The most fascinating aspect of new distribution technologies in media is how they transform content, rather than just content delivery. Unfortunately, digital-era innovation to date has primarily focused on the latter: on-demand viewing, ad-free experiences, binge releases (or at least binge consumption), recommendation-based discovery, auto-play next and skip credits, etc.
This isn’t to say these changes haven’t impacted the content itself. In truth, they’ve enabled considerable advances in narrative complexity and longform storytelling. In the linear era, the sophistication of any TV show was limited by the fact that the average viewer only watched every third episode. As a result, writers could only count on a viewer seeing one in three plot developments. And that assumes they remembered! After all, each airing was separated by 167 to 503 hours. Series narratives were further limited by advertising, which limited what could be said or shown, and meant that every four to six minutes of content had to convince casual viewers to come back if they changed the channel during an ad break. Then there were more macro-level commercial concerns, such as the ways in which scarce primetime timeslots encouraged lowest-common denominator programming strategies and the fact that syndication models incentivized the production of as many episodes as possible. And so on.
It’s without question that new delivery capabilities have changed and improved television and filmed content. But at the same time, this content would not be very different if they were released on a 1960s CRT TV. The color and resolution would be worse, sure, but it would still be the same Stranger Things, Game of Thrones or The Americans. In this regard, the changes brought about by Netflix and Amazon – and even YouTube and Twitch – have been relatively incremental even though their creative implications and impact on the industry have been profound. Content itself hasn’t truly changed all that much over the 12 years since Netflix launched its streaming service (The Sopranos premiered in 1999) – nor have the ideation and production processes behind this content.
HQ Trivia is perhaps a better example of the potential to transform traditional content for the digital era, even if it has struggled to endure. What the “gameshow” proved was that in 2017, the “$64,000 Question” wouldn’t be recorded months in advance, but instead be broadcast live. It wouldn’t focus on the contestant, but instead on the audience. And it wouldn’t be a passive experience, but instead an interactive one.
But major SVOD and OTT video services look at adapting classic content, they do so primarily by updating the tone and upgrading the budget. All the technological enhancements tend to be behind-the-scenes; enhancing the production or distribution of this content rather than the viewing experience. Suddenly, CBS All Access is airing the $1,000,000 Question, if you will.
This is particularly interesting because HQ Trivia is actually fairly modest its experimentation – it takes advantage of only two simple aspects of modern devices: a data connection and touchscreen. This matters because the devices we use to watch video are more technologically sophisticated than a Y2K-era car. Not only do they include a dozen sensors (including facial recognition/tracking, gyroscopes and accelerometers), they also know everything about us (from where we were earlier that day, to who our closest friends are and what they look like). In addition, our homes – where we spend more than 80% of our video time – have become ripe for interactive storytelling. We have an increasingly large number smart speakers, smart lighting, smart thermostats and smart TVs surrounding us.
Consider potential implementations:
By tapping into these capabilities, storytellers can create experiences that are more immersive, emotional and personal than ever before (though note all genres or styles are good fits). And in doing so, they will be able to enhance the most foundational element of storytelling: the suspension of disbelief. The potential here is enormous – and far exceeds that provided by simply avoiding ads and watching the next episodes without delay. To date, however, the suspension of disbelief has actually been an impediment to interactive storytelling.
Specifically, “choose your own adventure” and user-driven VR experiences are undermined by the fact they constantly require the “story” to first stop in order to proceed. Every time a “new” experience is needed, audiences need to pick up a remote or move a cursor or turn around and go back. This costs more in immersion than interactivity is able to enhance.
But as semantic recognition improves, for example, this friction will start to reduce. Rather than fumble for their mobile phone and try to select “Frosties”, a viewer will be able to just say “Frosties”. An audience’s sense of immersion will be further enhanced by the use of their own personal devices as part of the storytelling experience. Receiving a call from Freddy Krueger on your real mobile phone is scarier than receiving one on a fake VR phone you can’t really touch. In that sense, it’s perhaps not productive to think about “Choose your own adventure”, audio and AR/VR/MR as different when considering the future of media. It’s when they’re united that they’re interesting. Immersion increases, as does the sense of influence and perhaps most importantly, that of literal presence in the story.
