Television Goes Multiplatform

It’s hard to believe that it was less than a year ago that Apple launched the video Ipod and the ABC television group was the first to announce a serious commitment to make its top rated television shows accessible to consumers via legal downloads. Within a few weeks time, the other networks were forced to cut their own deals with Apple paving the way of a new era of rerun on demand.

A document shared with me recently from one of our corporate research partners gave me a glimpse into just how dramatically the landscape of American television has changed, providing a breakdown network by network of the various platforms through which one could access their content.


ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all make at least some of their series available for download through iTunes, as do 41 different cable networks.

ABC has been experimenting this summer with ad-supported (i.e. free) downloads of episodes of Commander in Chief, Grey’s Anatomy, and Lost at ABC.com and plans to extend the service to include a range of other series this fall.

CBS has launched a similar service over at Intertube — for example, my wife and I have been catching up this week on a full season of episodes of Big Brother: All-Stars — and the network has already announced that people will be able to download free episodes of Jericho, NCIS, and the various CSI series the day after they are aired. The other major networks are so far only offering streaming clips and news reports, not yet full episodes. The free episodes come with commercials embedded but so far, it is relatively easy to scan past them.

Several of the major networks are producing extensions of their regular series specifically for those accessing via these other platforms: NBC, for example, is offering mobisodes of The Office via NBC.com; ABC has a special behind the scenes podcast for Lost and will soon be adding Lost Video Diary, which focus on secondary and rarely seen characters for those watching on mobile phones.

All of the major networks are doing at least some experiments making content available via mobile devices, including deals by ABC (with Verizon), Fox (with Sprint and Verizon), and NBC (with Verizon).

CBS is making content available via both Yahoo.com and Google Video; Fox via MySpace and CinemaNow; NBC via YouTube.

All of this points towards a world where consumers can watch the content they want when they want it and where they want it and they can do so with a range of different options from paying to watch advertising free content to watching advertising-supported content for free. Not every show is available in all formats yet. Most of the networks are testing a few platforms at a time. They are still offering only selected series. But there’s no question at this point that these various platforms are going to be increasingly central to the ways we watch television.

The cable networks have been even quicker to embrace these alternative media platforms — though there is some tension between the network’s desires to reach the broadest possible public (including many who simply do not have access to the networks via their local cable companies) and the affiliate’s desire to have exclusive access to content which they can sell to their subscribers.

Some see these trends as representing the next step towards the disagregation of television content — that is to say, consumers will follow individual series with little regard to their time slots or network placements. For some of us, that moment is already here. I have students who never watch live television, prefering to download everything they watch (legally or otherwise). In my own case, I am moving more slowly in this direction. I got started watching highlights of The Daily Show on the web because the MIT dorms don’t get Comedy Central. I ended up watching the season finale of Survivor via CBS’s website later the same day because I was traveling when it first aired. I ended up watching most of Season 2 Lost via various downloads (mostly legal). And as mentioned earlier, I am now catching up with Big Brother since I was without television reception most of the summer and people had told me it was one of the better runs of the series. (Indeed, having seen most of the episodes, I would agree).

Rerun in Demand is the logical response to the increased serialization of American television: we’ve seen over the past decade more and more shows which have tightly interwoven plots, extended story arcs, recurring emphasis on backstory and program history. Such series reward regular viewing and punish people who miss episodes. Such episodes historically were considered high risk by networks. They could lose viewers who became disinterested but they were hard to join in progress and old style broadcasting gave viewers no way to go back and see what they missed. Tivo provided viewers with some tools to stay on top of series they were watching thanks to the season pass feature but they offered no good way to go back and join an ongoing series until, minimally, the end of the season, when the episodes might be available on DVD. Often, the DVD sets have come out at the very end of the summer or even into the fall, making it hard to catch up before the second season episodes started to air. This season, a high percentage of the new series have story arc structures: indeed, many of them seem designed to last a single season or less. We should be watching to see if any of them benefit from the combination of word of mouth via the web and alternative ways of accessing previously aired materials? Will some of them experience increases in viewership as the season moves forward? And if so, which ones?

