As viewing habits change, Facebook, Twitter eye up a big slice of TV’s future

by Vanessa Thorpe

The Observer

Talk to your neighbors about their television viewing habits and you will probably find that, although the range of programmes watched is pretty narrow, the methods for receiving them vary wildly from house to house. Some people get their favorite shows via gaming consoles, some by downloading them on a PC; some by playing them through a device such as Apple TV; some are satellite customers; while others doggedly stick to so-called “linear” viewing on the standard terrestrial channels, albeit received through a digital system.

We are in a great era of choice. Or so we are told. But what if the ideal TV viewing of the future offers less choice, not more? What if we have reached a tipping point and the winners in the race to entertain the nation will be those providers that can bring valuable content into people’s homes in the simplest way? This month the TV industry has gathered in Cannes on the French Riviera for the annual Mipcom conference, trying to work out where the industry should be heading. At one session the challenge was summed up by Gary Carter, of the production company Shine, who pointed out that even the use of the word “television” has become confusing. Just as the term “broadcasting” no longer covers what it once did, so “television” has become ambiguous.

Carter said: “When we talk about television now in the industry, it is not clear if we are talking about the programs themselves or the object in the living room. We are starting to talk more often about the content as ‘television.’ ” He also argued that production companies should now regard themselves as making shows that float free of all the traditional channels.

Yet one of the most radical thoughts to be whispered at Cannes was that perhaps the concept of the TV channel might not be so outdated. As methods of delivery proliferate, viewers seem more likely, not less, to seek out reliable strands of entertainment and news.

With Facebook making new partnerships with TV providers and YouTube already developing its own distinct channels, it is clear that the major online “destinations” feel the need to create some user-friendly sources of genre programming.

These are among the many issues that the TV industry is grappling with in a new, social-media world.

Facebook is also looking to emulate Twitter and use hashtags and trending topics so that communities can be built around popular TV programs. This works for the TV companies if it helps viewers find and then engage with the program; and works for Facebook because there are huge communities to build around TV programs.

But it is Twitter that has identified a major opportunity in working with the TV industry — to help both the industry and itself. The latest Forbes magazine neatly encapsulates this with its cover story, “How Twitter will save TV. And how TV will save Twitter.” With the major U.S. networks losing viewers and with the soon-to-float Twitter lacking a business model, might these two be able to work together? As Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, tells Forbes: “As we’ve grown, it’s become more and more clear to us that the characteristics that make up Twitter — public, real-time and conversational — make it a perfect complement to TV.

“TV has always been social and conversation-driven. It’s just that in the past the reach of that conversation was limited by the number of people in a room. Broadcasters have come to understand that Twitter is a force-multiplier for the media they’ve created.”

One way they can work together is when a network tweets a film clip through a piece of software devised by Twitter — a highlight from a game, for example — which is preceded by a short ad. Twitter and the TV network share the cash. This is just one of many collaborations Twitter is pioneering.

Twitter wants to be the place that helps the networks build stars and audiences; in turn the networks can drive huge numbers to Twitter.

But there are many other innovations ready to transform our TV experience. For Mattias Hjelmstedt, the Stockholm-based founder of a new service called Magine, the trick is to think about viewing behavior when predicting trends.

“When you sit down on the sofa with your family, you don’t want to scroll through all those choices,” he said after attending Mipcom. “You just want to flick through a limited choice. It is a laid-back kind of behavior, not an active search.” He argues that the new freedom in TV should really mean the freedom not to have to make an arduous selection each night.

His service, available in Sweden and starting up in Spain and Germany, is described as “cloud-based TV,” but Hjelmstedt prefers just to ask people to imagine TV without any of the irritating bits, like missing the beginning of a good new show, or forgetting to record something. Magine allows the viewer’s choice of shows to be screened on any of their devices and screens.

“We don’t like to talk about the technology. Viewers don’t care. The key thing is that we make it simple. After 15 years of streaming shows online and video on demand, we asked ourselves how we could solve television. Then we thought, if we make it easy, everything else will follow.”

Letting viewers see what they want, whenever they want, relies, of course, on program-makers handing over their rights more generously. More than one independent producer raised an eyebrow in the BBC’s Broadcasting House last Tuesday when the director general of the corporation, Tony Hall, announced that content would soon be available on iPlayer for 30 days rather than a week.

Hall also promised British viewers the chance to see some programs online before they were conventionally broadcast. He aimed, he said, to embrace change by “reinventing what we do, bit by bit, step by step, to serve this new audience.”

The fact that drama may increasingly be delivered to viewers either in very big dollops or in small, YouTube-size bites is also thought likely to be influencing program-makers. Carter has noticed that talent shows such as “The X-Factor,” destined to end up as YouTube clips, are edited with fast cuts, and thinks that a leisurely drama like “The Bridge,” made in episode-length story arcs, would be still slower if it was designed to be shown consecutively. “I think it would be more like a novel form — one longer arc,” said Carter.

One issue on which most industry figures agree is live programming. It remains a crucial service that brings large audiences together for public events such as football matches, talent shows or state occasions.

And both commercial and state TV companies also share a tension between the drive to provide new, personalized TV services, customized to suit viewers’ own tastes, and the enduring importance of prime-time, collective viewing. Hjelmstedt suspects that audiences of the future will still sometimes want the TV to tell them what is happening now, rather than just showing them what they missed yesterday.

He sees TV going through the same reconfiguration that the music industry has undergone as its established means of distribution is shattered beyond recognition, “to find a new kind of harmony.”