It used to be that watching TV meant turning on your television set and tuning in to a specific show at a specific time on a specific network. But just take a look at the subway commuter catching the latest episode of Stranger Things on her smartphone, or the college student livestreaming a basketball game on his laptop during class, and it’s easy to see how radically the way we access and digest video content has changed. Safe to say, this is not your parents’ TV.
As a whole, modern consumers are watching far less traditional broadcast and cable TV than they did in the past. Of the 78 primetime broadcast series that aired between 2016 and 2017, the only program whose viewership increased among an audience under 50 was The Bachelor. At the same time, people are consuming more video content than ever before.
What once could only be seen on your plasma screen can now be viewed on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. And what was once an industry dominated by a handful of networks has evolved into a veritable Wild West, with cable providers, streaming services, and social media companies all competing for a dwindling supply of ad revenue and consumer attention.
This proliferation of new platforms, providers, and devices has changed the way audiences view content, but it has also changed their expectations of the content they consume. Anjali Sud, CEO of Vimeo, has witnessed the development of this trend firsthand.
“People are craving video that is more personalized, responsive, interactive. In a word, that is more immersive,” she says. “The human desire to experience something real and unedited is absolutely something that we [at Vimeo] see.”
It used to be that you had no choice but to sit back and watch or listen to stories, because that’s how the technology—radio, film, television—worked. Once the Internet introduced the world to its first two-way mass media, people suddenly had the ability to comment, to share, to give feedback, and to create. As a result, we’re no longer interested in being passive consumers of our media. We want to be a part of the story ourselves.
“For creators, it really poses a new sort of challenge,” says Sud. “As storytellers, we’re used to having the ability to control the narrative. Now, we have to employ different techniques and we need to use different tools to tell the stories we’re trying to get across.”
In other words, the content that creators are making today needs to match the cravings of an audience with an unprecedented amount of agency over what they watch and how they watch it. To keep up and stay competitive, leaders in the industry need to innovate the way they approach the creative process. For many companies, this innovation has come in the form of big data.
“With all this incredible choice, that’s fantastic, but you need a way to sort through the choice,” says Todd Yellin, VP of Product at Netflix. “You need to make finding the great title to watch easy, and that’s where personalization comes in.”
Using tags, implicit data, and sophisticated machine-learning techniques, Netflix is able to understand whether a viewer prefers quirky comedies or dark horror movies, and is then able to match that viewer with the content they want. Such a robust knowledge of user behavior and interest has helped Netflix acquire more subscribers than Comcast and DirecTV combined.
“Behavioral data, implicit data, what they watch, how much they watch, what device they watch on—that is powerful,” Yellin notes. “In the age of Internet TV, the quality of programming is a lot better because it opens up possibilities. You don’t have to go for the lowest common denominator; you can really find your specific audience.”
The insights Netflix has garnered from big data have also informed the company’s creative approach. As Yellin explains, data not only allows Netflix to suggest the right content to the right viewers, but also to piece together elements of a story to form original content that the company is confident will appeal to particular audience segments.
Robert Sorcher, Chief Content Officer at Cartoon Network, focuses on another aspect of engagement. He makes sure that when a story is told, it is told in as many mediums and in as many ways as possible. In fact, he and his team often introduce their new properties not with a television show, but via games, comics, social media, and other platforms.
“This is not something that ultimately is about monetizing that property, it’s actually about developing that property,” says Sorcher. “If we’re doing it right, a story is not just about a single narrative through-line; a story is about really a larger idea.”
Sorcher speaks to the importance of developing rich story worlds that are resonant and transmissible in a multitude of ways. Gone are the days of a single author putting forth a vision in a classic three-act structure. The goal now is to create an expansive story ecosystem with millions of different jumping-off points—and one that audiences can imagine themselves inhabiting.
“This is a radical shift in the way that we’re even thinking about how to bring in properties, how to actually create them, and then what has to go into that storytelling to make it ready to go everywhere else,” Sorcher adds.
With video becoming increasingly digital, social, and cross-channel, a modern definition of TV may better be understood as anything that can be watched on any device at any time. Successful storytellers now need to be able to navigate constantly evolving technologies, leverage data to comprehend their audience, and embrace viewer input, all while keeping well-crafted stories at the forefront of their work. As a result, the future of TV will create more transformative, powerful, and emotional experiences for consumers and afford tremendous opportunity for creators who can learn to master these new media.