TV Is Dead; Long Live TV

It is only now that video is getting dispersed across so many screens that it becomes apparent how much of a totem the TV set itself has been in American life for 75 years. Sociologists and media historians used to have catchy quasi-religious terminology to describe the staggering importance of this device in late 20th-century America. The “electronic hearth,” it was called by some. The hypnotic TV gaze itself became a visual trope to indicate the screen's near-mystical allure for us. We imparted to it all manner of influences, mysterious powers to drive politics, behaviors, end and start wars, bankrupt taste, reduce IQs. For kids growing up in the 50s and 60s there were even vague intimations of a radiation-like side effect from “sitting too close to the TV.” On some level we knew this thing couldn't be good for you, even though no adult would forsake it. Just don't get too close to it.

But the kids understood better than anyone the TV's magic. We sat closest -- prostrate on the shag carpets of America, heads cupped in hands, eye locked upwards in total devotion. We knew an ideal parent when we saw one. If we could have walked through the screen, we would have. We wanted in there.

And so the crumbling of that totem of 20th-century life is momentous. No one gets that more than one of the driving forces of kid TV for decades -- Disney. I was talking with a senior Disney digital executive about the new patterns of kid media consumption months ago and she told me their research had long been showing how little kids cared anymore what screen they were using to access this content. The new evening ritual has as much to do with kids snatching mom's tablet when she comes home. Disney has been programming with this in mind for over a year. Many mobilistas don't realize that Disney is actually one of the biggest suppliers of mobile games in the ecosystem. They have literally hundreds of titles on iOS and Android. Their Disney Channel apps also are brimming with time-shifted programming

 The new Disney Movies app is an attempt to port another aspect of modern TV ritual to the app environment -- movie collections. The stack of VHS and DVD Disney titles that flank most family TVs is being packed into a movie app where users can maintain and build a digital Disney collection. The app is connected to your iTunes account in a way that is new and interesting in its own right. When I tied my Disney app to my iTunes account the app recognized that I had purchased "Pirates of the Caribbean" from Apple years ago and planted it in my library. Likewise, I can now buy from a Disney library of 400-plus films directly in the app and have it charged to my Apple account. This is a bit different from the typical in-app purchase, in that it creates this reciprocal link between the publisher's app library and your iTunes library. I also wonder if there is some testing of an extended m-payments solution going on here where an iTunes account can be used more flexibly for charging a wider range of goods. As an m-payments powerhouse, this is one of Apple's critical advantages. It has hundreds of millions of credit card numbers already.

But back to the Disney app. It is trying to make the case for using an app as a kind of DVD collection. It adds value to convince the customers there is a reason to access Disney via the dedicated app rather than just running purchased copies via iTunes directly. The movies can be downloaded to the device, which is important to traveling families. Many of the films come with additional assets like theatrical shorts and behind the scenes videos. Parents can put film ratings filters on the library so kids of certain ages are limited in what they can view. And you can also use the packed-in digital download codes in most Disney DVD/BD discs to add these titles to your library. And there is also a loyalty rewards program.

I have to admit that after all of these years I still find the Disney machine dazzling in its sophistication. These folks understand how to calibrate promotion, entertainment, value adds into some kind of seamless experience that only feels pitchy and creaky when the company goes through its inevitable trough periods of diminished creativity. But when the basic characters and film assets are as strong as they have been again in recent years, ad and content are as one.

Whether Disney will succeed in app-ifying the DVD ritual that itself supplanted the live TV ritual for kids decades ago remains to be seen. That they understand how fundamentally media consumption is shifting with this generation of kids is revealing in itself.

TV ain't what it used to be. In short order, straight-to-app “TV” content may be an important part of the media economy. Somehow, coursing through all of these changes is a Disney content and marketing machine that is as relentless and adaptive as it is seamless. It reminds me of that 60s childhood prone on the living room rug on Sunday nights watching Walt introduce the Wonderful World of Disney.

Corporate chief, hour-long ad, prime-time entertainment, theme-park branding -- all wrapped into prime-time packages that blurred all lines among those categories of content. “Native advertising?” Bosh! Much of what passes as “innovative” in media models can't even hold a candle to what Disney was doing in our living rooms decades ago.  

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1 comment about "TV Is Dead; Long Live TV".
  1. tim glomb from Wayin , February 26, 2014 at 10:46 a.m.
    As a parent of a 5 and 3 year old I welcome the simplicity of the app and link to my iTunes. Managing the payment, knowing I won't lose the content and any-time accessibility is great. Makes those 2 hour drives to Steamboat manageable. The key is in the brand though. Titles are safe and some even timeless. I don't use Netflix in the same way. Their content filters are not as strong and, while I like the diversity for me, choose to pre screen his selections. The Disney brand has done an amazing job over the past 40 years with me. Not sure other content providers have the same luxury.. I'm not running out looking for similar solutions... for my kids' content at least. Long live the app.