September/October 2012
Volume 32 No. 5

October 2012
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Looking For The Next Big Thing

The U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activities, a sister agency of the Pentagon’s DARPA (creator of the Internet), is running a four-year $50 million program that pays people to predict major world events.

Steve Ronson, Kate Winn

A&E's Sean Cohan

Similarly, unhappy with simply focusing on the present state of the international entertainment sector, VideoAge went on a quest for new challenges — despite being well aware of the industry’s aversion to surprise and change.

Not believing in the wisdom of crowd-sourcing, VideoAge canvassed a number of leading industry executives, asking them to consider what might be “The Next Big Thing” in television. It’s no surprise they all thought of the Internet — but the conclusions they drew as to the consequences of said changes were much more unpredictable.

Sean Cohan, executive vice president of International at A+E Networks, said, “Almost everyone will see ‘The Next Big Thing’ as emerging in some form from the developments that we see in digital, but the exact nature of these changes will differ according to the sector in which you work. For us in the cable and pay sector, it will undoubtedly be ‘TV Everywhere.’ Although this has been talked about for a long time, pay platforms are now making real progress toward making their services available everywhere. In fact, with the great screens on tablets and ever-increasing broadband speeds, the only real obstacle is the resolution of the discussion regarding rights, and here too, meaningful progress is being made.”

For Claire Tavernier, senior executive vice president of FMX and Worldwide Drama, Creative Networks at FremantleMedia, “‘The Next Big Thing’ in the global television business will be the decoupling of the television set and television content.” She noted that, “In the past, the word ‘television’ has been used to mean both the set and the content that played on it; in the future that symbiosis will break down as the set becomes much more multifunctional, and content becomes much more multiplatform, migrating to many other screens and platforms.”

Content isn’t the only thing that is changing — audiences are too. Michael Shepard, president of Canada’s Thunderbird Films, pointed to a Kaiser Family Foundation study that “shows eight-to-18-year-olds watch significantly less television than older generations, only 26 percent of this group watch 20-plus hours of television a week compared to 49 percent of the rest of the population.”

Echoing Cohan’s comments on the importance of both tablets and ever-increasing broadband speeds, Shepard said, “in developing countries, mobile broadband is often the only form of available online access.” He pointed to a prediction in Ericsson’s Traffic and Market Report — On the Pulse of the Networked Society, which predicts that by 2017, 85 percent of the world will be covered by high-speed mobile networks.
Cohan and Tavernier may be in basic agreement as to the most important change on the horizon, but they imagine very different consequences flowing from it.

Cohan has no doubt that, “Pipe owners, including those who will own the new pipes, will always want great content.” But for him this raises a key issue: “The question is how will that great content be delivered? Creatively it will be a very different world. For instance, in this new world what will be the meaning of the word ‘season?’ The answer to that will have very great significance for arcs.”

Although Cohan acknowledged, “In the recent past there has been a lot of talk about how producers would have to produce radically different forms of content for the different screens, this has now largely receded and there are two key reasons for this. One is that the changes took a lot longer to come about than had been anticipated, and the other reason is that, by the time they had, the pad had arrived. But, make no mistake, we are just starting to scratch the surface of something that we have been anticipating for a very long time — and there will be changes.”

For Tavernier, the future “offers a lot of opportunities as well as some challenges. TV’s traditional business model is shifting very rapidly, and there is potential for it to break down. With this shifting business model, FremantleMedia has the opportunity to build a much more direct relationship with the consumer, which could lead to alternative sources of revenue,” she said optimistically. “We see digital extensions as having three primary objectives; monetize the audience, retain the audience, attract new audiences. Any activity we engage in needs to have a measurable impact on at least one of these dimensions, although many work on more than one level. Digital platform also allow us to initially try new ideas and content on a much smaller scale, and then to grow them as they prove to be successful, as we have done with our YouTube cookery channel ‘Sorted’.”