Similarly, we can consider how the digital distribution of “sports” will change sports, rather than just the viewing experience. Today, it doesn’t matter if you’re watching Ninja on Twitch, the Counter-Strike Finals in Steam, or the NBA All-Star Game on WatchTNT/NBA League Pass – interactivity typically means little more than the ability for at-home viewers to change camera angles, customize on-screen data or pretend you’re sitting courtside. But as these same capabilities proliferate and improve, they will start to change and gamify live sports. The integration of live gambling, for example, has already inspired golf-spinoff events like The Match: Tiger vs. Phil. What happens when the at home audience becomes part of the in-stadium experience? The answer isn’t yet clear, but the statistical impact of playing at home versus away speaks to the potential.
At a broader (and far more thrilling) level, remote interactivity will also inspire and produce brand new sports. At-home audiences have always been far more financially important to the major leagues as in-stadium attendees, but these sports have never been designed around the former group. Going forward, new e–sports and interactive experiences will emerge in which gameplay/competition is rooted in the spectator engagement (The Hunger Games, if you will, or American Gladiator where the audience controls the stage). And this means more than just ceding some influence to the audiences; it means a fundamentally different experience.
For example, these games (or their narratives) might never have a “start or stop” time, and they might never “reset” – and thus if you’re not watching, you’re missing out. Alternatively, the rules might be controlled by the audience – or at minimum, be routinely changed based on the behaviors of audience. Historically ESPN decided who played whom and when in NCAA football – to the point of even creating (and drafting) bowls to fill gaps in the network’s schedule. With new, audience-focused esports, we might see the audience taking this type of control via open-source styled governance.
This isn’t to say traditional video content or sports are going away, but the future of content is what I consider (and invest around) as “Immersive”, “Personalized”, and “Interactive” (or “IPI”). Each of these areas fundamentally change the content – in terms of what it is, the experience it generates, how it’s produced, controlled by its creators, enjoyed by its audiences, and more.
Naturally, there will be a progressive evolution in these capabilities and experiences; the examples emphasized above are sophisticated and will take time to develop. Indeed, elements of this thinking have existed since the late 1990s in advance of technologies such as DOCSIS 2.0. But timing, underlying infrastructure (e.g. sensor-laden mobile devices + ubiquitous connectivity) and the right implementation is always key. Esports has also exited since the late 1990s (ESL was formed in 2000), for example, but its popularization didn’t come from LAN parties or even web-based competition, but from Twitch broadcasts of single player experiences.
To this point, the rise of IPI entertainment is already well underway. December 2018’s release of Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch represented a significant advance in interactivity across three levers. First, it likely represents the most widely consumed “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” story in history. Second, it was creatively and functionally well executed (rather than a pop-up of [Decision 1] v. [Decision 2], the options slid into the bottom of the screen and the background video continued to progress naturally). And third, it was being supported by the most influential media distributor in history: Netflix. Given these achievements, it’s no surprise Bandersnatch generated so much press attention. But seven months earlier Netflix performed another interesting test.
Development Not Arrested
In May 2018, Netflix announced the release of a new, re-edited version Arrested Development season four (which had been released five years earlier). The original S4 was comprised of 15 episodes averaging 30 minutes in length and had abandoned the sitcom standard A/B/C plot structure of seasons one to three to instead center each episode on a single character. The re-edit, meanwhile, converted the season to 22 episodes that were roughly 22 minutes each and followed the traditional A/B/C format.
