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Summary:

There’s never been more video content to watch, or more ways of to watch it. That, says Jeremy Toeman, of Dijit Media, a big problem. In making TV infinite, we’ve lost its most potent benefit: escapism.

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photo: Dave Clark Digital Photo/Shutterstock.com
As the primary way of watching TV shifts from a traditional broadcast, linear, scheduled, single-device mode to one that is all on-demand, on all devices, available at any time, anywhere, the consumer’s TV watching world is suddenly filled with a curse of choices. If everything we watch requires us to navigate menus, pick from lists, and choose, choose, choose — TV watching is in danger of losing its primary function: escapism.

We watch a lot of TV on accident

The average American watches upwards of four hours of TV per day. So while people love to moan about their cable bill, or that there aren’t enough shows on that interest them, clearly it’s hard to complain about TV watching as an overall experience. After all, you turn on the set and about a second later there’s a show playing. No menus to navigate, no buffering, no selection – no work. Many claim that TV is about entertainment, and while that’s certainly a sizable component of it, the best word to describe the value of the TV experience for most people is “escape.”

Once you think about TV as an escape, a lot of things start to make sense. Reality TV shows glorifying what one could consider “moving trainwrecks” get some of the highest ratings, and while they provide entertainment, they also provide much-needed escape – a portal into viewing how someone else’s life can be so much laughably worse than one’s own.

Another point in favor of escape is actual watching behaviors. For instance, research has shown that about 96 percent of TV watching is not deliberate. In other words, most people tend to pick the “next” show during the show they are currently watching, which is well supported by the fact that on average a TV watcher checks his/her program guide about four times per hour.

The era of the infinite channel lineup

But all of this is changing. While many are waiting for “the moment” when TV as we know it will be disrupted, the case can be made that this already happened in March of 2010, when Apple launched the original iPad. Combine the freedom of the iPad with the services offered by the 55 streaming “TV everywhere” apps (and growing) and we are already living in a world where, for a few bucks a month, a person can watch nearly any TV show or movie, on any device they want, in any location of their choosing.

This is the “infinite channel lineup” era, where a virtually endless array of content is available – so long as a user has the patience, interest and means to find it.

But now combine this lean-back TV-watching mentality – designed to let people escape whatever’s going on in their lives – with the dawning requirement that TV watching be about selecting content from seemingly endless arrays of menus and catalogs. Suddenly it looks like there could be a problem brewing.

The end of passive viewing

The first issue is related to the “paradox of choice” conundrum, wherein having near-limitless choice in our viewing options is likely to lead to confusion, frustration, and an ever-increasing sensation of choosing  the wrong show or movie.  While it’s easy to browse a Netflix or HBO GO user interface, and it’s hypothetically easy to choose something, in reality the endless scrolling only decreases the probability of having a satisfying viewing experience.

As the likelihood of a la carte services is only increasing, this is likely to worsen as consumers feel burn-out from wasting money on shows they don’t enjoy.

Secondly, content fragmentation is already leading to a virtual coffee table of TV viewing apps, where each channel or network offers its own, exclusive method of watching shows. Aggregation services such as Hulu were created specifically to decrease the chaos and improve discovery experiences. But with a consumer market showing decreasing loyalty to networks and increasing loyalty to shows, consumers will be faced instead with the obstacle of sorting through catalogs of apps to find which shows they want to watch.

A third factor is the increasing trend of binge or marathon viewing, where a consumer watches a series of a show from start to end (or in order to catch up to the current live season of a show).  Now, to be clear, this is a great new way to experience many shows for consumers, but it, too, is fraught with challenges. The most important underlying issue though may be that the entire concept of the “hot” new show is itself imperiled–after all, why bother waiting a week between episodes when you can watch the whole season on your own schedule, and commercial free, in the very near future?

