The Primitive Screen

Bearing in mind its overwhelming dominance in our daily media lives, it's kind of ironic that in these days of cross-media, interactive, personalized and socially networked media, the TV remains the most primitive of all screens available to us.

While TV continues to take the lion's share of our time with all media (and of all screen-based media); while it continues to take the lion's share of revenues and capital investment; and while it retains a deeply embedded position in our culture as reference point and provider of information and entertainment, the extent of true innovation in the medium over the years has paled when compared to the media ecosystem as a whole.

Obviously there have been advances, and the number of these has inevitably increased over the last decade. The more obvious ones include pay-per-view, VOD, the program guide, the DVR and -- if we go further back -- the remote control and the dear old VCR. However, just about all of these are not true innovations that change the nature of how we use and relate to TV programming and advertising. They are focused on finding content or storing it for subsequent viewing in much the same way we always have. Naturally the impact for viewers is an enhancement of the convenience proposition as we seek to find content and as we extend greater control over when we view it -- but at the end of the day, it's still plain old viewing.



While the impact of these advances on broadcasters, MSOs and others may be greater in business terms (and certainly different from the perspective of ad avoidance etc.), the consumer experience -- and therefore, how we relate to TV -- is still fundamentally and firmly rooted in the viewing context of the 20th century.

This is not to say that there are no examples of TV making progress beyond this point. For some time now, dotted around the country, there have been limited rollouts of enhanced services that enable a level of interaction with programming and advertising. Likewise the satellite players have been active in interactivity with some success.

But still, when compared to what average people are able to do with computer screens and the screens on whatever mobile device they may use, the TV is generally pretty far behind. Sure, the content can be compelling, but the ability to get more deeply involved than by simply watching it and talking about it the next day is woefully absent.

In a time when more and more people are being conditioned by other media to comment, chat, play games, post links, videos and whatever else they feel inclined to do in relation to subjects and content that moves them, the TV still requires that viewers turn to those other devices (like the PC or the phone) to do such things. Missed opportunity? I would say, ultimately, yes. After all, what better indication of an engaged viewer than one who responds to a call to action or initiates communication with other viewers?

The promise of next year's digital transition is likely to eventually make more of this sort of interactivity a reality. And while behind the scenes the prospect of addressable advertising and the application of set-top box data to the measurement side of things is (hopefully) edging closer, each of these is more about the business end of things than the viewer perspective.

I started out by saying that the TV screen is the most primitive available to us despite its position and importance in our media lives. The other way of looking at this is to say this situation exists as a direct result of TV's status and value as a business. After all, when so much capital is tied up in something that significant, the pace of innovation tends to be directly correlated to the scale of what can be lost -- at least for businesses that are doing well enough.

Other businesses -- either relatively new sectors with everything to play for, or established business apparently in decline or at least in need of re-invigoration -- can be expected to lead the way in innovation as they experiment with new options or solutions to intrinsic challenges.

We've seen this in the Internet and mobile space, but as an illustration of how we can continue to expect further innovation in screen-based media outside of TV, I was intrigued to see the magazine industry starting to get in on the act. A colleague showed me an article referring to Esquire's plans to publish 100,000 copies of its September issue with a cover displaying flashing text. The battery that powers it will last for around 90 days. This project, underwritten by Ford, could be an early example of screen-based content delivered and distributed via magazine. It doesn't take too much imagination to picture a scenario in which a magazine could have different covers according to the location of sale, dynamic advertising refreshed in a similar fashion to Web sites, and maybe geographically targeted ads into the bargain.

Of course, readers are more likely to respond to the creative application of this concept in editorial than advertising, but time will tell. It may die a death here and now or it may evolve into something sustainable. E-ink certainly isn't going away, and is one of the ways in which we can be reminded of the relatively passive nature of TV. It's not the sort of thing that is going to cause the downfall of TV, but if nothing else, it's an indication of the continuous climate of media innovation within which the most dominant of all media works to maintain and build on its position among viewers and advertisers alike.

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