Web + TV: Crossing the streams

By: Brandon Harvey

I’m not obsessed with Web + TV, but here I am posting again about it.  Mostly because I’m interested in where technology is going, and part of the question of where it’s going is a question of media.  Whether the iPad succeeds as a technology platform, for example, is largely dependent on whether it succeeds as a media platform: a venue for books, for comic books, for cookbooks, for movies, for TV shows.  Establishing a new technology platform, now, is largely a matter of establishing a new channel, with all that entails.

Now one claim that I made in a previous post was that the video web and the written web are still basically two separate media, begetting totally different user experiences, different hardware setups, different patterns of consumption, even different rooms of the house.  They’re hot and cool media, respectively, just like Marshall McLuhan said.  And what it would take to unite them in some new kind of fusion medium – well, that we have not seen yet.

The distinction between lean-back experiences and lean-forward experiences is probably a cliche at this point, but it’s also an accurate reflection of a real chasm.  In one kind of media world, you take in a story; in another, you reach out to type, click, scroll, parse.  They are usually separate worlds.

One more bit of evidence for this chasm: “cut-scenes” in video games.  Cut-scenes are those expensive-looking video segments that are often screened between game levels, to help establish the story or the mood.  But it’s a strange idea, if you think about it: so much energy is devoted to “enhancing” a (highly interactive) game with elements that are so completely. . . non-interactive.  It’s just a video.  When the cut-scene begins, there’s nothing for game players to do but drop their game controllers slack in their laps and sit back to watch TV for a few minutes.  Interaction ceases; perhaps somebody gets up to go to the bathroom.  This is a ‘game’? 

Steven Spielberg, who I was surprised to learn is a serious player (and occasionally a creator) of video games, makes a similar point:

You know the thing that doesn’t work for me in these games are the little movies where they attempt to tell a story in between the playable levels. That’s where there hasn’t been a synergy between storytelling and gaming.

However, I did recently encounter a Nielsen study on media consumption, which paints a slightly different picture. It’s helped me understand how this chasm – between storytelling and gaming, between the flow of video and the interactivity of the web – can sometimes be bridged.  Because it turns out that people are, in fact, discovering their own new ways to interact and consume at the same time.

in the last quarter of 2009, simultaneous use of the Internet while watching TV reached three and a half hours a month, up 35% from the previous quarter. Nearly 60% of TV viewers now use the Internet once a month while also watching TV.

Now, is this just multi-tasking in the living room?  At least partially, it is.  People do unrelated activities in front of the television all the time.  That’s not interesting.

What’s interesting is that it’s not all multitasking – and the Twitter traffic says so.  Online chatter about American Idol, for example, is substantial, but what’s even bigger is chatter traffic about American Idol while American Idol is on.  That is, people are turning to the web – Twitter, Facebook, chat rooms, discussion boards — to talk about the media experience they’re having . . . even as they’re having it.  They’re using the web as one big backchannel

So despite what Spielberg and I both feel is a lack of “synergy” between lean-back and lean-forward experiences, this is one kind of real synergy.  You lean back and enjoy the show – you lean forward give your two cents about Ellen DeGeneres’ new haircut.  The video tells the story, while the layer of commentary – the social layer – reflects a shared experience of that story.

I’m certainly not the first one to have noticed this phenomenon.  There’s already a new breed of mobile apps like tvChatter, expressly designed for purpose of commenting and dialoguing about live media, as it’s happening.  And there’s research interest, too, in what this kind of live commentary tells us about the live event – and about the audience.  How was a televised debate received, blow by blow?  How does an audience connect with certain scenes, certain characters, certain themes?

Call it the Mystery Science Theater effect, in honor of the campy TV show where robot puppets, silhouetted against the screen of a bad movie, call out snarky comments.  Just substitute tweets into the speech balloons. 

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