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The New Art of Storytelling

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For the past decade we have seen streaming media technologies change the way content is delivered and experienced. We have seen streaming evolve from the early days when sports and adult sites streamed audio and video in the Real format to the emergence of Flash video and YouTube, which have given widespread access to virtually unlimited archives of professionally produced and user-generated video. Streaming has become a real and powerful vehicle for distribution and monetization of content. Those of us involved in this game from day one have seen the focus of our conversations shift from codecs and new technologies to content development and revenue models. So now that streaming has hit critical mass and digitizing and distributing broadband content is a no-brainer, what’s next?

Most of us feel as if we are standing on the edge of something new and exciting, and that now is not the time to play it safe. It feels like we are about to uncover the biggest revolution of our lifetimes—and streaming is the catalyst. Television was just the beginning.

Many media companies are now exploring new revenue and distribution models using streaming. Some companies are releasing television shows on broadband, and others are selling them on iTunes. Some companies are creating ancillary content like "webisodes" and "mobisodes"—versions of television shows modified for alternative platforms—and others are producing content specifically for broadband and mobile devices. Some companies have even taken it a step further and have created cross-platform experiences to market television shows. These experiences start with "Easter eggs" on the television property that lead viewers to websites, mobile content, possibly to retail locations, and then back to the television show.

In this article, I am going to go out on a limb and predict what will become the next big opportunity in entertainment. I will start with the prediction, explain how I got there, and then examine the value proposition and what to watch for in the coming months and years.

The Prediction
My prediction is that the next big opportunity in entertainment can be found in the emergence of multiplatform storytelling.

A multiplatform story is a story that is created and designed to be told across television, PCs, and mobile devices. This is not the simple porting of television content to alternative distribution platforms, nor is it the use of those alternative platforms to market television shows. An end user can experience a multiplatform story on all of his or her entertainment devices. The glue that adheres the devices together and links the user to each platform is the story itself. The world of the story can be revealed on each platform in a way that exploits the platform to the fullest: linear TV, interactive TV with web applications, gaming, polling, user input, and whatever else the creator can think up.

The creator of the story world has to understand the nature of the person receiving the story and the nature of the multiple devices that the person uses to interact with entertainment. The story, like its distribution, is multi-dimensional and can offer a different experience to each user depending on that user’s entertainment consumption behavior patterns.

How We Got Here
I arrived at this conclusion a few months ago as I was trying to figure out why interactive television is not being adopted in the United States. In my previous job with ESPN, I was responsible for distributing and monetizing television content on multiple platforms, including the web and digital television, both via video on demand and interactive television. I learned quickly that multiplatform distribution was great but would always be incremental compared to the large revenues that come from television. I also learned that to get real entertainment value out of interactivity, the thought process of creating interactive television programming needs to be brought upstream to the creators of the television shows, not treated as an after-thought or a marketing exercise.

I was beginning to see interactive television as a logical intersection of television and streaming media. But for the last decade, interactive TV (interactive applications that run on a cable or satellite set-top box and use the remote control as a navigation device) has made very little impact on the media landscape. I wondered if perhaps the early interactive television efforts were simply ahead of their time. If we take the foundations and economics of traditional television and apply the streaming lessons from the web, could we be staring at the next big thing in entertainment? I was determined to find out.

The problem with interactive TV is that it sucks. There is no compelling content in the space yet, because there is no business model that will make the investment worthwhile. There are several other major barriers preventing a mass adoption of interactive TV, but the lack of good storytelling is the biggest. In trying to solve the problem of interactive television, I kept coming back to the story that current applications are trying to tell. There is a lot of utility—stats, gaming, weather, stock information—on interactive TV, but very little storytelling. I believe this is the result of business and technology folks trying to make something out of the space but not starting with content. The storytellers need join the interactive party.

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