What is TV good for?

What is TV good for? The linear, traditional TV of 1969. No, really. This is a legit question. It’s the 21st century. Rigid timelines of massively parallel broadcasts of more of the same should be a thing of the past. Or, maybe not yet.

Unreal stats: is TV an immortal unicorn?

What is TV good for? The linear, traditional TV of 1969. No, really. This is a legit question. It’s the 21st century. Rigid timelines of massively parallel broadcasts of more of the same should be a thing of the past. Or, maybe not yet.

OK, look at the numbers, viewer shift is happening. To quote this complaint of the American Marketing Association:

Adults between the ages of 50 and 64 spend 191 hours per month watching traditional (rather than time-shifted) TV, according to Nielsen, and those over 65 watch more than 223 hours per month. Teens, by contrast, spend 84 hours per month watching TV.

The younger they are, the less they watch. Like bingo, traditional television smells a bit like an unkempt retirement home. People are dying here! TV is past its prime. Thank you, case closed. Or, is it?

Now bear with me. Let me read you the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of watch.

Look at or observe attentively over a period of time.

Do 50-64 year olds “observe attentively” for more than 6 hours per day what’s happening in the box? Mind you, this is an average we’re looking at. There must be people out there “attentively observing” the tube 24/7. And if you ever observed attentively a Teenager: does the majority of teens have an attention span of 2 hours plus of single-minded daily dedicated observation of anything? Besides that: a daily active usage of 2 hours plus sounds like user stats any super successful web service would kill for. You’re looking for a Facebook killer? Take grampa’s television.

There seems to be something a bit off-kilter. So I decided to take a fresh look at this TV thing again.

and TV’s job is …

What are you looking at?!
What are you looking at?!

Working with my friends at Magine TV, a Stockholm-based OTT TV service, I looked for some answers by applying Clayton Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done-framework. JTBD’s core concept looks like this: people don’t buy a product. They “hire” a product to get a “job” done. The researcher’s job is to identify the job people want to get done.

The outcome can, sometimes, be rather surprising. Christensen’s milkshake-example is all about the insight, that if you know what job a product is hired for, you can much better improve and scale.

“The fact that you’re 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product,” Christensen says. “It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn’t cause it. We developed this idea because we wanted to understand what causes us to buy a product, not what’s correlated with it. We realized that the causal mechanism behind a purchase is, ‘Oh, I’ve got a job to be done.’ And it turns out that it’s really effective in allowing a company to build products that people want to buy.”

Same goes with TV. We know for a fact that billions of people are “hiring” television on a daily base. But what is television’s job to them?

Jobs To Be Done is qualitative research. You try to find answers by analyzing longform interviews, which follow a clearly defined timeline. Never ask directly. Stated preferences are your enemy. You chat your people up to get the the gist of what you need to know.

As a former full time journalist, I felt quite comfortable in going this direction. And it worked reasonably well. Most results are of course proprietary. But let me share a couple of things with you: forget about inform and entertain as the core driving factors. There are two core jobs TV has to fix, depending on personal needs. Because not all of you TV viewers are created equal. What we can identify are two quite different sets of viewer personas:

  • there are the bespoke attentive TV personalities
  • and there are the many owners of an animated wallpaper

total attentive immersion: your personal off switch

Totally immersive must watch TV: your world lives in a box.
Totally immersive must watch TV: your world lives in a box.

Let’s start with the fully immersed, totally attentive viewer. The job he needs done is what you would actually expect from “hiring” TV: get effortlessly tuned out of your daily life.

If there’s a Santa for media executives, the attentive viewer will make top of their wish lists. Turn on, tune in, drop out: they are the idiotes savantes you need in any ad recall measurement.  There are a couple of subgroups here, which differ mostly in how they discover what they want to watch. But their typical user journey starts always like this: I’m coming home from work and need to turn off the day. The subgroups mostly differ in how they choose what to watch.

  • totally passive: you have a relevant subset of two handfuls of channels. You turn on and start to watch what’s on your favorite channel. If you’re not satisfied, you switch to the next channel. You prefer to zap or maybe use an EPG to get a quick overview on what’s currently up. You might even know when your fav show is running. You’re mostly satisfied with the work the professionals did in programming a timeline. Because everything else would be way too much work.
  • somewhat picky: you have some kind of an idea what you want to watch. Or, maybe even more important: what you do not want to watch. You might have programmed a PVR to record your favorite things. Because this one time effort brings some pleasure later on when you’re in the mood to watch something (but not anything).
  • totally picky: there’s just a couple of highlights you’re after. Maybe top sports events. Maybe top movies. Maybe the daily news (if you are in a decidedly un-Teen age bracket). You actively plan around those events.

You might have recognized yourself already in all three of those subgroups. Which is not too surprising. Those preferences have just a different weight. If you’re totally picky and down with the flu, you easily switch into your totally passive persona.

If you’re leaning towards pickiness, a SVOD service like Netflix sounds like a present from heaven. If you’re the totally passive viewer, you might actively hate the concept. Because, as one of the interviewees mentioned: actively looking for some program to watch is way too much work.

That’s probably one of the main reasons why series and binge watching work so well on SVOD: when a movie ends, you go back to zero and have to start searching all over again. But after the first 13 episodes of a series, you just move on to season two.

extensive wallpapering: radio with benefits

In reality, this electric fireplace is a talking animated wallpaper.
In reality, this electric fireplace is a talking animated wallpaper.

