Seismic social shifts are redefining
our everyday relationship to TV
From the unwieldy deluge of scripted series to the relentless proliferation of SVODs and other new delivery platforms, our experience of TV now can seem not only overwhelming but utterly unique to our cultural and technological moment.
Yet in many respects, we’ve been here before. The names of the players may be more fun to pronounce these days – Shudder! Blim! hayu! – but the rapid scale-up and free-for-all conditions are not so different than similarly frenzied phases during the development of the multi-channel universe via new cable and pay-TV networks in the 1980s and digital channels in the late 1990s.
The medium’s real changes may be happening below the surface, something media analyst Natalie Klym came to realize during the writing of “The Ambiguity of Disruption,” a 2015 paper for MIT’s Communications Futures Program – and another valuable big-picture primer on the fluid state of TV. As she tells CFC, “there is a whole other shift going on at another level that’s not just about moving the players around in the ecosystem and changing the technology.” We’re experiencing a deeper disruption of “what television actually is, both as an experience and a social institution.”
“The Ambiguity of Disruption” provides a useful means of organizing the emergent OVDs (online video distributors) that are reorganizing the field of play. The “quality” category is comprised of companies and sites competing with traditional content providers on quality by offering comparable content, such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu. Then there are those whose trump card is innovation, like YouTube in the years immediately after its introduction in 2005, or Periscope now.
Whereas Team Quality essentially provide TV shows over the Internet (and sometimes the exact same content, as in the case of YouTube TV), Team Innovation provides a broader, more unruly and often more participatory kind of content that disrupts the traditional dynamic between makers and consumers. The celebrity YouTuber is only one example of the new-school models that are just beginning to emerge.
Again, as Klym notes, that turbulence isn’t necessarily new. “There were all these different dynamics – political, technological, economic, regulatory – that shaped TV into this thing that we ended up with: this over-the-air broadcast television model that was supported by advertising and came of age in the 1950s. What’s happening today is that now all those possibilities are there again.”
TV’s content creators are already responding to those new possibilities in myriad ways. The most publicized and watched may be the shows that advance beyond the serialized storytelling models of early binge favourites like Netflix’s House of Cards, a game-changer when it arrived in 2013. Some series seem hell-bent on achieving maximum narrative density as swiftly as possible, offering dozens of storylines in tandem a la Game of Thrones. Others find more sophisticated means of keeping viewers hooked than the mini-cliffhangers that used to precede every commercial break.
Klym adds, “Now, because so much of the programming is subscription-based, they’re not dealing with advertising, but with this new psychological pace and need to have some kind of a payoff at regular intervals.”
To put it another way, “social television” – an industry buzzword since the late 2000s – may turn out to be not just a combination of recognizable elements of social media and television, but a whole other beast. That evolutionary leap is already upon us, what with YouTube TV offering conventional broadcast channels in its ever-expanding scope, Facebook Live serving up real-time news and other programming, and Twitter broadcasting the NFL. Of course, we already mix up social media, content and means of communication when we share links, music and videos with friends. For us to express ourselves and connect via more elaborate, potentially more narrative-based varieties of content may be yet another manifestation of a profoundly human tendency.
“We organize socially around stories,” notes Klym. “So one of the deciding factors for viewers of a show is not just ‘is it good or bad?’ but ‘is it watched by a bunch of people I want to be connecting with?’ The social component of a television show is an important piece of the value proposition.”
This point echoes what Klym’s MIT colleague and TED Talk fave Kevin Slavin has often said about the relevance of “limbic resonance” in social television. He argues that stories have more resonance when they are made to feel like a shared experience and thereby trigger all the neurochemical reactions of our deepest emotional states and most empathetic connections with others. The sitcom laugh track is Slavin’s go-to example of limbic resonance in action.
That’s why even as television threatens to become a more isolating experience with every viewer consigned to a personalized niche, it still matters to make it feel like a collective one. Neuromarketers have been trying to suss out for years how limbic resonance can serve their purposes. As Klym notes, advertisers and viewers are just beginning to grapple with the question of how isolated or social we want our viewing experiences to be. “It’s a very human thing to want to bond around a common experience,” she adds, “whether it’s telling stories or talking about a story.”
In recent years, Michael Nathanson of the media analysis firm MoffettNathanson has released reports with a variety of memorably snarky titles. “Are We There Yet?” was the name of a major report released in October, 2013 just as the impact of streaming services and cord-cutting was becoming undeniable. Last September, Nathanson put out a report on the industry’s current state, which emphasized the importance of sports and news assets to the big media players. Its title – “Either You’re Live & Large or You’re Dead” – encapsulates the tenor of the times as keenly as any of Nathanson’s stock-price analyses.
