When I was a kid, my family set aside Thursday nights as our “family TV night”. Dad would bring home a bag of chips and a bottle of pop. He’d turn on the TV a couple of minutes before the show started and the four of us would sit there on the couch and watch Family Ties and The Cosby Show (and maybe something else? It’s a little foggy now).
TELEVISION VIEWING HAS CHANGED
My parents were the last generation of people who may or may not have had a TV in their house. I’m in the generation that grew up with television — usually just one in the house. The generation(s) since have grown up with more televisions and more channel choices. Today, the entertainment choices have grown beyond “television” (in the strictest sense of the word) and the very existence of television as we once knew it is threatened.
Once, viewers were at the mercy of whatever was showing on the available channels. Some people had more choice because they had cable or satellite. My family couldn’t afford that stuff so our TV grabbed whatever was broadcast through the air. I remember it being someone’s job to adjust the rabbit ears on top of the TV to improve reception when things got fuzzy.
Other technology changed how we view television (and I should also include movies here, too): VCRs and DVDs allow us watch our own entertainment choices when we want. PVRs allow us to delay watching our chosen entertainment (and skip the commercials if we want). Other services (like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, AppleTV, etc.) are all changing how we are entertained by giving us more choice and more control.
WHAT IS REALLY CHANGING?
Entertainment is not going away. And neither is watching something (i.e. a “television device” — whether it’s a big screen TV or a tablet). But what is really at risk is what we might call “real-time” television. Maybe there’s a better term for it. By “real time” television, I mean sitting down to watch a show from start to finish, including commercials, at the time it is broadcast.
I never watch shows when they are broadcast, and you probably don’t either. I use my PVR almost always, to fast forward through commercials and to watch shows on my time. And the occasions when I happen to watch a show in “real time” (when it is broadcast), I feel impatient and impotent because I can’t fast forward through the commercials. In fact, if I happen to see that a show was on that I wanted to watch, I usually prefer to record it on my PVR and return to it about 20 minutes later just to skip the commercials.
WHY TV PRODUCTION COMPANIES WILL FEEL THE SQUEEZE
Most channels earn their money from commercials. But people are skipping the commercials so the value isn’t there for show providers anymore. To counter this effect, we’re seeing other monetization techniques like product placement or on-screen marketing broadcast in the corner of the screen during a show.
Real time television is at risk. But I think it can be revived. I think people will watch real time television once again.
And I think this is where social media is the answer.
HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN SAVE THE DAY
My wife and I love NASCAR and we PVR the race because we usually fast forward through the pre-race show and the commercials, and because sometimes (depending on when it airs) we might not get to see it right at the very beginning.
The PVR gives us a lot of control, which we love. But there’s a drawback: If a driver does something that I want to tweet about, I don’t… because my tweet will seem almost silly coming a full hour or two after it actually happened. And, Janelle and I both avoid Twitter before and during the race because of our self-imposed PVR-delay. We don’t want to know who won the race if we’re still only at the halfway point in our viewing.
It’s almost enough for me to want to watch a race live. And if I had more friends or followers who were as avid race fans as I am, that might just happen. (But my network of people who are also NASCAR fans isn’t that big so it’s not likely going to happen any time soon).
If that’s the case for me, it’s going to be the case for other people, too — for other shows or sporting events. In fact, the “second screen” phenomenon is a growing industry in itself and I think we’re only seeing the start of it: The second screen — a mobile device or tablet or laptop screen — becomes a way for people to act on what they’re watching. They can research, shop, find news, and interact with others.
TWO SCREENS + SOCIAL PEOPLE = DEEPER ENGAGEMENT
In my opinion, television hasn’t caught up to the second screen phenomenon yet. It’s still broadcasting as a real-time medium in an on-demand world. For TV to survive, it needs to give people a reason to watch real time TV again. We’re seeing the very first elements of that happening — mainly through hashtags or encouraging people to view more online or play social games. But a lot of those efforts encourage participation after a show is complete. Can TV do even more?
Here are some ideas:
- Pose questions for people to answer in a forum or with a hashtag. Instead of just inviting people to talk about the show, give them something to talk about.
- Encourage live commentary/discussion during the show (perhaps on Facebook or some kind of Twitter-like discussion page)
- Get crowd-sourced decisions that will adjust how characters deal with a situation in a show. This could be done either in a live show setting, which would be very awesome, or on a delay until the following week.
- Split a story across multiple screens — sharing the first hour on TV and the last 30 minutes online
- Provide deeper plotlines on multiple screens — sharing the main storyline on the first screen and a secondary but intersecting storyline on the second screen. You could follow the lives and adventures of secondary characters this way, fleshing them out more fully for avid fans.
- Broadcast a post-show talk show (similar to what AMC does with The Talking Dead, a talk show that follows The Walking Dead). Broadcast it online if you don’t want to use up air-time.
- Split a show (perhaps creating a 45 minute show instead of a one-hour show) with actor discussion part way through — answering questions live.
- Drop clues during commercials that people have to watch for, perhaps something that will help them understand the show or interact more fully online.
I’m sure there are more things that could be done. As I write this, I’m seeing some major themes: More intentional splitting of the story (or characters or storylines) across screens. More intentional interaction/involvement required of viewers. Discussion. Dissection. Learning more.
The production companies and channels that create these shows will need to invest more time and effort but the result will be deeper engagement from viewers and the cultivation of a group of people who watch the show in real time.