Technological Convergence: Content in the Digital Age

Where media conglomerates see profit in convergence, many television professionals see the apocalypse.[1] Executives worry that personal video recorders and Internet access will destroy broadcast television and cripple its business model.[2] Traditionally, the television industry could control when, where and how viewers consumed their programming. In the era of Television 2.0 however, new technologies make any assumptions about television audiences virtually impossible.

Lisa Parks points out that the term “Television 2.0” seems to assume that television is like a new version of software, upgraded to become more efficient and easier to use.[3] The term aptly describes television’s shift towards the Internet as it merges with another new version of software: Web 2.0. Television networks now stream their shows online and make them available for download on iTunes. Web syndicators, such as Hulu and Joost, aggregate commercially-produced shows from a host of networks and studios and present them with limited commercial interruption. All this makes the other assumption of Television 2.0 — that it is still television — much more complicated.

In addition to the Internet, consumers can now view The Office on iPods, portable DVD players, mobile phones, and handheld devices. One effect of this, as Max Dawson observes, is that content is “unbundled” so as to flow freely between screens and devices:

Digital distribution technologies have facilitated the rapid growth of an alternative ‘Itemized Economy’ of unbundled cultural goods, in which the primary unit of exchange is no longer the compact disc, the newspaper or magazine, or the television series, but rather the track, the article, the episode, or the scene.[4]

On the one hand, the unbundling of content means that consumers are no longer watching networks or channels — they are watching individual shows and episodes. This hurts the opportunity for networks to place shows performing poorly in the ratings next to more popular programs. At the same time, unbundled content is more shareable and spreadable, [5] meaning that a popular Saturday Night Live sketch on the Internet can be an immediate and effortless phenomenon. Many television executives see great potential in this regard. David Poltrack, Vice President for Research and Planning at CBS, explains:

And with network content in all these different places [distribution platforms] — especially video on demand over the Internet — we have to look to brand the network so that people know “that’s a CBS show”…I think network branding is going to reappear. This means more competition and better TV.[6]

Of course, it is unclear whether or not Television 2.0 will lead to “better TV,” but as new technologies afford consumers what Amanda Lotz calls the five C’s — choice, control, convenience, customization, and community— the need for branded, marketable content is undeniable.[7] As Michael Lebowitz, founder/CEO of Big Spaceship, observes, “people care about the content, not the network.”[8] Because consumers want their content to come in all types of formats and sizes, there is an increased need for networks to have a reliable and trustworthy reputation across media platforms. Consumers may be able to alter how they watch their television, but in the end, the networks still have complete control over the content produced. In addition, if a viewer enjoys a particular show on the Internet, they can more quickly locate its merchandise and be “just one click away” from consuming other media texts.

The prospect of more points of entry and accelerated consumption has led many television producers to change their discourse regarding the television business. Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television, notices that new technologies have forced television executives to rethink how they approach production:

What it really means is producers can no longer just come in with a TV show…It has to have an online component, a sell-through component and a wireless component. It’s the way we’re trying to do business on the content side, giving the consumer ways to watch their show however they want to watch it.[9]

In order to comply with consumer demands, many television producers are now calling themselves “content-producers,” a more appropriate label for the flow of programs across delivery platforms.[10] But as Ivan Askwith observes in his MIT master’s thesis Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, entering the content market means a huge increase in the potential competition:

In recognizing itself as a “content-production center,” NBC is acknowledging that it is now in the same business as — and thus in direct competition with — all content producers.  This effectively means that NBC’s competition is no longer limited to rival networks, but has expanded to encompass the likes of Google and Microsoft.[11]

The more competitive environment means that the networks of the “post-network era” must shift their distribution and business models to remain relevant industry players.     While many journalists have begun writing television’s obituary, [12] media scholars like Askwith are more optimistic. Askwith argues that if networks are willing to expand the scope and ambition of their business, they can benefit from a global audience. To accomplish this, Askwith highlights the importance for the television industry to understand engagement as a “larger system of material, emotional, intellectual, social, and psychological investments a viewer forms through their interactions with the expanded television text.”[13] Expanding a television text across platforms, he argues, should not function as a means to preserve television’s traditional business model, but should increase the possibilities for consumers to engage with television. In other words, by recognizing that they are in the “content” aggregation and distribution business, networks must be willing to view convergence not as a threat to television, but as an opportunity for Television 2.0.

[1] Ritchell, Matt. “What Convergence? TV’s Hesitant March to the Net.” The New York Times. 15 February 2009.
12 Kirkpatrick, David. “AOL Is Planning a Fast-Forward Answer to TiVo.” The New York Times. 10 March 2003.
[3] Parks, Lisa. “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence. Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Eds. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson. London: Duke University Press, 2004.
[4] Dawson, Max. “Little Players, Big Shows: Format, Narration, and Style on Television’s New Smaller Screens.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Technologies. 13, 3 (2007): 239.
[5] Jenkins defines “spreadability” as “a concept [that] describes how the properties of the media environment, texts, audiences, and business models work together to enable easy and widespread circulation of mutually meaningful content within a networked culture.”
In “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes.” 11 February 2009.
[6] Interview with Sharon Marie Ross on July 6th, 2006. In Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
[7] Lotz, Amanda. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. NY: New York University Press, 2007.
[8] Quoted by Ford, Sam. “Futures of Entertainment: Transmedia Properties.” Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. 17 November 2006.
[9] Fisher, Ken. “NBC Universal chief calls for ‘Net-savvy TV pitches” Ars Technica. 13 March 2006.
[10] Askwith, Ivan. Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Master’s Thesis, 2007.
[11] Ibid, 17.
[12] Helm, Burt. “Why TV Will Never Be the Same.” Business Week. 23 November 2004.
[13] Askwith, Ivan. TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *