I’ve long been interested in the impact of digital technologies on the media industry. While all industries are subject to the forces of creative destruction, media is one of the most affected. Everything seems to be changing at once, from the way content is produced and delivered, to the sources of revenue and profits. It seems as if, - to borrow Marc Andreessen’s words - digital technologies are eating the media world.
Studying such dramatic changes helps me better appreciate the transitions our economy is going through. Moreover, unlike other industries which I would mostly follow from afar, media is one that I can actually discuss based on personal experiences. From print newspapers and websites, to live TV and recorded programs, I’m an everyday consumer of media, spending, like many of us, a considerable part of my day on its various offerings. I’m also a (very minor) content producer, given the weekly blogs I’ve been posting since 2005 and my 2-year guest columnist affiliation with the WSJ’s CIO Journal . In addition, I’ve been a member of the advisory board of USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL) since it was founded in 2010 to study the impact of technology and cultural changes on the media industries.
Within media, I’ve been particularly interested in the evolution of television. The future of TV is being widely discussed in articles and workshops. Once upon a time, the term television generally referred to TV sets, the TV programs we watched on those sets, and the TV networks that broadcast those programs to our sets. But, over the past few decades, and especially in the past 5 - 10 years, it’s much less clear what we now mean by the TV industry, let alone what it will encompass by 2025. The TV industry is being massively restructured as its companies keep searching for viable business models.
Everything seems to be in flux, including the very meaning of TVs sets, TV programs and TV networks. Not that long ago, the programming in our TVs was limited to what was offered by the broadcast channels in our area. Lots more content is now available over large number of basic and premium cable channels, and increasingly over the Internet. Bigger, less expensive, higher quality TV sets let us get to just about any content we want from the comfort of home, while the ubiquitous devices we all now carry, - smartphones, tablets and laptops, - are giving us access to all that content no matter where we are.
As Jenkins points out, television is now less about technology than about the programming we are offered. And, to attract our attention in this highly competitive environment, media companies are now bringing us better and better content. There have long been high quality TV series, but for the most part, the quality of TV programs was nowhere near that of films. This all started to change about 15 years ago, especially with the advent of The Sopranos on HBO. Ever since, the number of great original programs keeps increasing, from HBO and other premium cable networks, from classic broadcast networks, and more recently from Netflix and other Internet streaming companies. As David Carr recently wrote in the NY Times, we are Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age:
“The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment… So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media…”
In my own case, for example, I just finished watching the 60 episodes of The Wire, originally shown on HBO between 2002 and 2008. I watched them over the Internet on HBO GO, through a Roku device connected to a flat panel HDTV. I’m now watching season 2 of House of Cards, streamed to my TV over the Internet by Netflix. I record Mad Men, Veep, Boardwalk Empire and other series on my Tivo when they are shown and watch them later when I’m ready. I came late to Breaking Bad and Homeland but caught up with previous seasons on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video respectively. I’m frankly overwhelmed by the extraordinary amount of good content that’s essentially at my fingertips. Every time I hear about another must-watch program, my reaction parallels Carr’s: “Oh no, not another one.”
In this new golden age of TV, storytelling itself is being reinvented for the digital age. The best series feel like a novel coming alive on the screen, as talented showrunners, writers, directors and actors now have time to develop their stories and characters in a much deeper and leisurely way than is possible with a 2 - 3 hour film. This all adds to the restructuring underway in the media industry. There’s only so much time we can each devote to consuming content, - no matter how wonderful and accessible, - so in the end, these TV series are competing for our attention with films, books, magazines, newspapers and other content producers.
Then there is social media. Whenever I watch a film or serial episode, I very much enjoy reading comments on message boards as well as online reviews. With complex films or series, I often rely on comments and reviews to better understand their storylines and characters. It’s also interesting to read what fans have to say about the potential directions that a story or character might follow.
A couple of years ago I learned about transmedia storytelling, a concept originally developed in the entertainment industry to tell a common story across multiple media platforms by moving characters and storylines across books, films, video games, comic books, TV series, and so on. The rise of social media and other digital channels makes the concept particularly powerful as a way of engaging the target audience with more depth and over a much longer period of time than would be possible within a single medium.
Professor Jenkins has written extensively on the subject. “Transmedia allows gifted storytellers to expand their canvas and share more of their vision with their most dedicated fans . . .” he explains in this April, 2011 article. “Many stories are told perfectly well within a single medium, and the audience leaves satisfied, ready for something else. Transmedia represents a strategy for telling stories where there is a particularly diverse set of characters, where the world is richly realized, and where there is a strong back-story or mythology that can extend beyond the specific episodes being depicted in the film or television series.”
A few months later he brought up an intriguing thought. Transmedia storytelling should not only continue to develop a story across each new medium, but “most important, true transmedia should involve its audience in expanding the story through co-creation and collaboration.” For the most part, audience creativity has not been leveraged by media companies as a way to create a closer relationship with their fans.
Jenkins suggestion harks back to collaborative innovation, one of the most important concepts of the past decade, most evident in the work of open collaborative communities like Linux or Wikipedia. Many IT companies have embraced open communities to better leverage their talent and passion.
Beyond listening to comments and opinions, how might one involve social media fans to develop a kind of transmedia co-creation ecosystem? What governance and IP licensing mechanisms might be suitable for turning fans into collaborators and co-creators?
This is clearly not without risk. An active social media audience may express opinions you don’t like. They may take stories and characters in directions you never intended. But, these passionate fans might come up with highly creative ideas. The possibility of media companies collaborating and co-creating with open communities might sound like a far-out stretch, but similarly, few could have predicted the success of Linux and Python 15 years ago.
How will it all play out? What will we be watching and over what kinds of compelling devices? What will the industry look like? It’s hard to predict because there’s so much going on. That’s what makes the future of television such a fascinating subject.