Catching Up: The Future of Television

Today, I am just going to highlight a few things that have caught my eye recently. We picked up the July 17 issue of Newsweek, belatedly, and read an interesting article discussing what current network media consumption. The opening paragraphs, though, really annoyed me:

A guy--let's call him Brad--longed for the company of his wife, so he took his iPod to bed. Confiding in an NBC researcher, Brad tells how he inserted his earplugs, nestled down beside his bride and got lost in an episode of "The Office" or another of his favorite TV shows downloaded from the iTunes store. His wife, meanwhile, was riveted by her favorite show playing on the bedroom TV. Yet another intimacy-challenged couple dialed up the heat on their relationship during the college basketball playoffs, say researchers for Verizon, the cellular-service giant. No fan of hoops, the wife snuggled up to her basketball-craving husband on the living-room couch, unfolded her cell phone and watched video clips streaming from Verizon's VCast service while he tuned in the game on CBS. "She thought it would be a good way to spend time together," says Ryan Hughes, Verizon's chief media programmer.

There's a kind of outrage here that people might be sitting side by side in bed and consuming different media content. Now, substitute books or magazines for television content and see if you feel this same level of shock and awe. I think we'd think it a little odd if the couple always coordinated the books they took to bed with them. As my wife points out, in the old days, the wife would have been banished from the room while her husband watched the big game, so, yes, there is some element of togetherness, snuggling down physically together, even if you are in different mental spaces. In any case, other research on television suggests that while homes may have multiple televisions, only one set is on during prime time in most households because we still prefer to watch television content socially rather than individually and the shows that do best are those that give us content we can talk about with others.

Discussion of the future of television continues over at our Convergence Culture Consortium blog.

A while back, I flagged an article about the Lost Experience ARG which Jason Mittell had published in Flow. We are all following this ARG with great interest and so we were pleased that he has written some further commentary about it for our blog:

The first part of TLE was all about setting a stage, a fairly static picture of an institution (The Hanso Foundation), its supporters (Thomas Mittlewerk and Hugh McIntyre), and its detractors (Persephone and DJ Dan). Each clue revealed another layer of deception & hypocrisy within Hanso, but offered little narrative thrust developing the conflict or relationships that it portrayed. Jensen suggests this act was designed for the hardcore Lost fans, but I'd suggest it was more for dedicated ARG players whose paranoid panoramic perception searches for clues within the meta-fictional landscape. As a dedicated Lost-head (but only a lurker in previous ARGs), I found Act I's lack of narrative drive too frustrating to completely justify the time it took to parse out the clues, and I shifted to mostly an observational role of the clue-gathering work of my fellow players.

Act II is more for fans like me--interested enough in ARGs to follow them, but in it more for the story and its relationship to Lost than gameplay. The shift in Act II is both in storytelling form and medium--this portion of TLE moves away from the now-defunct Hanso website and reveals the hacker behind the pseudonym of Persephone to be Rachel Blake. In charting Blake's attempt to discover the truth behind Hanso, we follow her across Europe via her blog. This direct communication from the character is much more narratively engaging than her hacks to Hanso's website, allowing for an illusion of interaction between players and characters, as conversations between Blake and other characters within the blog's comments add to the story significantly. Additionally, most of her blog postings link to videos scattered around the web--presenting Blake's exploits in video form seems more in keeping with the storytelling strategies that most appeal to fans of serialized television.

And in another entry, Mittell writes about what he is calling "Television 2.0", citing the example of The Sci-Fi Channel's digital deployment of the pilot of The Amazing Screw-On Head (which comics fans will recognize as adapted from a Mike Mignolia (Hellboy) graphic novel):

Head is quite a delight - based on a cult comic by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, the show parodies the steampunk genre of sci-fi set in the 19th Century. The hero works at the pleasure of President Lincoln fighting threats to America (and to quote the show, "and by America, I mean the world") from undead zombies and ancient demon technology; for some as-yet-unspecified reason, he is a screw-on head. The animation is vivid and unique in its visual style, and features strong voice acting by established stars like Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce. It's a show that could easily gain a dedicated audience in sufficient numbers for a cable channel - it most reminds me of the classic 1990s cartoon The Tick, which is high praise in my animation canon.

But Sci-Fi recognizes that it will take some doing to build its audience. Fans of Mignola are vocal and passionate, but far too small in number to guarantee success. So they've put the pilot online two weeks before its TV debut. But more importantly, they have attached a viewer survey to the pilot to gauge reactions and help judge the potential for extending the pilot into a series. This design takes advantages of two great opportunities of online video - the video can go viral through blogging and reviews much more quickly and legitimately than other "official" online videos, and instant feedback gives frustrated fans a way to feel like their voices matter.

And finally, Sam Ford weighs in on the news that NBC will be distributing the pilot episodes of Kidnapped and Studio 60 on Sunset Strip (perhaps the most eagerly awaited program of the fall season) on dvd this summer to Netflix subscribers, yet another way of building up audience interests before the shows hit the air:

Will many viewers be enticed to use one of their Netflix rentals for these sample episodes and assorted trailers? My guess is that they will and that, if these shows are good, the company will get a substantial award in positive support. Of course, that support does hinge on the show's quality and--again--these types of distribution deals only work well if there is a product worth discussing. Of course, using an Aaron Sorkin show and a suspense thriller is probably a smart move on the network's part, as they are two shows that NBC already feel strongly about and are building around for the fall lineup. Once the initiative launches in August, it will be interesting to track rental numbers, but my guess is that this could further popularize these types of campaigns to gain support for shows before they ever hit broadcast television.

These three stories from the C3 blog point to new strategies that television executives are deploying to get television fans talking about their series during the traditional down months of summer. Let's face it: a growing percentage of us spend the summer watching series we missed or old favorite on dvd. Once the new fall season starts, there are going to be so many shows competing for our attention that most of them never get watched a first time. But if they can get new content or new experiences out there now, they get a leg up on their competition, can start to generate buzz, and build viewer loyalty before the season even starts.