Sunday, 16 March 2008

Off the beaten track

This is a little off my normal foray but it interested me and I thought it might interest a few of my readers ?

From The Sunday Times

March 16, 2008

Do not adjust your set: TV is about to blow apart

Andrew Sullivan

Is television over? I don't mean the technology of course. Television, in many ways, has never been better. High definition – although pretty brutal on Republican frontrunner John McCain – has applied Windolene to the televised world and made nature documentaries as riveting as the latest block-buster. CGI effects have made even Doctor Who as cool as Hollywood.

By television being over, I mean the classic television experience: the ritual of coming home after work, flopping on the couch and simply allowing "what's on" to flood over you. We still do it of course. As an avenue for the moving image, however, the passive, network-driven model has clearly changed beyond recognition and will soon change still further. The classic television programme, like the classic newspaper, is morphing into something very different.

The internet, in the television industry as in many others, is both the infection and the cure. It will do to television what it has done to journalism: make everyone a producer and everyone a potential star.

You can trace the long arc of this now accelerating transformation from the onset of cable and satellite in the 1980s and 1990s. The mid-20th-century ability of a network such as the BBC or the great American broadcasting companies – such as CBS or NBC – to determine or greatly affect what people saw and felt and thought at any given time was slowly, and mercifully, eroded. That trend was clearly ramped up in the new millennium by Tivo – digital video recorders not unlike the Sky+ system – so that even the far more diverse programming of a hundred different channels came to be sliced and diced by myriad consumer preferences and appetites.

I don't know about you, but I rarely leave my evening viewing to chance or to programmers any more. It's planned and recorded in advance. And even if I watch live I delay starting for 10 minutes so I can zip past the advertisements.

The web, in turn, has ratcheted TV consumer power up a couple of notches. In this election season in the United States the shift is unmistakable. Ratings for most cable news shows have soared, but the platforms for dissemination of content have proliferated just as quickly. Some still watch the debates in real time – but it is very easy to watch them the day after online with all the tedious boilerplate removed.

YouTube has the clips; and the instant parodies; and the day-later parodies of the parodies. Blogs now edit their own versions of the high-lights, with blogger video commentary introducing or even interrupting them. And so a television moment on a late night comedy show will be designed for multiple audiences: the live one, the Tivoed one and the next day's online one. The soundbite has become the videobite. And many TV advertisements are given nominal network exposure before having a longer viral life online.

The only limit to the merging of the web and television in this way seems to be the online attention span. Online viewers, sitting at their laptops or gazing at their iPhones, only really want to watch online TV for three minutes at most. And that's why the old format still has a future.

You don't want to watch a programme, let alone a full-length film or lengthy documentary, or even a half-hour news broadcast, on a computer screen. What endures online is the quick hit, the short impression, the visual punchline that requires a minimal set-up. For drama or in-depth journalism or even an interview that can actually get beneath the surface of a subject or beyond the spin of a public figure: television still has the edge.

But that too may be changing. No one doubts that the technology of streaming online video to a wide-screen television is on its way, however unsatisfying some of its current manifestations. And that, in turn, means self-produced, web-originated video is on the verge of bigger and better ambitions.

Just as blogging swept away the barriers of entry to journalism, so citizen television will surely begin to reach an audience that appreciates it. Right now it's merely a blip. Novelty acts or musical parodies or cartoon fun dominate web television. But the principle of mass access to TV audiences through online media has been established.

Already you find print journalists or bloggers switching on a video cam and broadcasting their content live – their own personal television channel. Most online magazines are beginning to generate their own amateurish but classic television chat shows; traditional newsrooms feature online video interviews with their reporters and columnists and send them out to the blogosphere. The share that video is taking of web bandwidth keeps growing exponentially – and may even create traffic jams within a few years' time.

As so often, this democratisation of production means higher highs and much lower lows. Nutcases and geniuses – thousands who would never in a million years have made it past the professional barriers for old-style TV networks – now broadcast their idiosyncratic monologues to the masses. Hyde Park Corner is no longer a function of mere words-on-pixels. You can now see and hear an opiner opine or watch a conversation unfold. Find yourself someone to interview, set up your video cam and you can have your own show. Just put it on your blog and try to find an audience. Anyone with a modem has their own potential TV channel. It's just that most people haven't realised it yet.

And this is where the new medium, with a bit of luck, may reach back and regenerate the old. When you think of the glory days of television chat shows, Americans recall the leisurely erudition of William F Buckley's Firing Line, where intellectuals and thinkers were able to think out loud for an hour on the subjects of the day, without commercials and with an audience that revelled in more than a five-minute attention span.

That used to be the sober, intellectual, black-and-white BBC as well. It is all but impossible to find such a thing on network or cable television today. But the possibility of an online version is very real and economically feasible.

The great beauty of the online world, after all, is its lack of constraint. No interview need stop in full flow to accommodate an advertisement; the cost is so low that the format can accommodate the content rather than the other way round; and if viewers have sought you out, there is less need for the low attention span gimmick to keep the ratings up.

Equally, a simple 20-second sight gag or joke or comment online can be profoundly effective – a time slot that can't exist alone on television. The web deconstructs and reconstructs media in ways that the institutions of the past couldn't muster.

So if you're still reeling from the impact of blogs on journalism, sit tight. Blogging with words was simply the beginning; blogging with video has only just begun.

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