Monday, April 6, 2009

A look at the future of television

This is the answer to one of the questions on my take-home midterm for my Media Industry Perspectives course. I've been working on finishing Lessig's book Remix for this course, and therefore feel the need to include this disclaimer: Please be aware that this is not due until Monday the 6th of April at 6 PM Eastern, and I trust that anyone who reads this will not borrow my thoughts or ideas before a week after that time. I don't feel this will be a problem actually. Anyway, after that: cite away, friends!

Quick note: I've been meaning to include an update and play-by-play of sorts on Saturday's fantastic and eventful Critical Themes in Media Studies Conference at The New School, but certain academic and personal obligations and desires have kept me from responding. Let me just say I took tons of notes, moderated two panels, and broke up a fight between a presenter and an aging liberal audience-terrorist. In short, I'm looking forward to sharing my experience.

On to the midterm...

In response to the (here paraphrased) question:
What aspects of today's network and cable television industry will remain in place, and what aspects will change, be reinvented, or even abolished?

(Please excuse the tiny photo. We've all seen this before, I'm sure: Screen shot of Hulu's "choose your ads" screen before watching a program.)

In the era of Hulu and, in a time when programming content is offered virtually free to the viewer/user via online digital video streaming (this is ignoring the cost of monthly broadband/dial-up services), the antiquated broadcast model that has survived since the inception of the medium of television cannot continue on its current stagnant model of linear programming and stale advertising tendencies if it expects to successfully monetize and remain successful in the digital age. The first challenge to the broadcast model was certainly the in-home digital video recorder (known henceforth as the DVR; a specific example: TiVo). A similar model has now been brought to sites on the Internet where the viewer can choose from a number of videos stored in a database; however, with the Internet model these videos do not actually “belong” to the viewer. With the DVR, television shows are something that can be stored and essentially owned for brief amounts of time, whereas videos online are in a massive cache memory that can be accessed by any viewer with Internet capability, allowing the viewer to skip around within the content or pause if a break is needed to complete another task, (the Internet has been called the multi-tasking medium, after all) liberties that are also allowed with DVR technology. This changes and challenges not only the original linear model of broadcast television but also the concept of ownership and accessibility of content and programming.

However, content streaming sites such as Hulu still adhere to the network industry’s advertising model: sites such as these incorporate advertising before and/or during their programs in order to monetize programming on their site, advertising much like one can find in the original television broadcast model. With more and more individuals relying on their DVRs and streaming websites and less and less relying on the medium of television to access their television content via cable providers, the model of advertising has evolved (or, as I argue, devolved) and changed, for it must change. Most importantly, the thirty-second spot is in the process of becoming obsolete. This is not to say that broadcast standards of advertising have disintegrated or will disappear completely; this is merely to insinuate that the model must change to adapt to changing preferences influenced by available technologies to properly monetize online business models.

One way that advertising had in fact devolved within streaming videos on sites such as Hulu is exemplified in the return to the single sponsor model akin to the first days of radio and early television. Before a program commences on Hulu, there is an announcement stating “The following program is brought to you with limited commercial interruption by (name of sponsor)”, reminding the viewer that there will indeed be commercial breaks in the format of the 30-second spot all from the same company, industry, public service or utility. At the onset of some videos, viewers can actually choose to watch a 90-second spot right away, allowing the viewer to then watch their programming uninterrupted. This option of how to interact with advertising runs parallel to the viewer’s choices of when and where to watch their programming, and is therefore a possible improvement to the prior-mandated advertising model. With this model and the possible shift toward increased in-program product placement, the 30-second spot may be a thing of the past – but let’s not jump to conclusions.

Whether or not viewers will continue to respond to this type of advertising strategy is uncertain, but for right now virtually no other models exist. It has been speculated that content will include an increase in product placement and become interactive, allowing viewers to click on a soft drink or a baseball hat within the diegesis of the programming and effectively order this product in a similar style to ordering a product on Amazon. But, much like the cell-phone-as-credit-card technology that is still in development in the US, the interactive programming model will most likely prove to be a thing of the (albeit near) future.

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