with the Turtles assignment. So they asked us to answer these questions, show them the “forest,” and familiarize stakeholders throughout the company with the canonical Turtles story world and how it can play in a transmedia world. Of course, we said yes. I loved the original comics and my team grew up on Turtles!

Regarding the social and second screen highlights, we think Nickelodeon has done a great job so far, rolling out TMNT to a new generation of kids. They used social media to connect with Turtles uber-fans initially, which was a great idea, because it communicated that Nickelodeon cared about how long-time fans might feel about the new content. They reached out to parents and older siblings who loved the Turtles when they were younger, which I think encouraged them to introduce the property to their children or kid brothers and sisters. The general second screen and social media rollout has been expansive, but I think Nickelodeon has only just started. As the series continues, social and second screen content, as well as multi-platform content of all kinds, will be informed by the new assets and source material we’ve assembled for them. All of that content will nurture and grow the story world of Ninja Turtles. It’s a model that is still fairly new and unique in kids television.

LR: How is transmedia changing the way brands, especially brands in broadcast approach multiplatform content?
Gomez: Television is rapidly integrating into a greater continuum of screens and devices, particularly for young people. If you’re spending many millions of dollars on a show that has a rich story world and resonant themes, it’s a mistake to avoid granting potential audience members access to that world on other platforms. I’m not talking about straight on distribution. Everyone now knows you need to make your core content—your TV show in this case—available through most every conceivable screen. What I’m really talking about is providing unique experiences of that world through different media. Something new and vital and engaging that is set in your story world, that’s what keeps the audience coming back to your property, not reruns.

What we’re seeing at Starlight Runner is that more networks and studios are becoming hip to this. You’re seeing it on Showtime with Dexter, on HBO with Game of Thrones, on SyFy with Defiance, and on Fox with Glee. Each of these networks is taking the best of what we call transmedia storytelling and leveraging their brands in ways that build appreciation for the story and characters, but also let audiences know that they care, that they’re listening, and that the mutual and sometimes interactive engagement of storytelling can be as fun as it is profitable.

So transmedia development, production and implementation techniques are helping to invigorate the broadcast model by keeping broadcast relevant in a world where communication has become pervasive, a world where we are no longer dependent on a handful of TV channels to amuse us. Story can now almost literally flow around us, immersing us, and connecting with us whether or not we are in front of a television.

LR: What are the benefits of a multiplatform strategy for brands and their media properties?
Gomez: The old model for brand holders was a straight line. It went from them to you through a highly limited selection of media platforms. That doesn’t fly anymore. Robust, concerted multi-platform strategies play to the unique features and strengths of each media platform, offering satisfying, self-contained stories set in a greater universe that becomes more familiar and enticing with each encounter. Successful transmedia implementations extend the life cycles of brands, because by its nature transmedia offers the opportunity for dialog. When people can talk to one another about a brand, and better yet exchange thoughts, opinions and ideas with the brand holder, there’s magic in that. Everyone wants the experience to last longer. Of course, a lot of brand holders are still frightened by this.

LR: Tell me about your mythology bible and how it helps licensees develop multiplatform content?
Gomez: Starlight Runner’s Franchise Mythology bibles are the cure for the fear felt by brand holders over engaging with mass audiences. Our Mythologies collect the totality of the story world of the media property (or of the brand for that matter), and refine it into a single persistent and consistent narrative universe. Every brand or media property that has stood the test of time has something important to say about the human condition. It is telling us something we need to know, and it’s doing that in a way that is unique and compelling. My team discerns the DNA of the brand or story world and communicates what that is simply and elegantly in the Mythology. It’s important to note that this is not guesswork. This is something that is possible and doable, and we’ve done it many times with some of the biggest media properties in all of pop culture.

Once our client or partner understands the brand essence—the messages, themes and aspirational qualities of their story world—multi-platform implementation becomes a much simpler task. The biggest complaint that audiences have about so-called ancillary content is that it doesn’t ring true to the story they have been enjoying on the driving platform. So if Donatello behaves obnoxiously and is rude to April in the chapter book or the Flash game, that ruins the fans experience of that product, because on the TV show Donatello would never do those things. Our Mythology bibles expedite the creative process for licensees by conveying a true sense of who these characters are and what they stand for. More importantly, they delineate better ways to tell stories that possess the unique flavor of the franchise universe, and even offer up ideas on how licensed content can tell stories that feel vital and additive to the story world without interfering with the plans of the showrunners.

So our Mythology bibles are resources that encourage and reward stakeholders for keeping it real. When the content feels true to vision of the core creatives, it really can’t go astray. And when you’re being real, you don’t need to be afraid.

LR: You’ve worked on a lot of film and game properties, what was it like working with a broadcaster like Nickelodeon? How is building multiplatform content for a television show different from some of your other work?
Gomez: We’ve actually done television for quite some time. Starlight Runner developed, co-produced and co-wrote Hot Wheels: World Race with Mattel, which aired on Cartoon Network as a computer animated mini-series. We worked on a pivotal season of Dexter for Showtime, as well as on a number of TV shows for Canadian broadcasters. Nickelodeon has seen some of our best work, though, and we’re proud to collaborate with them.

Nickelodeon is unique in our experience, because they have such a powerful sense of their brand, and natural, super-sharp instincts when it comes to their audience. Unlike most of our big corporate clients, they were able to square off with us on our home turf. They could argue theme, they could ask us to re-examine our conclusions on some aspirational aspect of the property. There could be some tense moments, but frankly, we loved it! With properties like Spongebob Squarepants, Nickelodeon has an innate understanding of what goes into keeping a brand evergreen. They understand that sometimes things have to change to stay relevant. The tweaks we discussed with them around the Teenage Mutant NInja Turtles to this end were challenging for both sides to wrap our minds around, but in the end they were more right than not. That’s exciting!

Advising on (and sometimes helping to build) multi-platform content for each of our clients is different for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are what platforms are available within their distribution system. In the case of Nickelodeon, there are few limits, as they’re a part of a massive media conglomerate. So the best advice we can give them about building the content is the same we give everyone: stay consistent and true to your brand, while continuing to surprise and delight your audience. Sure, that’s not easy, but you’d be shocked at how many companies fracture their properties and allow schisms to form in their audiences. Which version of the property is “real” and which doesn’t count? Are you letting your licensees or other divisions of your company run off and create an entirely different version of the property you’re spending millions to nurture and build a global audience for? Are you listening to your audience, keeping track of their behavior around the property, and talking with them? You need to know the answers to those questions!

I will say that working with television in a transmedia production capacity is also fun simply due to the vast quantity of content that is accessible with a TV series. The form is truly remarkable from a motion picture standpoint, because it is long-form and can take on an epic quality. Right now Starlight Runner is examining several shows that have actually ended their run. The networks and studios are looking for ways to revitalize older or “finished” content like these, and we have some ideas about creating transmedia superstructures around them. These are bits of interactive content and “connective tissue” that is highly story-driven and plays into the mythology of the show. It’s designed with second and third screens in mind, so that the experience of watching or re-watching the show is richer and can even throw the entire work into a new and more vibrant light. The possibilities are endless!