Thursday, 26 January 2012

Fuel For Thought

I went to #Fuel4 (I think that’s how you spell it) recently. It was an event put on by Channel 4 Online to get a bunch of bright young things from various aspects of media production to share their knowledge and insight. Also, I was there.

Yes, this is a metaphor for my arrogance
There were a raft of speakers, each of whom gave a brief, five-minute talk and gave a quote for the little book that went along with the event. It was a surprisingly good session and I want to spread some of the seething mass of thinking into the wider world.

So here, I shall quote some of the speakers and then explain why I think they are right, or wrong. Mostly wrong, because I am like that.

Hydrogen is a colourless, odourless gas that spends its time contemplating its own existence

“Passive participation in the TV viewing experience is on the verge of extinction” - Niall Austin, Omnimotec

So opens my quote-a-thon, with something completely and utterly wrong. I’m calling that one, right now. Passivity is lovely. We really like passivity. Passivity is going to be hip and cool and trendy for the rest of human history. This is because passivity is the result of human laziness and human laziness is the most powerful force in the civilised world. I can’t be bothered to explain why.
What do you mean, you forgot the Coq Au Vin?

If you’re looking to make something awesome in the TV space, I’d highly recommend that you ignore what Niall has to say there and concentrate on experiences that make passivity more enjoyable, or at the very least, add interactivity by extending the experience out beyond the broadcast window. When people are riding the knife edge of a permanent vegetative state on their sofa after a hard day doing boring shit for an idiot, trying to love their stupid children or fighting with their dog, they don’t want to do anything at all. So bear that in mind.

I’m a little teapot, short and stout

“Entertainment must involve the audience more and allow them to play along from the sofa.” - Tom McQuillin - Microsoft

In a very similar area, we have a chap representing the XBox and Kinect. Sure, entertainment can do this, but it musn’t must. People are quite happy to sit there and have delightful things happen and carry them far, far away. Entertainment isn’t better just because you have to wave your arms around, press buttons or waste precious energy deciding what you think at all.

Many a mickle, makes a muckle

“Gone are the days when people enjoyed passive media alone, without a voice.” - Henrique Olifers - Bossa Studios 

This is a good point. If people want to talk about your show (or any entertainment media) on the internet, then they will. You can’t stop them and they will likely speak their minds, so do not expect them to be kind or forgiving. 


It also means that if you have a story worth sharing, people will almost certainly share it. One thing social media unquestionably does is amplify your content’s voice. What was good will be sung from the rooftops. What was bad will be taken apart, brick by brick. People are often not that picky and will watch any old shit if they can’t be bothered to stop. But they will tell people about it afterward.

And this is without taking into account what will happen when everybody stops talking about social media as a trend and it’s just ‘the way things are’. After-all, while social media is just people talking to each other, except on the internet, the fact they're doing it on the internet does mean we’ll see new types of behaviour emerge. And that means opportunity.

Let’s make games for everyone. Yes, even her. And TV shows exclusively for just that guy there. No, that one.

“Over the past 30 years, television entertainment has undergone a profound shift. Viewers went from spending their time on a handful of broadcast channels to clustering around hundreds of niche-based channels with the rise of cable and satellite viewing. Online video is the next stage of this evolution, with the rise of millions of channels catering to their own specific audience.” - Rachel Ball, YouTube

“The future of games-based entertainment will be one of increasingly mainstream appeal” - Paul Canty, Preloaded

So TV is getting more niche and games are getting more mainstream. That’s a trend, that’s a thing, you will see that happen, it will happen. Of course, while it is happening (and it will happen) there will be all manner of lovely space opening up for people - maybe people like you - to make games for just that guy and shows for everyone on the planet.

Bitches don't know 'bout ma cardigans

Now this is completely unsurprising - TV started out as a broadcast service and so had to at least attempt to appeal to really quite a lot of people. Games on the other hand have always been an on-demand product, so naturally started out serving niches and have slowly pulled back to look at the bigger picture. 

The trend is not news, is not insight, but I suspect the wise will find as many opportunities to buck it as they do to play along.

You may be wondering why I gathered you all here today...

“those TV shows that create events and build a virtual community around those events will thrive” - David Flynn - Endemol UK

“The next evolution of entertainment will happen when the talented folks in TV and film [...] start thinking in terms of ‘content systems’ rather than television programs.” - Paul Bennun, Somethin’ Else

And herein is the story. Communities! TV is broadcast. Lots of people will see a TV show, so the chance that a community will be created, regardless of the intentions of the producer and broadcast. Have a look at Inspector Spacetime for some pretty amazing details of exactly that kind of thing happening.