Yet the Canadian Film Centre’s CEO Slawko Klymkiw – whose long career in TV includes overseeing the CBC’s English-language programming – believes that it’s too early to count out the older broadcasters that have dominated the medium for most of its history. “First of all, broadcast companies are still making a lot of money,” he says. “For all the negative talk, there are still parts of that business that are doing remarkably well. Maybe the question of how much you pay for rights for sports is going to be an issue but people still watch live sports. And people are still watching network television at a fairly significant rate.”
Surviving chaos: signs of new distribution and financing models, and a changing Canadian regulatory framework.
She suggests that narrative structures are adapting to distribution structures, resulting in the rearrangement or even the abandonment of all manner of familiar formulas. In other words, if you’re approaching a TV show as an eight-hour narrative, then maybe it doesn’t seem so strange to delay the arrival of the opening titles from a show’s first minute to its 57th, as The OA infamously did in its pilot episode (which, at 67 minutes, was already at a length previously alien to the medium).
Clearly, content creators are doing whatever they can to enhance their shows’ binge-ability. Klym likens the binge experience to having a chocolate bar that you’d never eat all at once but have no problem polishing off as long as you’ve broken it up into little pieces. For TV to develop such an “addictive dimension” is hardly accidental – it’s baked into the design. She cites a claim by HBO CEO Richard Plepler at a conference in 2014 that “our model is building addicts – as many as we can, across the most franchises.”
For her next report for MIT’s Future Communications Program, Klym is trying to get a clear picture of what’s happening as television and social media achieve an unprecedented degree of integration. “YouTube is a social media platform but it’s not like people go to YouTube to socialize,” she explains. “They go to watch content and they put comments on it and talk about it. For talking about other TV shows, Twitter was used as the conversational channel or application. But when you start integrating those two processes – such as when Facebook becomes the content distribution platform and at the same time functions as a personal communications platform – then that’s a whole new phase. There are huge implications not just for content but for the personal communications industry.”
Industry watchers believe social television is a huge part of the medium’s future, as well as its present. Yet for the professionals creating content, it’s a growing challenge in the age of peak TV to ensure their shows are the ones inspiring those coveted limbic responses. Breaking through the din caused by hundreds of competing shows is even harder now that the viewers want to make their own discoveries (or at least believe that’s what they’re doing).
“It’s an on-demand industry now, where the audience is in charge of what they watch and where they watch and how they watch,” says Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and a professor at UCLA. “So if they’re in control of all that, they don’t want things just shoved down their throats. Whereas TV viewers were generally very passive, now there’s a discovery process that goes along with it. You talk it up to people, there’s word-of-mouth, and the social-media phenomenon – people talk and connect and generate buzz and heat all on their own. Television doesn’t need marketing machines. Not only do viewers not need it – they don’t like it.”
Landau adds that viewers ascribe a sense of authenticity to shows that they feel they’ve discovered (even if those shows have actually been marketed to them in subtler means than they recognize). For Amazon Studios’ comedy and drama series head Joe Lewis, the SVOD model means shows have more time and latitude to find their audiences. “With traditional ad-supported TV, the ultimate goal is get everyone to watch every single episode of every single show,” he says. “That’s how you maximize what you’re doing. With a subscription service, your focus is on making something someone loves and something they will pay that subscription for. So you don’t need everyone to watch every single show. Hopefully there are a couple of things on a regular basis that people love and that allows me to focus on great shows and things that will hold up through word-of-mouth, which is the hardest thing of all.”
This trove of high-quality programming will improve a service’s value in the long term, but media players need short-game strategies, too. That’s one explanation for the continued importance and prevalence of live television, which is vital to the survival of the conventional linear networks. News broadcasts still matter – CNN and Fox News scored new records for ratings and profits through the presidential election. And sports still matter a lot, though for how much longer is another big question. In the 2016 season, the average NFL game experienced an eight per cent drop in ratings according to league data obtained by ESPN. The situation is so worrying that the NFL is considering rule changes to counter the plummeting numbers. Three years into their landmark 12-year, $5.2 billion deal with Rogers for broadcast and multimedia rights, the NHL was relieved not to have another playoff season without a Canadian team due to a similarly dramatic viewership drop last spring. Even so, sports still generate huge revenues for broadcasters. “If not for sports, I would anticipate linear television would go away completely,” adds Landau.