The curse of plenty

It’s that effect that will inevitably lead to lower ratings for even quality shows, which will ultimately decrease the likelihood of them ever getting hot in the first place. It snowballs from there. High-quality shows could also experience a decrease in their budgets, resulting in an increase in low-cost productions such as reality programming, game shows, etc. This particular nuance could well be the key factor in any disruption of the traditional TV industry – only the consequences do not portend well for TV fans.

It’s hard to imagine that the illustrious freedom of watching any show anytime, anywhere could lead the industry on a path toward worse content that’s also harder to find and enjoy. But it seems fairly inevitable based on current TV trends.

Regardless of the shows people watch, from soap operas to reality TV, the more “work” is required to watch TV, the less it will contribute to the (highly necessary) escape moments that everybody needs on a recurring basis. So what will replace it? Perhaps by 2020 the “hot new thing” will be to pick up a book and read, as it certainly seems easier to escape into a novel than into a frothy sea of apps, menus, channels, networks, streams and shows.

Jeremy Toeman is the CEO of Dijit Media, the startup behind the social TV Guide apps NextGuide and the Dijit Remote. Follow him on Twitter @jtoeman or read his blog at www.livedigitally.com

Photo courtesy of Dave Clark Digital Photo/Shutterstock.com

  1. You need to look at pirates,see how they behave, they get to watch what they want ,when they want and it’s nothing new.
    One thing that this enables and that you ignore is that on average people watch more shows ,more movies and they become savvier consumers.
    Ease of navigation,content discovery are not real problems,it’s just an industry that’s decades behind failing again and again to adapt.Things will get better.Content discovery is already easy enough, sites like IMDB, TV Rage, TV. com and even Wikipedia enable consumers to decide if something is worth checking out or not.
    Getting rid of,what you call escapism”might be a very good thing, will lower ratings for shows people watch out of boredom and up ratings for what they deem good – ofc what people deem good ,might not actually be good, after all average shows get the best ratings nowadays.being able to catch up on any show at any time and marathon viewing should be a good thing for better shows since it helps shows with a more complex plot and might shift a lot of viewers from L&O and CSI garbage.
    Anyway, if you want to see how things will be just look at pirates,just make sure to factor in age and education levels,they’ve been living in the future for many years now.

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  2. TV sucks, escape outside

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  3. Ian Mackinnon Sunday, January 20, 2013

    I believe both the on demand and the leanback ‘escape’ are needed and will coexist in the near future. That been said, there certainly is a good market niche within TVE for indie streaming content curators (let grandma create and share her own content programming / let us subscribe to daily content playlists).

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  4. Nitya Narasimhan Sunday, January 20, 2013

    “It’s hard to imagine that the illustrious freedom of watching any show anytime, anywhere could lead the industry on a path toward worse content that’s also harder to find and enjoy. But it seems fairly inevitable based on current TV trends.”

    I absolutely agree! I think that the loss will be on both sides – content providers are going to find it harder to monetize content (advertising, syndication, licensing) because they won’t be able to get as accurate engagement metrics, and viewers are going to miss out on the traditional “communal watching” experience of broadcast shows.

    I think we are in for interesting experiments with both business models and content distribution. For instance, if every content provider (CBS, HBO, NBC/Universal..) allowed live-streaming/archive access for direct pay-as-you-go via their own websites, would viewers bite? Would this allow content providers more accurate engagement analytics?
    We’re in for the most exciting times yet.

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  5. I’ve been a time shifter since the Tivo Series 2. Once I began to actively avoid live TV that was pretty much the end of my passive viewing and channel surfing. If I don’t see anything I want to watch, the TV gets turned off and I find something else to do.

    As for place shifting, I’m all for it. There’s no logical reason why a numbers based business like television should attempt to restrict viewers, and yet, we see it all the time. You Tube blocking mobile viewers (who actually might be watching on an HDMI TV in a hotel). Comcast’s streaming TV app doesn’t work if you have an external monitor connected to your phone or tablet. Really? You only want me to watch your show a certain way and at a certain time? Well, then maybe I don’t need to watch it at all, thanks. It’s not all that good anyway.

