South By Southwest Interactive: The Futurist, and the Seamless Streaming Future of TV

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Everywhere you turn this week at South By Southwest Interactive, there is the feeling of a countdown underway – the countdown to a new way of gaming, a new way of sharing things with your social network, a new way of shopping. No one quite knows how we’ll get there, or what shape it will take, but after sitting through three days of panels and discussions, I certainly feel as if we are sitting on the brink of the next great idea.

Saturday morning, one of the festival’s most fascinating panels was about the ways in which we are changing our consumption of visual media. And featured in the discussion “The Last Broadcast: Entertainment is Social – What’s Next?” was Brian David Johnson (above), Intel’s resident futurist. His professional mission is to develop an actionable plan for 2020 – to keep Intel one step ahead of the competition in terms of how consumers want to watch, interact and compute. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that as everything starts to go streaming, from television to movies to music, that almost anything you consume will be engaged via computer. “We have almost arrived at a place where people expect any screen to be connected to the Internet, and expect that they will be able to engage that screen in a dynamic way,” Johnson said.

In other words: If I see a screen, I’m going to assume both that it’s a touchscreen and that I can access any and all streamable media. Johnson says when he walked the floors of CES this year, what struck him most was the proliferation of new screens – this obsession with finding newer, smaller, faster, friendlier connections to online media. Gone was the era of the new device, replaced by the era of the smarter and savvier screen. (More at Techland: How to Opt Out of Everything Online and Reclaim Your Privacy)

Immediately after his Saturday presentation at South By Southwest, Johnson took to the airport to begin a three-week, round-the-world trip, on a quest to see how different citizens of different cultures interact with media. But between both our pre-panel discussion, and the revelations that came out during “The Last Broadcast” conversation, he offered three key takeaways about the future of media consumption:

- Yes, the television audience is becoming more fractured, and yes, more and more viewers are now acting like me – not watching TV at its regular broadcast time, but catching up later via DVR, web video or YouTube clip. That said, the ratings for the biggest TV events have never been higher: The 2011 Super Bowl is the most-watched television program in American history. Right behind it: The 2010 Super Bowl. Other sure-fire ratings winners: awards broadcasts and TV competitions, like American Idol. Johnson says viewing has gone social – that Facebook has become the new water cooler, an instant water cooler, where people watch and comment on TV programs with their entire social network as it happens. So the preconception that people only want to watch TV on their own time is misguided; we still enjoy television as a communal, live activity. Going further, Saturday’s panel posited that it won’t be too long before headline tickers on news shows are replaced with social media tickers on entertainment shows. There will always be big real-time TV events; in fact, watch for more networks to try and create those events, fostering the social media dynamic as they go.

- The economic model of TV advertising/sponsorship is about to evolve dramatically. Under the current model, advertisers pay money for a set number of seconds, during which they pitch their brand or product. But what are they really paying up for? Johnson says it’s the chance to have a meaningful interaction with a consumer. And in the future, as viewers start using more mobile devices to access more content, there will be even more chances to have meaningful interactions with consumers, on their preferred platform. He points to Groupon, in fact, as a game changer – a site that has successfully enticed users to divulge more information than ever before about not only themselves but also friends and family. If broadcasters can create worthy content and a value proposition like Groupon, which entices users to divulge demographic information, the advertising opportunities across streaming video, mobile video and web video could be vast. In other words: Traditional broadcasters should quickly learn how to embrace the impending social revolution.

- It is the harnessing of this multi-platform approach that Johnson says will inform the future of entertainment. Gaming companies already know this – we are moving to a world where we will be continuously engaged with our visual entertainment. When commuting or on lunch breaks, we will use our mobile devices. When at work, we’ll check in via the web. When we get home, we’ll switch to our widescreens. And in each environment, we’ll expect something different from the entertainment experience. Some networks are already embracing this, to a limited degree: Network news shows have developed modest mobile apps. Some sitcoms, when not on the air, air shorter summer webisodes to bridge seasons. But all of this supplemental material is considered somewhat inferior today (Let’s be honest: Often the twitter feeds or websites run by fans are far more entertaining than a network’s show portals, or webisodes). In the future, Johnson says, this multi-platform approach will be essential to the entertainment experience, and the first program/series that figures out how to match the message to the medium, simultaneously creating content for the TV screen, the phone screen and the laptop screen, will redefine our idea of what a TV series is supposed to do. What kind of relationship it is supposed to forge with an interconnected fan base.

And I think I see his point – once upon a time, we gathered around a television at a specific time for a specific program. It was a fixed communal experience. In the future, television will remain every bit as communal, but will become increasingly flexible. Just look at late-night TV. Many people tune in to see a new episode of Conan at 11 p.m. But far more log on the next morning, watch the show off the website and then engage with Conan via his Twitter feed and blog throughout the afternoon. Late-night has become an all-day affair, and far more pervasive than just a 30-minute program. The same thing will happen for primetime entertainment. The futurist has foreseen it.

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