As I was finishing this post, I received a link to an interesting story about SciFi Channel developing a web series to generate interest around Battlestar Gallactica. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about it:

The 10 Web segments, each just a few minutes long and viewable on devices ranging from iPods to laptops to desktops to full-size television sets, feature characters from the television show. And they have the same dark feel of broadcast episodes of Galactica, a post-apocalyptic survival tale of humans on the run after their home planets have been destroyed. The mini-episodes will go online, one at a time, on Tuesday and Thursday nights until “Galactica’s” season premiere on Oct. 6. They focus on two soldiers in a new city built by humans fleeing Cylons, a race of machines that has wiped out human civilization elsewhere. The two face difficult choices about how — or whether — to fight back against a new Cylon invasion, the climactic moment of last season. Their decisions will help explain their actions in future on-air episodes.

This sounds like a classic example of what my book calls transmedia storytelling — the use of the web not to remediate existing content from the series but to develop an extension of the fictional world which enhances our experience of watching the series. I am not watching this particular series but would be interested to hear from fans of the series about their impressions of what these web-based episodes bring to the experience.

Comments

  1. Nancy says:

    One of my favorite recent quotes is something Mark Cuban, currently occupied with HDTV and the Dallas Mavericks among other pursuits, said at a talk I attended on the digital future this summer:

    “Bits are bits. I can deliver. I’m agnostic. I don’t care how it gets there.”

  2. Todd Allen says:

    Doctor Who did “Tardisodes,” which were essentially “prologue” web episodes for this season.

    Then again, the BBC did (limited) animated Doctor Who episodes online while the series was shopping for a new production team. This was shortly after the Animatrix started their downloadable previews.

  3. I just saw the first of the BSG “webisodes” – they’re a little heavy on the exposition (they’re trying to pull in new fans, not just cater to their base, so that’s a bit tricky) but they’re using favorite characters who didn’t get as much play in S1 and S2 and introducing us to some new people.

    It will be interesting to see how they create content that is both illuminating of and totally extraneous to the show’s regular episodes – they can’t assume that everyone will watch these, so they can’t put key information into them, but they have to be gripping.

    The first one was interesting – they’re all centered on the Resistance, and so the tension is easily created through the “who’s loyal” question.

    Anyhow. The series is highly recommended, if you do sci-fi at all – one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. I’m not much of a TV-watcher, but for this, I stay up late on Fridays.

  4. According to Boing Boing…

    Looks like the Times got one detail wrong: the BSG webisodes are only available on the network’s “Sci Fi Pulse” — a Flash-based broadband site. They’re not made available for viewing on iPods due to legal restrictions, according to a SciFi spokesperson. Of course, determined and tech-savvy users could certainly hack the content for that purpose if they really wanted to.

  5. Smellow says:

    I love the series… Just DL’d and watched BSG webisode 1, via bittorrent, where its being heavily seeded (ie popular).

    Not clear how it would really draw people into the series. Shoulnt this kind of effort focus more on fans pulling people in to the series not the producers pushing more content out. Its probably not binary. BUt clearly you’d want more fans pulling people in and a tangental webisode doesnt seem like the best vechile to do this. Given the plot complexitity, charecture depth, dialect/verbage etc… I doubt anyone walking new into the series via the webisope will get hooked by the allure of an anonymous “resistance”, complaining about unseen, yet menacing, “toasters” which threatens to wipe them out. I had toast this morning, my toaster didnt scare me at all…

    It would seem to me that BSG would be better served if they used ARG or some form of fan engagement (UGC/FF/etc) along with an “aggresive story catch-up” to get people more involved. The two things your trying to do are re-engerize old fans and engage new ones. By empowering current fans to spread the word (with media artifacts), bring in new viewers, engage with the content, shape parts of the story, reach across media to snag viewers and display their interest, you’d accomplish both.

  6. Smellow says:

    Oh Henry, I forgot to mention CBS took things a step further and has announced:

    “CBS Television & TiVo Make History With First-Ever Exclusive Debut of New Fall Show on TiVo Before Its Network Premiere”

    snip

    …”TiVo subscribers will be the first in the nation to see the hot comedy CBS show “The Class” as early as a full week before its premiere on live TV.”