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  6. Funny that you used a novel as an alternative to the confusion of modern TV watching, Jeremy.
    TV is now more like reading text of any kind. Do I read a library book, a book I own, the newspaper, a magazine, or something from the infinity of the Internet? As a bookworm I have been used to making my own reading for entertainment choices since I learned to read. Maybe this is why I took to the new media choices like a fish to water. Watch what I want, when I want? Yes, please!

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  7. William Pitcher Sunday, January 20, 2013

    I am a cordcutter, and I have certainly felt the paradox of choice. However, I am happy to have escaped escapist television. What I watch now is much more uplifting to my life. When you eat junk food all the time, pretty soon your body doesn’t feel that great. I believe the same is true for television. Eating well and watching great television might be more work than consuming junk, but it’s definitely worth it.

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    1. Ditto.

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    2. I agree. I call it my “media diet”. Just like eating too much junk food, we can also fall into the trap of consuming too much junk TV.

      We have to give careful thought and planning to what we put into our mouths if we want to be healthy. Why not do the same with what goes into our mind?

      This is the same dilemma we faced when food production was industrialized. A lot of cheap, quick, unhealthy choices are now available to us.

      My diet consisted of cutting cable. Limiting my TV to 4 or 5 carefully selected programs that I get either from Hulu, Netflix, or rent on DVD. I do not watch any program “live” because I can no longer stand all of the the ads. I no longer watch any TV news since it has all devolved into a giant wasteland of either partisan politics, or corporate shills, or just plain old fear mongering.

      I’ve also added more variety to my media diet, such as audio version of classic books that I’ve always intended to read. No more junk radio of crap music, ads, and stupid morning DJ’s on my commute.

      I’d like to add that there is nothing wrong with reality TV, and other junk programming. It serves a need. Just like like anything else, it needs to be consumed in moderation and as part of a larger, healthy media diet plan.

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    3. “However, I am happy to have escaped escapist television.” Very well said.

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  8. TV Everywhere doesn’t kill escapism, it just kills the old, unwieldy, impersonal mechanism of escaping: turn on TV, see what’s on, if not interesting then change channel, repeat. In the future we’ll have “curated escapism”: instead of TV networks picking shows, social networks will pick shows. Or your own custom network will pick shows based on what you watch.

    To Jeremy’s point you still have to pick a starting point from thousands of potential starting points, but that’s not a big deal.

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  9. GigaOm readers like us get geeked over anything to do with more tech. But for most people, the world is a pretty damned exhausting place. A lot of people who fall asleep in front of the TV don’t do it because they’re bored. They do it because they are bone-tired.

    The closer we get to screwing with the stuff at the core of what makes TV work — lean-back, relax, and let yourself be entertained — the more carefully we should tread.

    It’s easy to criticize TV for being mindless entertainment. But sometimes that’s exactly what people crave most: escape. Success will come to the companies and people who make it *easier* to be entertained, not harder.

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  10. First you have to understand the definition of TV = “The best alternative to boredom”.

    You are right that people wont work to watch tv, but tv everywhere isnt going to force people to do anything. Nor will all the alternatives. IN fact, just the opposite.

    TV is becoming a social activity that takes little effort or thought. Vegetate in front of the tube with your mobile device on your lap while you tweet/txt/email/post wherever. Now you are part of the conversation without disturbing the blanket keeping your feet warm.

    To be part of the conversation you have to be watching what your friends/followers/you follows are watching at the same time.

    Which is exactly why you see an explosion in Live TV and bigger dollar dramas. More to talk about online.

    By the time you watch it online/on netflix/hulu/amazon/etc, you have already missed it.

    I have yet to see a tweet saying anything to the effect of “Who else is watching …. on netflix right now”. its a solitary activity that serves a great purpose, but its not TV

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