A decade ago, families huddled around the living room TV in eager anticipation of their favorite shows. They’d been waiting weeks to catch up with their favorite characters through the holiday lull. Twitter was nonexistent, and Facebook was still in its burgeoning days, so spoilers via social media were virtually unheard of — and everyone let out a collective groan when a commercial break or news update interrupted just as the plot was thickening.
It was a different time for television.
Today, family members sit engrossed in their individual tablets, binge-watching the latest on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Instant.
In 2014, several big trends solidified themselves as potential game-changers for the entertainment and television industry: Among them participatory television, enhanced analytics, mobile engagement, new options for advertisers and increased digital streaming.
Mashable talked to experts well versed in the industry to explore a few of these top trends and question what they’ll mean for the future of television. Years from now, just how different will that family living room scenario look?
1. Online streaming = more networks are taking a multi-platform, multi-screen approach
While this one might elicit a big, fat “duh,” it’s important to note just how crucial 2014 was for online streaming. Netflix experienced major successes with continuations of hit shows like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, and numerous networks announced the release of streaming packages for interested consumers.
Roy Sekoff, president and creator of Huffington Post Live, believes that the definition of television is mostly the same — though digital has impacted the way in which we consume media. “For now, the term ‘television’ is still that thing hanging on the wall of your living room, and also the kind of programming we’ve grown used to seeing on that screen over the last 60 years or so (even if that programming is arriving at your set via the Internet). But we clearly need to develop new nomenclature that fits our multi-platform, multi-screen world.”
This “dynamic” definition of television isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry, suggests Chris Paradysz, co-CEO and cofounder of PM Digital, a full-service marketing firm. Instead, he says, it simply means that the best content will reign supreme. “We have to remember to separate the technology from the content; the physicality of the delivery mechanism is irrelevant,” says Paradysz. “Viewers aren’t approaching television from this standpoint — they just want to make use of the most accessible means of consuming the content they crave.”
2. Mobile is increasing accessibility to premium content
With a myriad of digital streaming options available, premium television content is no longer restricted to those who can afford the most expensive cable package.
“More and more people have the devices and substantial bandwidth to take advantage of streaming any and everywhere,” says Paradysz. “No one is restrained by inaccessibility anymore. Mobility and streaming have opened the playing field.” He reasons that, as a result of this trend, the very idea of what constitutes a piece of “storytelling” is changing.
Tracy Swedlow, executive producer of The TV of Tomorrow Show adds to this point: One of the reasons for a surge in quality content is that more and more talented writers are drawn to what was once considered a second-tier industry.
“Talented writers are shifting from the film industry to the television industry to take advantage of three important opportunities in the emerging online ‘binge-viewing’ environment,” she says. “First, the opportunity to control the storytelling decision-making process with less studio executive interference; second, better compensation to produce original content; and third, episodic versus one-view storytelling, as the former extends their brand more effectively and enables much more expansion.”
And people aren’t just watching one- or two-minute long videos on mobile devices — this year, research indicated that audiences are increasingly engaging with longer programming on mobile.
“One trend that I find very, very encouraging is the fact that people, armed with ever larger and sharper mobile screens, are watching longer pieces of content on their mobile devices,” says Sekoff, who always had faith that mobile would reign supreme. “For a long time — at least in Internet years, which are even more concentrated than dog years — people were saying that no one would watch anything longer than a minute on their phones, that something three-minutes long was the digital equivalent of Roots. We always thought there was an audience for longer and more thoughtful programming. It’s nice to see that belief being backed up by the numbers.”
3. There’s more of an opportunity for viewers to participate
Nielson data suggests that 85% of U.S. television viewers are using some other kind of device while they’re watching. Gavin Douglas, CEO of iPowow, a leader in “participation TV,” says that the majority of these people are probably interacting with something else — like IMDB, Twitter or countless other websites. “There’s an opportunity to engage this large percentage in the story of a show right there and then, capturing attention on both screens, and making it fun.”
Second-screen television and social TV isn’t new; rather it’s been evolving over the past few years. Yet, what we’re seeing now is more than just “an aggregation of tweets and Facebook posts in the background,” Douglas says. “Participation TV is part of the foreground conversation … we’ve always been thinking about how to take a box at home, where you can press buttons and change things in the TV studio. Finally we are doing that, and it’s only going to get stronger.”
Sekoff feels the same way. “HuffPost Live was founded on the premise that people are tired of being talked at; now they want to be talked with. They don’t want to sit back passively and be told ‘that’s the way it is…’ They want to comment, add information to a story, have their voices heard.”
4. Advertisers will re-think the 30-second spot
With the advent of technologies such as DVR, we’ve seen a growth in the fast-forwarding epidemic: Viewers simply aren’t watching commercials. So instead, networks must find different ways to reach audiences, whether through interactive commercial pieces, second-screen mobile content or in-show product placement. So how will the prices of these mechanisms compare?
“In my mind,” Douglas says, “the whole thing is going to shift. A 30-second spot might be worth $30,000 if 50,000 people see it in an evening, but if same amount of people see the same spot it on a website, via mobile content or pre-roll, those prices will become very similar in the near future. Right now, they’re miles apart — but 50,000 people is 50,000 people.”
5. Social media can spoil TV — but also engage audiences
Social media has given viewers an easy way to voice their opinions about the programming they consume. In turn, TV executives can connect more directly with audiences. Most, if not all, networks utilize hashtags and Twitter promotions to generate conversations before, during and post-airtime, but others are challenged to find ways of incorporating social media without hindering the overall viewing experience.
Audiences today are so emotionally involved in content that they are — metaphorically speaking — standing on their rooftops, screaming spoilers through their megaphones. With the ability to connect with other fans via social media, viewers simply can’t help themselves. While spoilers have always existed, these new platforms, as well as on-demand services that support binge-watching, multiply their prevalence.
“When Netflix released the second season of House of Cards in one fell swoop last February, they also released a Twitter Spoiler Foiler product that allowed fans to rid their feeds of show spoilers,” says Paradysz. This was not only an example of a creative marketing tactic, but also an example of the lengths a network must go when considering the implications of social media. More recently, Netflix took the opposite approach in dealing with spoilers: Embracing them. The company created a microsite solely devoted to the celebration and discovery of spoilers, stating “some secrets are too good to keep.” A smart move on Netflix’s part — the site understands some viewers actually crave and seek out spoilers.
But there are more positive aspects of social media’s power. “More networks are experimenting with emerging promotional methods on social media,” Paradysz says. Platforms like Snapchat and Vine are becoming integral to marketing for all industries, especially when targeting millennials.
6. Big data is a big deal
Big data becomes important here, too, for advertisers and showrunners alike. “The $80 billion ad sales spenders in the U.S. every year are going to use data to do programmatic and audience-based targeting, so that they can specifically aim ads at 19-year-old girls who are watching the right show on the right device at the right time, against 55-year-old guys watching something else,” says Douglas.“In the advertising and TV community, the only thing that’s going to matter in two to three years is data.”
Producers, on the other hand, use analytics to see what’s happening in real-time, and figure out how to engage viewers for longer. This puts them “in the best position to create content that is directly influenced by what’s happening in the moment,” Swedlow says.