With one of the smallest, yet most loyal fanbases in modern television, Community is the little show that could. It has overcome mid-season suspensions, abrupt departures of cast members, writers, and producers, and even a cancellation from its original network (NBC). Throughout its history, from the pilot episode to the inception of its sixth season, Community has used webisodes as a form of transmedia to engage its audience.
In August 2009, a month before the airing of Community‘s pilot episode, a 5-part promotional video series (parts 1, 2, 3/4, 5) called “The Straight A’s of Greendale” appeared on NBC.com. Because these episodes were released before the actual show, they do not contain any sort of plot elements or character development. Rather, they acted as a migratory cue—a prompt towards another form of media—redirecting viewers to visit greendalecommunitycollege.com, in order to start establishing an audience and building interest for the show. As perhaps the most important consequence of these webisodes, Community established itself as quirky show, and quickly found its second home on the internet. Henry Jenkins emphasizes the importance of transmedia in “spread[ing] its brand… across as many different media platforms as possible.” Indeed, the internet would become Community‘s most important source of publicity in the years to come.
Community would release numerous webisodes in the following years, but perhaps none were as crucial as “Abed’s Master Key,” a three-part animated webisode (parts 1, 2, 3) released on Hulu in early 2012. At this point in time, Community was put on temporary hiatus in the middle of its third season, as NBC made changes to its Thursday night lineup. “Abed’s Master Key” was aired just prior to Community‘s return. The strategic timing of this release served not just to promote the series’ return, but also to satiate the appetites of fans who had been missing their favorite characters in the show’s interim. While it didn’t reveal any major points essential to the show’s plot, the miniseries served as a world-building device, letting fans know exactly what Abed and the rest of the gang had been up to during the show’s hiatus. World-building, according to Jenkins, involves creating additional narratives for characters and the world in which they exist. In this case, the series also offers a sort of meta-analysis. Greendale’s “budget-cuts,” as referenced in the series, refers subtly to NBC’s growing concerns about the show’s profitability (hence the hiatus). Meanwhile, Britta’s remark about the Dean disregarding his online students hints at Community‘s online fans as being widely disregarded towards its ratings.
Finally, earlier this month, Yahoo! Screen (who has adopted Community for its sixth season), began releasing personalized Valentine’s Day messages (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) for fans that interacted with their Facebook page. Again, this series of promos was definitely intended as hype for the new season, but it is also a perfect example of a cultural attractor, which Jenkins defines as a device which amasses fans into a participatory environment. In this case, the Facebook post encouraged users to “tag the one you love” in response to a promotional photo for season six. The post has generated over 400 comments to date, many of which are references to the cast or to the new season.
Almost six years after Community first aired, the explosion of its online community has kept the show afloat. From fans filling discussion forums to inundating Twitter with the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie, Community’s creators have utilized transmedia to help bolster the show’s popularity, especially online.
1. “Community Webisodes.” Community Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://community-sitcom.wikia.com/wiki/Community_webisodes>.
2. Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. N.p., 22 Mar. 2007. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html>.
3.”A ValenDeans Day Message to Michael.” Reddit. N.p., 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <https://www.reddit.com/r/community/comments/2vween/a_valendeans_day_message_to_michael/colmreh>.