Over the last several decades, digital technologies have been transforming just about every industry. But few have been as disrupted by the dramatic advances in technology as the media industries. Everything seems to be changing at once, from the way content is produced and delivered, to the sources of revenue and profits.
I’ve been closely following this technology-based transformation of media for a number of reasons. First is my personal experience with disruptive innovations in the IT industry. Unlike other industries which I might follow from afar, I’m an everyday consumer of media, spending a considerable part of my day on its various offerings, including TV, newspapers, magazines and the Web.
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. And, since last September I’ve been involved with HBO as strategic advisor on innovation. Within media, I’m particularly interested in the evolution of television, not only due to my recent HBO affiliation but because, for over a decade, TV has been the source of much of the entertainment I consume.
Two years ago, USC’s Annenberg Lab’s held an Innovation Summit which included a a panel on The Future of Television moderated by USC professor Henry Jenkins. The panel explored the radical shifts television is going through. “Taken collectively,” wrote Jenkins in a subsequent summary, “these shifts represent a significant tipping point in terms of how television is produced, distributed, and consumed. Does this spell the end of television as we know it? What happens when television is less a technology than a set of programming practices? What happens when more people cut the cord or when the industry no longer depends on the bundle? What happens when the intensity of fan response may become as important as the quantity of viewers in shaping which programs remain in production?
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. Digital video recorders (DVRs) and Internet services of all kinds make much of that content available on demand. Bigger, relatively inexpensive, high quality TV sets let us watch just about anything we want to 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.
But, regardless of how good the technologies keep getting, TV is all about content. Without good content, there is nothing worth watching, - or worth reading about and discussing. The eminent NY Times media columnist David Carr, - who sadly died this past February, - wrote last year in an excellent article, - 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.”
TV now constitutes most of my entertainment, given the increasing quality of its content and its on-demand availability. Not only do I keep up with a few current series, but I can go back any time and catch up with series I missed when they were first offered, as I did last year with the 60 episodes of The Wire, originally shown on HBO between 2002 and 2008. I came late to Breaking Bad and Homeland, but after repeatedly hearing that they were must-watch-TV, I caught up with previous seasons on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video respectively.
I feel bad that while half the world now seems to be enjoying and talking about the 5th season of Game of Thrones, I’m 4 seasons and 40 episodes behind them. But I’m caught up with Mad Men, Veep, Silicon Valley and Last Week Tonight. I just need to work out when to best watch them while finishing the last season of House of Cards.
I’m frankly overwhelmed by the extraordinary amount of good content that’s now at my fingertips, as is the case with many people I talk to. Every time one of them recommends another must-watch program, my reaction parallels Carr’s: “Oh no, not another one.”
Furthermore, good content begets considerable metacontent, - that is, the user comments, online reviews and articles that analyze, add depth and enhance the original content. For me as for many others, one of the pleasure of watching something really good is to subsequently get immersed in its associated metacontent, which I often rely on to shed light on particularly complex programs and to help me better understand their storylines, characters and what their creators might have been after. It’s akin to the literary criticism that has long been used to help us better appreciate great literature.
As the TV industry is increasingly going over-the-top, what can we expect from such an Internet-centric future? The short answer is that we really don’t know, any more than we could have predicted the overall evolution of the Internet, the Web or e-business over the past two decades. But, having been closely involved with these technologies, let me offer some personal opinions based on lessons that I’ve learned over the years.
Many of those who have closely followed the ongoing digitization of business, have concluded that the key to a successful digital transformation is a laser-focus on the customer experience. But, providing a superior experience to their increasingly empowered, - and fickle, - digital customers, is getting harder. New offerings are hitting the market faster than ever, brand loyalty keeps decreasing, and the increased competition is continuing to shift power from institutions to individuals. Consumers have more choices than ever in virtually every category of products and services as well as in the channels used to acquire them, and they are taking advantage of all the information they can now access to search for the best possible values.
With TV, as previously mentioned, it all starts with the quality of the content. But a major part of the user experience should include good ways to organize all that content; search tools to help us quickly find whatever it is we are looking for; and recommendations on what we’re likely to enjoy based on our previous preferences as well as on the opinion of people whose tastes we trust. This is all happening to a greater or lesser extent, but there is much room for improvement.
Such improvements to the user experience should apply not just to the original content, but also to the exploding volumes of comments, reviews, articles, interviews and clips we can now access online. Left to sift through all that information on our own can be a time consuming, hit-and-miss activity.
This represent an innovation opportunity for Internet-centric TV platforms. They can help us by selecting and organizing much of that metacontent for us, leveraging the equivalent of curators, editors, and other specialists. Curators have long played this role in museums, libraries and archives. Editors similarly select and organize whatever content will be published in newspapers, magazines and books. Considerable experimentation will be required to figure out what works best.
As has been the case in many other areas, the Internet promises to enhance and deepen our enjoyment of this golden age of TV. “The growing intellectual currency of television has altered the cultural conversation in fundamental ways,” notes David Carr. “Water cooler chatter is now a high-minded pursuit, not just a way to pass the time at work. The three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has been replaced by television shows that are much more like books - intricate narratives full of text, subtext and clues.”
“On the sidelines of the children’s soccer game, or at dinner with friends, you can set your watch on how long it takes before everyone finds a show in common. In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialize with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.”