I'm on the right track baby, I was born this way

The trick, truth be told, isn’t so much in creating the community, but in knowing what the hell to do with them once you have them. This is the point my esteemed (lol) colleague (ha ha) Paul Bennun is making. The more openings your content has, the more ways there are for the community to get involved and actually ‘do’ rather than simply ‘being’.

Hell, even without any such access, given sufficient time and a large and passionate enough community then you get Star Wars The Director’s Cut. Working out ways to make that kind of community action and creativity easier and more enjoyable is a big challenge for modern media.

Making a community is the easy part. It’s having a meaningful relationship with them that’s the tricky bit.

10 points to Gryffindor!

“...have writers, directors, game designers and technologists all in a room together, at the start, trusting one another and devising the format from scratch” - Alex Fleetwood - Hide & Seek

“The next big thing has to be delivering an engaging lie-back and enjoy experience for connected entertainment devices.” - Andrew Walker - Tweetminster

These are my favourite quotes of the lot. These cut to the quick of the matter, to me.

Can I come?

First we need to start thinking in a far more cohesive fashion. This requires, in the immediate future, for the TV part of multi-platform stuff to simultaneously take more of a back-seat without losing any of its strengths as a TV show. That’s a difficult thing to balance and will take a lot of experimentation and inevitable miss-steps, but we need to start dropping the presumed hierarchies we’ve used for so long and start giving each element the space it needs to shine, whatever new and unusual approaches that might require.

Secondly, when it comes to TV and broadcast specifically, the fundamentally lie-back and passive aspect to the experience is the one that defines the medium more than any other. Interactive TV will have its place, and shows that require interaction should absolutely be given their chance to shine. But the core of the TV experience is one where you turn-on, tune-in and drop-off, right? 

That, more than anything, is the real insight of the day. 

Apologies to those who I didn’t mention. I suppose.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Smash TV

Big money! Big prizes! I love it!

That’s what everyone wants to do, isn’t it? Beat TV. Kill TV. Kick TV to bits and throw all the little pieces into a big bin. TV’s been sitting there, in the corner of your personal living room, doing its TV thing since like, forever. How bloody dare it. Did no-one tell TV that there was the internet now? This is the future guy, and we have smartphones and Twitter and Skyrim. You’re not a TV, you’re a device. Get with the program and stop making 300 billion dollars a year without even a ‘like’ button.

"What's that boy? Timmy has diabetes?"
Considering how much the internet wants to duff up the telly, it surprises me how much the problem is viewed as a technical one, rather than a cultural one. That was a lie, it doesn’t surprise me in any way. Tech people see the ‘TV problem’ as a tech problem, of course they do. But they’re wrong. Partially wrong.

TV is a cultural entity. There are a bunch of things about the way it operates that are viewed not as strengths, but as technical issues in need of solving, when if anything, tech could do to learn from TV’s limitations. Linear, broadcast, passive, sit-back experiences that are often more ambient than gripping. Surely we can make TV into a customised entertainment engine, blasting out exactly the right show for YOU right NOW! See what your friends are watching, watch it with them, submerge yourself in the worlds of your favourite shows for the rest of your natural life!

Or we can just press a button and sit down and see what’s on.

Define ‘better’

It’s the shared pain of television's shortcomings that make it what it is. Making TV ‘better’, solving TV’s ‘problems’ won’t do anything to challenge its dominance in these terms. To create something that is both capable and deserving of killing TV, one needs to create something that defines small-talk and office chat by its sheer ubiquity. The race to provide customised, perfectly entertaining streams of content to customers’ unconscious needs is not going to do that. We can’t share experiences we don’t, you know, share.

Did you just zippety bop zoopa bop?
There’s an important difference between TV and video, yet it’s rarely discussed by even the biggest players in this game. Video is a kind of content, TV is a delivery mechanism, but more importantly, it’s a culture. It’s entirely obvious that the delivery mechanism of a product is important to the experience. It’s less obvious that the most convenient option isn’t necessarily the best.

Social proof, the enjoyment and reassurance given by doing what you know others are doing, is a powerful force and one which television gets to enjoy by default. The larger the number of channels available, the weaker this force becomes, as the audience splits into smaller and smaller niches. 

You Tube’s power play with its commissioning of original content and attempt to reposition itself as a serious alternative to TV  is based on a strategy that extends the cable paradigm of more channels with more specialised content. This is probably good for the individual, but I’m not convinced it’s good for society.

Hello, yes, this is Situation
TV has a wonderful ability to remind us how we’re all the same, as much as give us what we personally want. It shapes and informs us a culture. That can surely be a force for bad, as much as a force for good, but I for one would be sad to see that end. Let’s make sure that while we try to make TV better for each of us, we don’t end up making it worse for all of us.