    Check the news wires or email for the full release.

  7. Most, if not all, such content will be accessible only from within the US, much to the frustration of US citizens and other fans who happen to live overseas.

    See http://www.beginningwithi.com/tech/ideal_tv.htm

    Yeah, I know that distribution agreements are the reason. But I’m not going to wait a year to see Lost Season 3 – in Italian, yet!

  8. Great update on these developments, Henry. It’s so hard to keep track of all this movement, and even harder to gauge its impact on the culture and business of TV.

    A couple of related issues to point out. One, similar to the point raised by Deirdre in her comment, is the enforcement of geographic boundaries even in the online world. As she points out, much of this content will only be available in the US. This situation is also occurring with British-based broadband media: virtually all of the BBC’s vast online TV content is only available in relatively high-definition from within the UK (the rationale being that UK citizens pay for the BBC via their licence fee, while others do not). Users outside Britain can only watch extremely small, low-res videos from the BBC sites. While much of this material will circulate extralegally via BitTorrent, it is interesting that the legal boundaries still remain fairly rigid.

    Secondly, a recent report from Broadcasting and Cable indicates that, despite the plethora of serial dramas on the schedule this fall, the pendulum may already be shifting back to procedural dramas with self-contained episodes (the dominant trend of the early 2000s). Series in development for next year are mostly in this category, and the usual longstanding fears about the syndication prospects of serial dramas (which I discussed in my book, Rerun Nation) are cited as the primary rationale for this move, despite the vast array of content delivery options users now have (and programmers, advertisers, and others now profit off of).

  9. Zhan Li says:

    I’ll probably watch all the webisodes, but I have to say that I’m underwhelmed by the first part.

    I disagree with makesmewannadie that this webisode is using favourite characters plus unknowns. The first webisode uses secondary supporting characters plus unknowns.

    Presumably – like The Office (US) use of minor characters in their webisodes – the budget was too small to pay for the actors for the main leads (the most appealing and important characters – Starbuck, Boomer, Gaius, No.6, Adama, Roslin).

    The setting also seems ultra low budget – perhaps they’re saving money for a Cylon appearance in a later webisode (and is that a 20th/21st century Earth filter cigarette I see one of the characters smoking?!? I don’t think I’ve ever seen these before in the series, though there is quite a bit of smoking)

    One 3 and half minute webisode is too short for me to tell whether the narrative is worthwhile following.

    However, I’m skeptical that these webisodes will add much to the experience of the main show. The brevity of the webisodes and the lack of main characters (which I think really make up most of the appeal of the show since there’s no moral lesson/alien adventure/holodeck lark plot-of-the-week like Star Trek).

    I’m something of a fan of BSG – I think it’s an audacious and impressive remake of a silly 1970s TV show into a scifi show which is unusually concerned with realistic and complex character-driven drama. It’s also unusual, I think, in having such strong, appealing, and complex female main lead characters (with the exception of Gaius, I think they’re all much more interesting than the male leads). What holds me back from wholehearted fandom is the overuse by writers of “just in the nick of time” action sequences (these should happen three or four times a season, not three or four times an episode – which is boring in addition to being silly); plus I haven’t got through all two seasons yet but I feel the backstory seems to have some big plausibility holes (why so few cylon human clone types?).

  10. this is interesting. it inspired me to reflect on new forms of television in China. thinking that it might be too long as a comment, I posted my response on my just-opened blog. have a look at http://huangxiaohe.blogspot.com/

  11. Tama Leaver says:

    The frustration of being a Battlestar fan, but being in Australia and thus unable to (legally) access the (supposedly) free trans-media content such as the webisodes led me to write this long post which might be of interest: The Battlestar Galactica Webisodes & The Tyranny of Digital Distance.

  12. very interesting read, and i fully have to agree to mr leaver concerning the hassle for a fan in participating and experiencing in transmedia content from outside the US.

    hopefully the gravitational shift towards the internet as platform will also change things here any time soon.

    i would highly be interested in the document you are mentioning in your post… any chance to publish or to email? many thanks!