Remember the average viewing numbers? 84 hours per month, 191 hours, 223 hours for 65+. TV can look like a full time job, even if you’re not working in media. Not too surprisingly, those viewing hours are only slightly connected to attentive watching. The time is spent with media, but not on media. For those people, TV’s job, to stay in the JBTD-framework, is not immersion, not entertaining. They just need a companion.

A typical example goes like this: you work home alone, be it running a household, working in your home office, preparing your student homework whatever. You sit in front of your notebook. But somewhere in the room, not too far away is a running TV set. It’s either totally muted (if you’re the sensitive type), softly babbling (probably the majority) or blaring in full power (yes, granny, I’m looking at you).

Those TV sets are actually doing what the name television is promising: you can see something happening, far, far away. It’s a window to the world. And like with real windows looking over a street or a back yard, you’re not glued to the view. It’s a just very nice and humane distraction. Being able to look out of a window beats staring at a white washed wall. Mind you, a running TV set cannot (yet) substitute a real window. TV lacks spatial information, the color temperature does usually not match your biorhythm and the time of the day. But it adds a social layer: TV is constantly trying to tell you more or less entertaining stories. You don’t have to ask for anything, search for anything, do anything. If you open the hose, it will never stop until it gets your attention. Then you might turn up the volume and watch for a minute or two.

It’s visual radio (a medium, which used to be an immersive one as well). But without the ads literally shouting at you, because the visual attention grabbing is there as well.

The real television is a talking, animated wallpaper.   

The GoogBox

What’s the point of an Android-powered TV – isn’t television supposed to be kind of dead anyway? Now, let’s be realistic. Dead looks like GM’s Hummer: a broad butted relic from those merry days, when the environment was something to train your four wheel drive in.

Sure, TV as-is gets into some rough spots: economic downturns and big corp ad spending don’t go that well together. Local TV has been an almost exclusive ad playground for local car dealers. Tivos are attacking scheduling and audience flows. But, guess what: people are still watching. Because, addictions are hard to break.

Still, we tend to mix the means of delivering content (broadcasting television) with consuming this content (watching tv). For peak audience content, broadcasting is still hard to beat (just look at the half a billion Dollars big G is supposedly shelling out for streaming YouTube’s vids). But descheduling and instant access, that’s is pretty much how consumer’s want to see their future tv. That’s why the toughest competitor to network tv is not a YouTube channel, but your home network.

I really mean it: if you’re running a tv network, treat home networks as potential affiliates in a different time zone. And that’s how we’re coming back to Android. It’s just a boring operating system, currently huffing and puffing inside some halfway decent smartphones. It’s free (hardware guys like that idea) and the potential trojan horse for one of the most aggressive data driven media companies (like phone book publishers in the 20th century) in the whole world. Which is a bad metaphor, as ye olde Greeks needed their one trick pony to resolve a 10 year long siege. But the Goog needs a whole army of tiny trojans to foster new markets to prevent itself from becoming the one trick pony riders of the contextual text ad.

Now, what’s good for Google isn’t necessarily good for the rest of us. If an 800 pound gorilla waltzes through the jungle, “do no evil” does not prevent massive collateral damage. But especiallly in the realm of TV and TV distribution, some creative destruction might be welcome.
I don’t believe in Android powered TVs as a home media platform. It’s bad practice to hardwire a piece of furniture (displaying device: life expectancy of roughly a decade) with a computing platform (tends to age in hyperspeed). But if my stupid Android-enabled TV talks to my Android-powered smartphone, we might be getting somewhere. Especially, if everything’s linked in the background by one mighty media company.
For developers, the beauty of a concept like Android for TV is easy: the days of the web as the all consuming platform are numbered. We’re entering a data driven world, with lots of devices and platforms, talking to API-enabled services. Look at Twitter as a poster child. Conten/data and presentation layer are not related in any kind of way.

On the other hand, the world of tv distribution and its related hardware is still a cumbersome hodgepodge of everything. It’s the old school of electric media, when radio was a humming thingy called radio, which was sitting in your living room, which you turned on to listen to: radio. Don’t expect anyone anytime soon referring to his tv or whatever device as an Android.

How to Kill Public Broadcasting

German pubcasters are the BBC on steroids. Moneywise, at least. Their combined annual budget dwarfs the GNP of a couple of lesser UN-members. And even hardboiled tax collectors blush at the methods of their fee collecting agency GEZ.

Don’t get me wrong. Strong and independent public broadcasting is an important asset. As seen in the US, a beggar’s banquet of impoverished do-gooders cannot counterweight a fully commercialized brainwash attack. State controlled tv is a terrific tool for thriving populists, post-imperial imperialists, and media savy dictatorships (and definitely not an option).

Still. If you want to collect billions and billions of Euros for the greater good, a well aged argumentation line from the black and white days of the tube won’t do you any good. EU commissioners want to pull the plug (commercial broadcasters will see to that). And the German publishers are finally starting to see a problem with those hidden champion media empires. Because it’s not about here’s print, there’s tv anymore. On the web, all media cats are prey.

The last political fiddlings ended with some strange solutions like this. Yes, the pubcasters can put some their video assets onto the web. But after seven days, they have to be removed. Weird. Even weirder: there are paid deals between mega publishers and mega pubcasters on video syndication. Uhum. Excuse me. Looking at organizational structures of German pubcasters, the micro money passed from WAZ to WDR most likely won’t even cover the process cost. So it’s probably all very strategic. Or maybe just helpless. Redefining public broadcasting for a networked, digital media world it isn’t. (Because, more likely, it will look more like this.)

It’s not helping anyway. Will Münchner Erklärung, the Munich Declaration of the big wigs of German publishing, kill public broadcasting? Nope. We’re more likely talking about assisted suicide anway.