Reinventing The Wheel: How TV Plans to Keep us Watching
The days where we could all just kick back and watch TV may soon be behind us. Faced with constant competition and changing viewing habits, traditional television production is moving toward a new normal that will require a bit more active input on the part of the viewer to keep them actively watching.
What exactly this will look like in the long run is still up in the air, but whatever it is, it will be designed to take advantage of social media and new technology. Makes sense. It’s almost cliché to point out how much time we spend on our phones, laptops, or connected to the internet. Since TV has been such a vital part of our culture, from presidential elections to the seemingly constant reality shows we now live in, it makes sense that adapting to new viewing habits is so crucial.
The major media production companies are learning from the viewing habits audiences have developed across the nontraditional platforms: free video sharing sites like YouTube, and paid streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. They’re studying how nontraditional forms of media consumption accommodated new viewing habits like watching TV on the go; multitasking while watching, and modern schedules where not everyone can view at the same time.
According to most industry insiders, YouTube is indeed the site that started the expansion of watching things outside of the TV and outside of the home. It presented no barrier to entry and thus democratized media. Basically, everything is on YouTube or its competitors; every niche is represented.
YouTube gave people immediate gratification through its abundance of choice. Viewers could watch however much they wanted of whatever they wanted, or didn’t want. I personally don’t know anybody who hasn’t, at least once, got caught in the vortex of YouTube clicking on a video they want to see, perusing the comments of that video just to see how much they disagree with people, and then clicking on a random video they see displayed on the side. Then the cycle repeats.
It’s similar to the binge watching we did with VHS tapes and DVDs except for two significant differences: the ability to read, write, and respond to comments, and the presence of choice. The comments are relatively self-explanatory, but they serve a larger purpose of feedback and community between creators and viewers. The factor of choice and interaction is really what made YouTube different. Unlike DVDs, which had a set end, and traditional TV where the networks and service providers set the schedule and limit what channels we have access to based on service plans; video sharing services are built on an idea of giving viewers everything at once.
Streaming and video on demand services picked up around the same time as YouTube. For them, YouTube’s rise signaled a change in viewing habits. Major companies realized people were willing to spend hours watching videos on a computer screen. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and several others realized they could present the viewer with a wall of choices and they would choose what to watch rather than even consider whether to watch. Rather than focus on user-generated content, these sites focused on streaming professional productions that could get people talking.
These streaming services, particularly Netflix, recognized the power of social media. Social media acted as an evolution of the YouTube comment sections for these services. Writing for Brand24, Gosia Letki contends Netflix’s social media presence rose out of necessity. She stated, “As opposed to the traditional television that allows social media networks to release only information parallel to a show’s plot, Netflix releases all episodes at once, and this forces the brand’s social media marketing team to take their strategy a level up.” By being active on sites like Twitter and Facebook, Netflix was able to develop a strong brand identity through what they posted, track how their service and their programs were doing among the masses, create a sense of trustworthiness through transparency, and cultivate positive customer relationships by responding directly to inquiries and problems.
For example, “Netflix socks.” The company paid attention to their customers on social media, and Netflix noticed many of them had a common problem of losing their place in a show because they fell asleep. As a result, they responded with Netflix socks. These socks detect when a viewer falls asleep and automatically pauses whatever show they were watching so that they won’t miss anything. Convenient, but also a perfect example of how media companies are adapting to technology, customer feedback, and viewing habits to keep someone watching. Netflix literally tailored themselves in a way that will keep the viewer watching from one day to the next, keeping them in a cycle of sedate, captivated viewing.
So, with YouTube and Netflix making significant strides, traditional TV sort of got held up in its traditions: schedules, weekly releases, packages… commercials… and, most importantly, a disconnect between viewer and content. Naturally, it’s getting left behind. Sure, it’s been holding onto viewers with what it can, namely live broadcast events like musicals, presidential debates, and of course, sporting events.
In the past, the TV and cable companies tried to imitate their competitors. They created the DVR as a response to streaming. They developed “aftershows” like AMC’s Talking Dead and HBO’s After the Thrones to keep viewers as engaged with the network as they are with social media groups. They pushed to make all TV binge worthy with cliffhangers and focused pacing. And, of course, most TV stations are now offering video on demand apps of their terrestrial channels.
Though, for the first time, traditional TV is trying to use modern tech to outpace the competition rather than catch up to them. Interactive dramas are the next big thing. HBO’s new narrative experiment, Mosaic, is a series that is told in fractured pieces. Different installments of the show follow different characters; viewers will have to choose which character to follow and how deep into the narrative to go. The strangest part? Mosaic will achieve this through an app for Android and iPhone devices. Netflix is gearing up to offer similar fare with even more narrative choices soon as well, but HBO will have a chance to perfect it first.
I’m not clear on the details, but this method of making new technology part of the old way of storytelling is, at the very least, novel. I don’t think every TV show will have an app attached to it, but I’m all for the experimentation. It’s a way to generate the same viewer participation and feedback that competitors have. With the advent of virtual reality headsets, TV will have a chance to move even further away from the form of TV as we know it now.
TV can utilize the addiction we have to the Internet and smartphones to reignite our addiction to TV. I don’t really want to have to buy a multitude of devices or open different apps just to watch TV, and I don’t think mass audiences would either. At least, not yet. Still, it’s safe to say that the companies invested in TV will do everything they can to keep us from ever tuning out. No matter what, in some way, TV will make sure we’re watching.