A Case Study of Transmedia—How “Fringe” Used Spreadable Media

Posted by Jason Ohler on

When I speak about the Mega Makeovers That Will Change Everything Educational, one of those makeovers is certainly the transmedia phenomenon.

Transmedia is the world of “spreadable media” in which a story, brand, or experience spreads across the media in our lives so effectively that it creates a sense of immersion and community. The mediasphere, everyone’s second home, is so pervasive that we rarely notice it, and have only passing glimpses of how interconnected it truly is. The tEcosystem is truly our secondary ecosystem. 

This makes transmedia seem “natural” for lack of a better word. It also makes transmedia a natural extension of the linguistics of media, and a playground for professional mediasts. We will look back on the evolution of transmedia and see it as inevitable, with roots that penetrate far deeper into history than we now acknowledge. For example, there was the Beatles: posters, books, movies, concerts—oh yes, their music and their albums.

I think it was Henry Jenkins who said, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” Jenkins, the transmedia guru, maintains a page about spreadable media, along with Sam Ford and Joshua Green.

This site will no doubt be the go-to site as spreadable media, well, spreads.

How does transmedia work? In a number of ways. Its very nature assures it will evolve as media evolves. But the following excerpt from an article by James Carter on Onemuse.com begins an interesting in-depth analysis of one overtly transmedia TV program, Fringe. In his analysis, Carter provides insight into how Fringe involved customers by making the narrative available—that is, by spreading the narrative across a number of media.


via Onemuse.com

After five seasons, two universes, and multiple timelines, Fringe ended its run January 18, 2013 on Fox. I’m proud to say I stuck with this show to the very end. More than anything – like other fans – I connected with the cast’s phenomenal performances. When the sci-fi was good, the show was great. When there was more “fi” than “sci,” the actors buoyed the show to the next peculiar portal.

For those unfamiliar with Fringe, it follows a team of FBI investigators in the “Fringe Division.” Not unlike The X-FilesFringe had a case-of-the-week structure with a dense, over-arching mythology spawned from most of the cases. At the heart of the mythology was the story of Walter (John Noble) and Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), an estranged father and son who – with the help of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) – grew to love each other. Add lab assistant Junior FBI Agent Astro…I mean, Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), and Special Agent-in-charge Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), and you have the Fringe team. Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), COO of Massive Dynamic, a corporate entity frequently responsible for the bizarre events the team examined, often aided the team in their investigations. Oh yeah. And bald man who wore a suit and fedora observed them. His name was September (Michael Cerveris).

Now that the show is over, I decided to compile as many of its transmedia extensions as I could in one place. Like Lost, another J.J. Abrams production, Fringe created a rich storyworld in which fans delighted throughout its five seasons. From viral videos and comic books to Easter eggs and science education, Fringe stretched its tentacles around numerous platforms.

I’ve done my best to keep story descriptions vague and spoilers to a minimum; however, there are a few. If you wish to keep completely in the dark, proceed no further. And watch the show.


Let me start at the end. My impetus to create this compilation grew after I learned Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams’ company which produced Fringe, is publishing a book from the show. Unlike the “The Lost Encyclopedia,” a post-show summary book about another Bad Robot production, Lost, “September’s Notebook” actually appeared in episodes of Fringe.

Throughout the series, a group of twelve bald men took notes about Earth’s history. Named after months of the year, the one called September followed the Fringe team, detailing their every move in a notebook and gradually becoming more attached to them. The Observers were an enigmatic element in Fringe’s mythology, and Fox harnessed that mystique in marketing campaigns, both commercially and virally.Fringebloggers.com has a great history of the Observers’ appearances.

Interestingly, the notebook comes from the same writers who created “The LostEncyclopedia,” Tara Bennett and Paul Terry. Being friends with Fringe executive producer Jeff Pinkner, Tara sent “The Lost Encyclopedia” to him, hoping to do something similar with Fringe. Both Jeff and executive producer J.H. Wyman loved the idea. They assigned Noreen O’Toole, who works as a producer on transmedia projects at Bad Robot, to work on the extension. Together, they imagined several options, and Warner Brothers chose “September’s Notebook.”

Recently, Tara and Paul spoke in-depth with the Fringe Podcast about the year-long creation of the notebook. Most of the details I’m sharing come from that interview, which you can listen to here:

The most exciting facet of the notebook is that it isn’t just a translation of September’s writings. The book includes artifacts September collected and placed inside for safe keeping. The authors are attempting to put the fan in September’s shoes. Touch what the characters touched. Feel what they felt. It is a tactile and interactive augmentation on what fans have already seen to give context to the series.

Fringe’s showrunners always tried to honor the feedback their fans offered. After thebacklash from the Lost series finale, it felt as though Fringe creators didn’t want a repeat of last time. With the notebook, they’re attempting to thank fans from all over the world by treating them as Easter Eggs. Fans that used #FringeFridays on Twitter get a special shout out in the book.

That is how you connect with fans. Listen to them and speak with them – not at them. Fringe fans have changed how social media affects the longevity of a show. “September’s Notebook” is a way to thank them for going above and beyond.


One of the more controversial aspects of the show is the Observer language. Initially created by actor Michael Cerveris, who played September, Fringe eventually imbued the random symbols he scribbled with meaning. The producers frame “September’s Notebook: The Bishop Paradox” as a translation of the language written in the notebook.

Fringe fan Drew Crawford wrote a nice post on his disappointment of discovering that many of the Observer words are gibberish; however, the symbols are still a fun frill on the Fringe mythology.

You can even download “The Observer” font at Dafont.com.

Read James Carter’s full article at Onemuse.com


  1. dumsumla

    Thanks for sharing my article, Jason. One of the keys to spreading media is to connect with fans. That’s the key thing “Fringe” did over its five seasons. They mobilized and rewarded that base, and it’s what kept them on the air.

    • Aimee L. (@aimeeinchains)

      Hi, this is an interesting study of the use of transmedia by Fringe over the years. However, with regards to the Fringe Podcast interview, the fans who used Twitter didn’t use #FringeFridays. Tara was specifically referring to the fan social media effort led by a group called Fringenuity. I am one of the founders, and information about our campaigns can be found at http://morethanoneofeverything.net/media.

      The specific Easter egg is a small hashtag printed on the corner of the back cover – #CrossTheLine. It was the first of 27 World Wide Twitter trending hashtags for events we hosted in an effort to make Fox and Fringe’s sponsors aware of th fanbase.

      September’s Notebook is a beautiful and unique book that I highly recommend.

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