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Futurewatch: Media & Entertainment—The New TV-Web-Mobile Mashup

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The lean-back/lean-forward metaphor has served us well over at least a decade, but it may be time to put it to rest. While the metaphor remains valid in a physical sense, the metaphysical significance that made it popular may have gone the way of the buggy whip.

Today, full-length prime time television shows are available for the 2' experience. Technically, we are sitting up—chances are you’re watching at your desk. On the other hand, you could be engaged in a 10' experience watching American Idol, getting ready to cast your vote, cell phone in hand. These days you have to be a committed couch potato; you can’t just lean back and let TV entertainment come to you. Popular programming is moving in a direction that’s not for the lazy-minded. Multithreaded plot lines, fast scene changes, cryptic dialogue, and discrete segmentation are all part of the current ilk of television programs and are becoming more so. I cannot do justice to this topic in this article; it could be an article on its own, or even a book. In fact it is a book, and one worth reading, whether you agree with its premise or not. The book, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, argues that, increasingly, TV programming—even entertainment programming—is not designed to have viewers zone out in front of it.

While it is not as elegant as the lean-forward/lean-back metaphor, I like to think that today’s video choices fall into two categories: those that require linear consumption behavior and those that require nonlinear consumption behavior, regardless of whether you’re experiencing the video from a distance of 2', 10', or 6". As convergence rumbles along, the choice we are making is really whether we are viewing in linear mode or nonlinear mode.

Strange Bedfellows
Video is essentially a linear medium. It is a medium for storytelling, and there is a temporal element to it, even though producers often play with chronology for dramatic effect. And time is a linear quantity. Yes, rocket scientists and strict adherents to Einstein’s theory of relativity will disagree with the last statement, but you know what I mean.

The web, on the other hand, is essentially a nonlinear medium. The cornerstone of the web is hyperlinking—giving us the option to move across sources of information. While much has been said of getting information when you want it, where you want it on the web, equally important is getting to precisely what you want. We are used to navigating not just across text on a page but across pages and websites, not always returning to where we started. On the web we are all information snackers for the most part. Much of what is published on the web is designed for this type of information consumption—notice the brevity of blog entries, comments on Facebook, and (good) webpages. To the best of my knowledge, never has a full-length New York Times best-seller been published on the web, though there is no technical limitation that prevents this from being done. (Yes, I am waiting to see the use cases of Google’s ambitious plans to scan and make full-text books available online.)

Though it seemed implausible to many skeptics a few years ago, the marriage of video and the web is producing some interesting offspring. YouTube, the poster child for web video, has not only established the web as a bona fide medium for video, it’s also established a market for short video clips, something few people would have predicted before YouTube came online. On the other hand, the pace of technology advancements designed to override the core attributes—or in the case of video, the core limitations—of the web is unprecedented. Bringing linear, full-length video streaming to the web has become a race among formats, publishers, and service providers.

Much has been written about this aspect of video convergence. Two generally well-received books on the topic that I happened to read at the same time are Shelly Palmer’s Television Disrupted and Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. Though both these books are worth reading, they take different approaches to the cross-platform trends we are seeing. Television Disrupted focuses on the nuts, bolts, and wiring that make the internet a disruptive force in television; Convergence Culture talks about how the internet changes the nature of television-based programming, creating a larger set of experiences that are consumed across platforms (as opposed to substituting one for the other). Both books offer valid reflection changes we are seeing taking place before us, and each in its own way calls out the differences in the media themselves and the difference in the viewing and consumption habits they engender.

As long-form content infuses the web with broadcasters, cable networks, and others making prime time programs available, the question of whether this is a paradigm shift in what the web represents as a medium cannot be overlooked. Is video going to bring linearity to the web on a mass scale, or is this a transitional phase? Time will tell, but what I find most interesting is what is happening in the middle ground. While the middle ground is usually boring, I think in this case, it is probably the most interesting for what may come to the world of web video.

One of the companies that I recently talked with is mashing this nonlinearity and linearity for mobile, probably the most challenging device platform for video. Azuki, in fact, calls it MashMedia, and while presenting the full-length video to consumers, it breaks the video down into "snackable" segments that users can watch a la carte and in any order of preference. This approach is ideally suited to some types of programming, such as sports and news, though it may not necessarily work for dramas and feature films.

Using rich media as the foundation of its strategy, Azuki builds the mashups around other attributes of the (mobile) web, such as social networking, sharing, and usability considerations, while taking into account the network and device limitations of mobile delivery.

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