Preparing for a New Television Ecosystem

Kyle Outlaw   July 9, 2012

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the living room. (photo by kqedquest)

With the rise of so many TV alternatives – from disruptive personal technology to a myriad of online viewing services – it looked for a while like one of America’s longstanding living room fixtures was going the way of the dinosaur, or at least the way of the Walkman. In fact, the evolution of TV is coming full circle. Despite proclamations that TV is dead, it remains the primary screen in our homes. Think of ‘second screen’ experiences such as GetGlue, Miso, and IntoNow as contributing to a more personalized, intimate, and portable TV experience, while the TV set remains the most communal of devices.

For a long time, our choice of what to watch on television was limited by our cable or satellite providers (or the physical media we bought or rented). The availability of hundreds of channels pales in comparison to the seemingly limitless entertainment possibilities available to us online.

But that’s all changing as new technologies enable our TVs to tap into that World Wide Content Well. For example, on Xbox Live the use of entertainment apps like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go is now growing at a faster rate than multiplayer gaming. Ars Technica recently reported that total hours on Xbox Live is increasing by about 30% annually, and according to Microsoft time spent on Xbox Live by its Gold members is up to 84 hours per month, mostly due to the use of entertainment apps.

That isn’t to say that gaming is in decline. In fact, it is continuing to grow at a steady clip. Yet it’s another strong indicator that the Xbox and other gaming platforms are gradually transforming into all-purpose home entertainment devices in their own right, and, in turn, transforming the way we watch TV.

Very soon we’ll see more broadcast and entertainment companies packaging their content for what used to be considered primarily gaming platforms. For example:

  • These apps will include easy access to full libraries of episodes, behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, bios and other supplemental content.
  • There will be advanced social integration, allowing users to comment, check in, remix and share content.
  • There will be personalization features allowing for notifications of live events and customized recommendations.
  • Advances in device interface such as the Wii, Kinect and voice-search commands will offer new opportunities for engagement.

It won’t just be on the gaming consoles. Similar apps are already making their way to various connected TV platforms including set top boxes like Roku and Boxee, or internet-connected sets from Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony as well.

“Someone once told me that interactive TV has been a year away for 30 years,” Jeremy Lockhorn, Razorfish’s VP of Emerging Media told me recently. “Truer words were never spoken – we’ve been talking about this stuff for decades. But at long last, TV is going digital. Web-like interactivity, choice and control are coming to the household’s biggest screen, and it’ll only be enhanced by complementary devices like smartphones and tablets. It’s causing some growing pains for the industry right now, but the opportunity for marketers and content producers in the long run is tremendous.”

TV is very much alive, but it’s entering a period of massive disruption. If there is one single obstacle for connected TV services such as Google TV, Smart TV. etc in reaching mass adoption it’s that they actually add to the complexity of the current TV experience, particularly when connected to an assortment of other devices. To take the next leap towards ubiquitous adoption, this revolution will need to get back to the basics. A radical simplification of the experience will be required, not unlike what happened to the mobile industry with the introduction of the iPhone 5 years ago.

In fact Apple is the proverbial elephant in the living room: before his death Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he’d “cracked it,” referring to the many usability problems associated with our current television sets. Investigations from credible sources such as the Washington Post would further support claims that Apple is indeed working on an “integrated TV set” of some kind. It’s tantalizing to think about what Apple could to do the TV industry with the introduction of a new device that allows users to find and watch what they want when they want it, dispensing with multiple remote controls and replacing them with gestural and voice interfaces. In short, something your grandparents could operate.

Innovation according to Steve Jobs meant “saying no to 1000 things”, and along those lines it’s fair to say that TV is ripe for a reset both on the device and the content side. The release date of such a holy grail device is still uncertain, but in the meantime content strategists and other digital media professionals need to prepare for what the Washington Post describes as the “next technology battleground: your living room”.

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