When I try to explain to people what transmedia is, and I paint it in broad terms because the alternative is an hour-long discussion and a barrage of links, they sometimes ask me something like, "Oh, like Star Trek?" And while there are certainly elements of transmedia in the Star Trek franchise, as with Star Wars and properties like that, I hesitate to just say, "Yes, like that," because it doesn't capture the essence of what I mean. And for a long time I've been unable to find a way to better express that idea.
Working on my D&D series the last couple weeks, I relistened to Digital Book World's WEBcast Learning From RPG Publishers, which pretty quickly started to discuss transmedia, and I got my answer.
In a franchise, various elements of a property are licensed out to others to produce -- the TV show spinoff, the video game remake, the line of toys. The original IP holder sells their characters and stories to other people, who proceed to do with them what they will.
In a transmedia property, every extension remains under the jurisdiction of the original creator (or transmedia producer). They ensure that everything produced from the original story serves to enhance the story, the world, the characters, the overall experience, so that each meshes seamlessly with the other.
Transmedia is a coordinated effort, a blanket woven from many different strings; a franchise sells a bunch of different strings from the same ball of wool, each sold separately.
In her speech at Power to the Pixel's Cross-Media forum, Maureen McHigh (who, I should note, I greatly admire for her work in the field) somewhat disparages the kind of transmedia pushed by Jeff Gomez, saying,
I am not talking about, as they do now in Hollywood, the George Lucas model of a video game, a comic book, a movie, a t-shirt, and a whole bunch of toys.
I've said before how I think there's room for both (all) kinds of transmedia in this industry, and I think that something like an ARG model of experience can be a lot more exciting than just platform extensions (even if woven in a blanket). (I think a combination of the two is the best case scenario, actually.) I take issue with the quote, though, because it isn't actually talking about "Hollywood's" transmedia at all.
In my opinion, what Maureen is talking about here is a franchise, not a transmedia property, using the distinction I made above. Licensing for toys is not part of a transmedia property (usually) -- specifically because toys are unlikely to extend the story of the property. (I would love to see an example where I'm wrong about this.)
Licensing a toy line could be a great way to gain revenue from a transmedia property, if it's big enough, but it itself isn't part of the transmedia experience.
There's an important line to be drawn between a franchise with licensed products, and a transmedia property, and I think it's important to note that line both to outsiders of the industry and within the industry. Licensing is about making more money -- not an evil in itself by any means. But transmedia is about the story.