Barney Shingleton, head of Entertainment at Zodiak Rights, believes the recent move by YouTube into original commissioning foreshadows some serious changes, calling it “a major development from YouTube’s perspective.” But he insisted, “it also has possible significant consequences for our industry. Working with YouTube is very different from working with a broadcaster — much more hands-off.”

Shingleton echoed some of the comments Tavernier made, pointing out, “Although it is not as much money as working with a broadcaster, it is still a decent chunk of change and, more importantly, it gives the producer a much more direct relationship with the advertiser, which could have longer term implications.”

But, unlike Cohan, Shingleton believes, “The content itself will inevitably be very different. There is a world of difference between making five-minute pieces for YouTube and a long running 24-minute daytime series for ITV.” For Shingleton, this “raises other questions such as, what sort of originally produced content will work on YouTube? And whether it works or not, will it have a value elsewhere?”

Illustrating the importance of the questions he asked, Shingleton pointed to Life in a Day, which started when YouTube asked people to film themselves for a day and then upload the results, which were then professionally edited into a one-hour film. The BBC subsequently took the idea on and created Britain in a Day, now distributed by Zodiak.

Some analysts, on the other hand, believe “The Next Big Thing” will be the changes that the Internet will bring to the traditional advertising formats, which is one of the key business models for television. Already some online TV outlets let viewers select which commercials they watch. Not only that, but users have the option to change a commercial while watching it. Plus, online television has allowed advertisers to choose demographics and even the number of viewers they want to reach in a particular promotional cycle.

Even our editor, Dom Serafini, wanted to contribute his two cents to the discussion, deeming himself an amateur futurist. In his view, “The Next Big Thing” will be consuming television without the actual TV set. The sound and images will be directed to the brain, which will transform into what we hear and see.

From the academic perspective, according to Charles Falzon, chairman of RTA School of Media, Ryerson University, Toronto and co-chairman of CCI Entertainment, “Our industry has always been driven by ‘The Next Big Thing.’ I would say, however, that the media business is actually a continuum, albeit a layered continuum, the core of which never changes.”

He continued, “For example, certain aspects of ‘traditional TV’ are stronger than ever. The onslaught of interactive, experiential and consumer-generated fare has given rise to a renewed demand for quality content that is meant to be watched and received rather than co-created and that is curated by reliable broadcast and distribution brands. I see a growing demand for passive, high-end entertainment, and with it a growing realization in the business that the sizzle of new technology is there to supplement traditional storytelling skills — not replace them.

“Of course, at the same time, new technologies are being used to create new approaches to that entertainment. One area of growth is content that bridges passive and active experiences, where the interactivity is elective and seen as an extension rather thana requirement,” Falzon concluded.

Canadian Derrick de Kerckhove, a professor of the Sociology of Digital Culture at the University of Naples, Italy and the University of Toronto, warned, “We still have to absorb and mature content for 3D, HD, Interactive, laptop, mobile, Cloud,

Twitter, all media that repurpose content and create new possibilities. Twitter, for instance, is re-educating TV by specifying the public’s preferences more than focus groups can. Cloud Computing is, once again, changing and refining the distribution system.

For TV it’s going to be business as usual until ‘lifelogs’ mature. A lifelog is an audiovisual record of every instant of your life, seen from the point-of-view of micro-cameras set in contact lenses, and heard from cranial conduction, not air, so that you hear your own voice as you do usually instead of a recorded sound. Playback throws you back in exactly the same positions that you occupied at any point in time. When? Three to five years ahead. Several companies are refining the technology and there is even work going on recording in tactile mode. Why? Because that is precisely the novelty in content-creation: It’s one thing to have and enjoy reality shows, it’s quite another to actualize and share the best moments of one’s life with the public as one shares photographs with Facebook friends. The highest forms of cinema will be the skillful montage of key moments and events in intricate and intertwined destinies. Not to mention what that would do for live reporting,” he concluded. De Kerckhove has been both a student of and an assistant to Marshall McLuhan.

Whatever the take on the future, it seems clear that an extraordinary period of change in our industry has far from run its course.

Reported by Bob Jenkins in London with staff contributions from New York and Milan.