Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Future of Television Part Two: Part One

You will never own the conversation

Most TV shows are pretty shitty. If, for some reason, you’re not happy watching the same eight episodes of Top Gear on an endless, hateful loop for the rest of time, then you’re either desperately trying to work out what it is that everyone seems to like so bloody much about The X Factor, or wondering when the next season of Father Ted is going to start.

Because most TV shows are pretty shitty, most people don’t really pay them very much attention, much like when someone on the street asks you for a few pennies to alleviate their life of inhuman squalor for a few precious moments and your offhand ‘no’ barely registers in your conscious as it flaps out of your mouth, your brain too busy dwelling how much you hate your stupid wife’s stupid face.

The producers of shows like The X-Factor and absolutely all US broadcasters already understand this idea well and make their programs as easy to follow as humanly possible. Twelve seconds of content can, will and indeed must be stretched out to fill an hour in a rolling sequence of what happened then and what’s going to happen next, flicking from past to future, never meeting the metaphysical challenge of living in the now. If you are trying to actually watch what’s going on, the process can be tortuous, but if the TV’s on while you’re manhandling food into your children or trying to persuade your boyfriend to maybe, occasionally brush his teeth, it still allows you to absorb the content of the show.

This is how people watch television

This is the state that most people are in when the television is on. They are not deeply engaged with engrossing, must-see content. They are filling up the few hours before bed in a way that ensures they don’t have to talk to anyone, or they’re talking incessantly over the television in a way that ensures they don’t have to listen to anyone.

The kind of TV that people do actually watch with attention and care, they are happy to watch with attention and care and probably aren’t splitting their attention with anything else, like loved ones or pets, while it’s on. 

I didn’t furtively check Twitter when The Trip was on. During Cash In The Attic, I hold my computer up to my TV so that it can see that I’m ignoring it, as some kind of shameful lesson.

I hate television

So two-screen TV is likely to sit in the Live and Ambient end of the TV spectrum. TV that you’re not so engrossed by that you have no spare attention. TV that’s maybe just a little bit shitty. Two-screen TV is all about enhancing that not-as-good-as-it-might-be TV with interaction. There are two basic kinds of interaction to consider, people interacting with the show and people interacting with each other about the show.

Most two-screen activity at the moment is the second kind, people talking about shows they’re watching on the communication network of their choice. Tweeting about how they hope the entire cast of Celebrity Big Brother are eaten by jackals on their way into the house. Posting on Facebook during Question Time about how ironic it is that the Secretary for Education looks like a paedophile. Anecdotally, I’d suggest most two-screen activity is looking up on Wikipedia which film you saw that guy in that one time but to be fair, that’s not what it says on Wikipedia.

Who wouldn't want to see her torn apart by wild dogs?

If people want to talk about what they’re seeing, there are already some great tools for doing so. Tools for communication in general. Talking about anything, not just TV. Putting into context those completely hilarious comments about how you hope a bunch of real people, with lives and families and hopes and dreams, are torn apart by wild animals for the pleasure of the viewing public. That part of social TV already exists, stop trying to re-invent it. I’m happy to state baldly, right now, that there will never be a TV based social communication platform that actually has any measure of success.

What can a TV-only communications platform actually give to the viewer? What do they get out of it? They already have their friends on Facebook, Twitter or G+ (ha, not really) and they can already talk to them about the TV they’re watching through those methods. Why would they want to move to a new platform?

If we're honest, isn’t the idea of a Social TV platform more about control for businesses than benefit for viewers? For data about who is watching what and what they think? People are already happy to talk already and maybe you, as a business, want to own that conversation, but do your viewers, your users? Probably not.

The TV business wants to make as much money as possible by slicing the rights to the show up as thinly as possible, and selling them to as many other businesses as possible. And the businesses who are willing to pay the most are businesses who want to have that content exclusively, so that they can use it as a stick to beat more customers into using their service.

Putting the desires of the business above the desires of the users is the same issue that makes piracy happen in the first place. The kind of users that have the technical savvy to be able to pirate the show they want, want them now, good enough quality and cheap. By making this content available in only a few places, dependant on geographical location and at wildly variable price points, the TV business is serving itself, not its users. It's a battle it is destined to eventually lose.

This failure to follow a user focussed approach also applies to trying to own the conversation about your content. Inspire that conversation, lead that conversation, monitor that conversation - these are all things you can and should do - but don’t even try to own it. You won’t beat Twitter at their own game. Leave it, walk away. It ain’t worth it.

Oranges are not the only fruit

The other kind of two screen, the kind where producers and broadcasters should be getting involved is the kind where the viewers are interacting with the show itself.

This is the bit where game design becomes useful, or indeed essential.

And it’s also the topic of my next post! 

Why did I even bother trying to make a blog? I should just write an incredibly depressing book and be done with it.

Actually, bananas are the only fruit

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