Television is thought of as a passive pursuit. Couch potato, right? But today’s world of endless entertainment seems more like an exercise regimen. You need never stop amusing yourself, every second of every day. And it’s exhausting, isn’t it?
If you’re the sluggish types who comes home from work, kicks your feet up on the coffee table and surfs casually through your TV line-up for three hours, this change is probably more disturbing than for those of you who are always plugged in via BlackBerry, PSP or iPod. And if you’re one of the folks who only watch PBS or (God forbid) read books, well, I have some news for you.
The status quo is changing. Wherever you stand on the entertainment battlefield, either as a consumer or producer, there’s a good chance that you feel beleaguered by the changes in today’s media landscape. Established authors feel threatened by writers who give away their works on the Internet. Film critics are upset with bloggers. And everyone seems to be asking the same question (even if they use different words): Who’s in charge here, anyway?
One possible path of our rapidly approaching future is Web 2.0, a name seemingly full of the inflated self-importance of the dot-com boom years. In part, Web 2.0 simply describes this current iteration of the Internet and includes such phenomenon as blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds (which allow you to be alerted to website updates), social bookmarking (which allow you to share suggested content), wikis (online directories and encylopedia-like articles built by a group of users), social networking (sites like MySpace or Facebook), and so on.
More broadly, the phrase Web 2.0 means that form (the paper) and content (the idea) can now be separated as readers, viewers, listeners see fit. Buh-bye Marshall McLuhan; the medium is no longer the message. Once upon a time, a book meant only a bound set of pages. Remember the encyclopedia, a collection of books containing knowledge? Compare that to Wikipedia, the popular online reference site, that has never existed in print form, which is constantly changing and being updated, and has no ultimate or “final” form as its published ancestor did.
It’s pretty obvious where things are headed for the “written” word. But think about other forms of information and entertainment. It’s getting pretty complicated out there.
I asked John Bell, the head of Ogilvy Public Relations Digital Influence team, where all this is going. Bell has spent his time in the trenches, going back to the early days of “interactive” television and the Web, and he sees an inevitable merging of old and “new” media. As he put it, “Traditional media companies, including all the big media giants, are clearly trying to leverage their investments in TV-based programming while not doing anything to undermine their ad revenue model.” While old school TV encourages you to watch it from across the room, leaning back in your comfy chair to consume it, Bell points out that alternatives have sprung up: “Jetset, Rocketboom, AskANinja – and new delivery concepts like Joost are creating experiences that include video but are not anchored in a ‘lean-back’ narrative experience.”
The results are mixed; some of the efforts by old media are sort of lame and some of the new media content is too amateurish, but you can already see the two sides colliding. “Each side will look to the other for lessons to learn,” says Bell. He points to Ze Frank‘s video program The Show, which was distributed via podcast and streamed as video online. Frank, a performance artist, composer, humorist and lecturer, produced a weekday show for one straight year, which regularly solicited on-camera submissions and drew active comments on his site which then made their way onto his show. It was interactive in the way any live performer interacts with an audience.
I think of Lost as the first real Web 2.0 television program. It’s available on broadcast television, on the ABC website or from the iTunes store. It shows one of the highest gains in audience from playback through a Digital Video Recorder (DVR). That’s all pretty typical (and soon will be commonplace for most television shows) but what lifts the program above is how these means of consumption affect the creative part of the show. A scene from Lost may contain a short image, almost a subliminal flash, which can be paused on your DVR. Then you capture a screenshot and post it to your blog. You go onto a Lost forum to discuss it. You listen to the producers discuss subtleties or provide insight on the podcast. You post information onto a Lost wiki. Last summer, an alternative reality game called The Lost Experience brought the events of the show into the real world, complete with radio broadcasts from a fake DJ, YouTube video of attacks in hotel rooms and coded messages hidden around the world.
If you’re the kind of person who wants to lay back and let television wash over you in a calming wave, you may feel like you are being asked to run a marathon every time you want to just be entertained. But even if you don’t want to be more active in your media consumption, you should be aware of these trends, because they will affect what content can survive and thrive. We may well being seeing the birth of a whole new medium which combines the best of everything.
Relax, if you want. But you may find some value in slipping on some running shoes.