In the wake of yet another hullabaloo—this time over the Oscars—concerning how television events translate to the Web, I thought I’d hammer out a few notes. It’s not the newest of observations, but still worth putting down: the business model tension between traditional television viewing on the one hand and online or DVR viewing on the other is often caricatured as a battle between new media contenders like Hulu and Netflix on the one hand, who favor on-demand and a la carte viewing, and traditional television distributors on the other, with a desire to force everyone to watch everything on a set timetable just as they have for over half a century. And indeed, there is a complicated dance going on between Netflix and the television companies, and even between Hulu and the television companies who own it—to say nothing of what’s been happening with video platforms like Boxee or Google TV.
But the larger picture is even more complex. For one, Silicon Valley-Silicon Alley companies are not uniformly allied on the side of on-demand. The most obvious digital-native beneficiary of the live impulse is Twitter, along with the constellation of check-in services that help lump together viewers watching the same program on live TV. Recently Twitter CEO Dick Costolo went so far as to tout Twitter’s privileging of the live television model in a keynote at the Mobile World Congress:
Mr Costolo did also hint at possible tie-ups with TV advertisers, playing up Twitter’s value during TV shows such as live sports, saying that the service was turning people against DVRs and on-demand services because they preferred to watch in “real time” so that they could tweet. Twitter was allowing interactive TV to become a reality. “Twitter is the second screen,” he said. The assertion will be welcomed by TV advertisers which have seen revenues fall as a result of people using DVRs and other methods to watch content.
This may be especially true for sports, but online “watch parties” on Twitter and elsewhere are happening around many shows, not just live events. The point here is obvious by now. Online companies are not monolithically in favor of on demand programming. Hulu and Netflix, themselves dependent on (and in Hulu’s case intertwined with) traditional content providers, fall amid a larger and more complex landscape of companies with widely varying relationships to the TV industry and its traditional programming model.
For their own part, the people who make television are fully aware that it’s futile to fight the incursion of the Web and digital distribution into their traditional medium. Rather, they are trying very hard to summon a future in which digital media co-exist generatively (for their purposes) with television, rather than supplanting it. The catch phrase being bandied about, “two-screen experience,” captures much of this impulse. In my dissertation, I introduce a somewhat broader term, “companion media” to refer to the many attempts by the television industry to create digital products that complement or add to the existing model of watching television, rather than cannibalize it.
[Image Credit: Oscar Statuette]