The Importance of Social Consumption for the Future of Television

With the advent of each new medium came an inherent scare for the producers of the ‘old media’: Would this new medium kick them out of business? So far, all ‘old media’ were able to survive in the long run, if only after making some adaptions and after accepting a certain decline in their audience. Rather than being replaced by newer forms of communications, existing media were faced with increasing competition in the market place for information and entertainment.

The internet, however, is a game changer. While the web itself still doesn’t replace old media (except for magazines and newspapers maybe, we’re still observing that trend), it has fundamentally changed the way we go about consuming media. As people living today, we are all familiar with this ‘new’ kind of information consumption, of course:

1.Immediacy: We want to have any content at any time in any place, and we get it because it is technologically possible for the first time.

2. Choice: We choose, not the entertainment executives. We as consumers are no longer dependent on gatekeepers offering us entertainment they pick out; instead, we can find the exact movie, TV show, song, book, and website that we deem interesting for ourselves.

3. Multimedia: We are used to consuming content in many different ways, integrated across and within different media. We expect content to be mobile across platforms, and we follow its flow willingly – if the content holds our interest, that is.

4. Multitasking: It is common for us to have multiple screens in front of us at the same time. We may be watching TV or a movie, but we’re also texting our friends via our smartphones, and we surf the web with our laptops and ipads – all at the same time.

5. Social Consumption: Because we have the technology to connect us to one another 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, we use it. And we share – everything. We discuss, recommend, criticize, ridicule, and admire any information we consume, all as projections to our friends via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, etc. or old-school texting. The world we live in right now is truly abuzz with a constant stream of conversation.

One of the media particularly scared by the internet is television. For one, the internet completely shatters TV’s comfortable licensing and syndication arrangement based on mass audiences. Cable providers are scrambling to prevent cable-cutting (customers unsubscribing from cable to watch all the TV they need online), and all networks worry about their ad-revenues as TV audiences dwindle. However, so far, TV’s response to all these changes has been extremely conservative and marked by restriction. Most channels only make their shows available online 24 hours after they’ve been aired, many wait 8 days (a popular model on Hulu), and some refuse to make their episodes online at all.

The reasoning behind this is hard to understand. I’m guessing when I say that making a TV show available online significantly later than the original air date is a strategy by which cable providers and networks hope to maintain a real-time viewership through cable-subscriptions. Other than that, I am running out of reasons, as online videos can still feature advertisement blocks (and from my personal experience, these online blocks actually receive full attention because they are only 30 seconds long, not 5 minutes like on TV) and product placements will also be seen online. It also doesn’t cost tremendous amounts to make videos available online.

And so while I may not be able to offer an explanation for TV executive’s decision to make TV shows available online very late, I would like to highlight a great opportunity that TV is currently missing out on, and which could help it survive in the future: Social consumption.

As mentioned above, consuming entertainment and information has become inherently social. While we’re watching or reading something, we share our thoughts and reactions with other audience members, our friends, and our fan communities in real-time. One only has to keep an eye on the Twitter stream during fall season premieres to see how social or ‘collective’ entertainment consumption has become.

For TV, this could be the ideal opportunity. From a practical point of view, it is likely that consumers will soon forsake expensive cable bills for Netflix subscriptions and TV show streaming sites. What these websites cannot replace, however, is the real-time experience: Everybody across the country watching at once, and simultaneously discussing what they are seeing with the communities surrounding them. Whether it is TV show premieres, sports games, news, or award ceremonies, TV networks still have the distribution rights to these events, and viewers will continue to seek the networks out for them. By putting themselves at the center of these real-time social consumption practices, TV networks will be able to retain their consumers, and to rope in new ones.

Most marketing executives have recognized the importance of social consumption (‘social media buzz’ in marketing terms) surrounding an entertainment event, and as a result, social media strategies are at the heart of any contemporary TV show premiere. What all of these tactics fail to leverage, however, is the online distribution side of it all. Some viewers may not have a cable subscription (particularly given the recession). Some may not be home in time to watch a show, or just have missed it. There are also still households that only have one or two televisions shared by many people. So there are more than enough potential consumers that are dependent on a show’s online availability, in real-time. Why, then, would TV producers leave their content unavailable for willing consumers after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a great production and on a even better social media strategy? It makes no sense.

Social/collective consumption offers TV networks with an immense opportunity to remain relevant in the long-term. Rather than restricting access to TV content, cooperation with audiences to facilitate their TV consumption (online AND offline) will allow consumers to contribute their part to the ongoing conversation around real-time TV/entertainment events, which in turn keeps ‘the buzz’ going. As Henry Jenkins already explained in his last talk at Transmedia LA, discriminating against online TV watching is completely illogical, and in my opinion, it is also counter-intuitive in a world that seems to consist of ‘sharing.’ It remains to be seen whether TV executives will recognize this opportunity at their hand, and as a consumer within this social world I really hope they will.