Why TV everywhere will kill what’s best about TV

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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

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