Tom Butts is the Editor in Chief of TV Technology.
MSNBC is running a marketing campaign depicting its anchors in particular settings, discussing the politics of the day. They term their philosophy "Lean Forward TV," implying that their viewers are more inclined to be a more forward-thinking, politically active audience that actually pays attention to the shouting matches that pass for discourse on cable news channels these days.
Their effort to distinguish their form of TV journalism from traditional passive TV watching reminds me of how the very act of watching TV is evolving in before us. In the days before cable, the word "surfing" was associated with water. Remotes, cable and satellite entered the picture and suddenly we were "surfing" channels. (One could argue that remotes actually made watching even more passive; just ask anyone under 40 to identify the actual channel knob on a TV set). In an effort to ensure that the viewer knew just whom they were tuned to in the megachannel universe, the industry responded with electronic program guides and snipes that grow even more obtrusive by the day.
Enter IPTV. Today's viewer not only is surfing digital cable, he's added Roku, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, YouTube, et al. to his viewing menu. Chances are he also has a laptop, smartphone and/or tablet in his hands as well. Multitasking takes on new meaning in front of the TV set these days.
So many choices, so little time. How does one manage all this content? Have no fear—while there may ultimately be an app for that, tech companies are still spending millions on how to help viewers navigate all this content.
Speculation is that the code that Steve Jobs "broke" that could revolutionize television with the much rumored Apple TV expected to be launched later this year is the ability to simplify the process of accessing any content from any source. Microsoft's Kinect motion sensing interface, a big hit with gamers, is expected to be re-engineered for TV surfing; and Facebook and Google are consolidating social networking data mining to determine consumers' tastes; don't think for a minute that this isn't partly directed at the TV viewer.
In his "Multiscreen Views" column in this issue, Gary Arlen tackles the issue, which was one of the main topics of discussion at CES last month. "Whether it's YouTube, Netflix or any online source or multiplexed broadcast and cable channels, there's too much to see or find simply," Arlen writes. In describing some of the new technology shown at CES, he adds that "many of these approaches are integrating traditional linear program lineups of broadcast and cable TV channels while they try to develop a structure that doesn't overly confuse viewers who might want to find a show that is available through an online library." Arlen discusses the numerous applications and products that were demonstrated at the show in his column.
Some pundits already are declaring Apple the winner in this contest, even before anyone outside Cupertino has seen anything. I doubt it will be that simple, but we can expect the dilemma of program navigation to take on more importance as the multichannel universe expands. Viewers are used to consuming their TV "passively." One of the main challenges of our industry will be to avoid turning that pastime into an activity.
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