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November 16, 2010

Interactive Media Panel Forecasts TV's Future

Television isn’t going anywhere, but it has and keeps changing, panelists and guests say at "What Is the Future of TV?” The exclusive peer group event brought some key members of the entertainment, technology and education communities to the Television Academy.

By Libby Slate

Television isn’t going anywhere, but it is going to change.

That was the consensus of the panel of experts who gathered for a stimulating discussion on the topic, “What is the Future of TV?” Held October 28 at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood, the program was a presentation of the Television Academy’s Interactive Media Peer Group Executive Committee.

Panelists included Brian David Johnson, futurist and director, future casting and experience research, Intel Corporation; Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel fellow, Intel Labs and director, interaction & experience research, Intel Corporation; Henry Jenkins, professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and USC Annenberg School for Communication; Gary Wheelhouse, manager for social media for Harvey Norman, an Australian electronics retail chain equivalent to Best Buy and Amy Reinhard, senior vice president, strategic planning and business development, Paramount Pictures.

Academy member Marcelino Ford-Livene, Intel’s general manager, advanced advertising development, digital home group, was the moderator.

Johnson recently published a book, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment, Computing, and the Devices We Love (which attendees received); he wrote it, he said, because, “I thought it was an interesting time, with what was happening in television entertainment – starting to have TV and computers come together, TV and handhelds, etcetera."

"There were changes in the business model, in storytelling, how people were interacting," he explained. "I’d had a conversation with a broadcaster and a middleware company [a type of computer software used in information technology] and talked about a program, and the broadcaster thought I was talking about the show and the middleware company thought I was talking about software. They didn’t have a clue they were not speaking the same language.”

Johnson believes that we are at the beginning of a change. “Being a futurist, I will tell you, we’ll have more computer powers, more intelligence and connectivity,” he predicted. “The idea is, How do we take TV and not mess it up? How do we make it better?”

Intel colleague Bell, a cultural anthropologist, has traveled to forty countries to observe how people watch television. “People love television – it’s one [on/off] button to a story, and a power that will transport them elsewhere,” she said.

People still gather around the living room set, she added. “Television still has the power to change relationships. You plan your furniture around it, plan your schedules and time around it. There are very few cultural truths; [one is,] if there’s a TV on, there will be people watching, and people arguing about what they’re seeing.”

Jenkins pointed out that there’s a time element involved in watching, where viewers want to see shows close to the date they aired in their country of origin; often, this can be accomplished only by piracy.

“It’s not a moral failure, but a [desire of] fans. Television is increasingly not just television, but transmedia, across other platforms. But as that content moves globally, it’s not keeping up," he said. "Susan Boyle had almost 200 million downloads of her video, but the only way you could watch [her on] Britain’s Got Talent was through piracy. The business structures we have now are not nimble enough, because of legacy deals. All of that is lost business revenue.”

Studios are also engaged in long-term models when it comes to airing films on cable or broadcast television, Reinhard said. “The film industry is a little bit saddled by these windows, which were established going back to the ’80s.”

When it comes to marketing those films, studios now create apps – “It’s a way to be directly connected to the consumer” – as long as it’s a natural integration with the particular story. “If a game is put out just for marketing, people can see right through that,” Reinhard cautioned. “We don’t want to cheapen the brand.”

Various foreign countries have already been using television as an interactive device; in South Korea, Bell said, the government decided to make broadband available for download and also upload, where consumers then became content-creating storytellers, on a fast network connecting TVs, laptops and smart phones.

Turning to social media, the question was raised: How do you take several million Facebook users and connect them to content?

Indeed, said Wheelhouse, who had come from Australia for the panel, “the first thing I did tonight was go to Facebook. All of a sudden, you start thinking about what people do on Facebook, you start thinking about checking in to watch the Super Bowl, or the finale of Survivor – what are they doing? How do you connect with them? These aren’t people I normally interact with.”

People on Twitter tweet as TV characters, he added: “Sheldon and Leonard [of The Big Bang Theory] get more followers than CBS does.”

Fan communities date back to the 1850s, Jenkins noted, and for TV, Star Trek has generated four generations of fans in one family. “They attract other fans.” Many shows that fans are invested in via social media aren’t highly rated – “We need to figure out quality engagement, not quantity.”

Baby boomers are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook, Bell said, and looking ahead twenty years, she believes that boomers, who have always been at the forefront of technology use, will continue to be so; they’ll probably be using touch screens by then.

As for the more immediate future – 2011 – Wheelhouse predicts a combining of the Facebook and remote control apps already on his iPhone. Reinhard thinks that, “Film and television storylines will resonate more with consumers – it’s interesting how [this season,] shows were pulled right away, because they did not have connectivity. There has to be a way to be more efficient, to tap into viewers.”

Johnson says TV will be thought of more as entertainment than a device; Jenkins foresees more viewer-supported television, a la Joss Whedon’s online Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. And Bell says there will be more of what she has been encountering from viewers: “People say, ‘I have TiVo Guilt. It’s gotten me a lot of content I don’t have time to watch.’”

In an audience Q&A session, topics included 3-D TV – Wheelhouse doesn’t foresee it happening weekly yet; the already existing ability to search Google TV and Droid phone content using voice commands – “a meaningful example of how to interact with technology,” Johnson said; and privacy concerns with smart set-top boxes. “Read the terms of service carefully,” Ford-Livene advised. “The industry is trying really hard to get it right.”

Geoff Katz and Lori H. Schwartz are governors of the Interactive Media peer group.

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