Season 4’s re-release was largely covered in the context of its original creatives failures, and to a lesser extent, as a reminder of the value of linear-era creative limitations (i.e. many argued that it was Netflix’s lack of linear limitations that led to the season’s bloated and confused storytelling). But what was significant was that the season was changed to begin with. Netflix, a famously data-driven company, saw that audiences thought Season 4 didn’t work, and was not only willing to accept this fact, but embrace it.
The upsides of this approach may seem intuitive: Season 4 was already shot and the cost of re-editing would be nominal; the restructure might have convinced millions of viewers to re-try the season; and Netflix was about to release Season 5 of Arrested Development, which picks up the storytelling right where Season 4 ends and thus was dependent on the season’s viewership. However, creative content isn’t made this way. Not only is it rarely changed after release, you certainly don’t see creatives changes their product based on audience response. Especially five years later.
The re-edit of Arrested Development helped to solidify a trend started by Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo: in the digital era, all content is “alive”. After its February 2016 release, Kanye spent another four months continually tweaking the album. Songs were lengthened and shortened, audio mixes and featured artists were changed, and a new closing track was added. Kanye didn’t even have access to detailed performance data – just gut feel and online feedback. He wanted to make it better. And he could.
Enjoy the Violence(?)
The advent of “living” content has two key drivers. First, monetization and viewing are no longer hyper-concentrated on an initial airing (TV) or transaction (album purchase, movie ticket). Instead, value is maximized by sustaining engagement over time; no longer does the majority of a show or movie’s audience come from its opening weekend or initial airing. Second, digital and on-demand access means that content can continually change over time. No longer is it entombed in DVD cases and leather-bound spines. Instead, it’s placed in digital carbonite that can be frozen and unfrozen at will. This does have downsides (few would be excited that George Lucas could more easily edit Star Wars). But it also means mistakes can be fixed, previously insurmountable technical hurdles can be overcome, and data can be used to supplement creative decision making in an unprecedented fashion. From an engagement standpoint, the opportunity to incorporate viewer feedback about potential dealbreakers (such as racist tropes in the story) can be addressed – which would be tremendous.
I can imagine three types of implementations. The first will be pacing and plotting corrections. Given the importance and popularity of serialization in television, a weak season or stretch of episodes tends to permanently shrink a show’s audience. This is particularly true for the first season of a show as these titles tend to lack pre-existing goodwill that can convince bored viewers to stick with it. There’s simply too much other content available for audiences to sit through 10 hours in the hopes that hours 11 onward are great. This tends to be true even when audiences know that these later seasons are terrific (just ask Halt & Catch Fire). Re-edits provide SVOD services with the opportunity to use their data to shorten seasons that misfired or prune plotlines that drove significant audience attrition (say, the first half of Lost’s third season). This sort of tightening might keep audiences engaged for longer overall, even if it costs some lost watch time.
More broadly, we may see a sort of A/B-testing styled releases. With episodic series, network executives have always struggled with the right airing order – should the fourth episode actually be second, or should the third, etc. Netflix is already taking a stab at this by shuffling episodes of Love, Death and Robots. Similarly, many comedies go through significant growing pains in their first seasons as they try to determine which characters, jokes and tone work best (Mike Schur, co-creator of Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place and co-showrunner of the US version of The Office likes to say the entire first seasons of his shows are like pilots). Going forward, SVOD services might release different versions, cuts or episode orders of their shows in order to see and respond to what audiences preferred. Maybe an alienating character should have been toned down (say, Jar Jar Binks), certain punchlines worked better or maybe the audience simply responded poorly to the levels of violence (e.g. Negan’s baseball bat murders on The Walking Dead) or cursing. Just as Netflix doesn’t need to ordain the right UI decision, it doesn’t need to decide the right take on an original series.
This, in turn, may lead to (or be proceeded by) studios investing in distinct versions of their content from day one. Historically, tonal versioning existed in only two ways: the addition of “hard-R” jokes designed to support “uncut” editions of DVDs, and vulgarity/sex-related censoring that would support daytime TV and airplane viewing. But more than this wasn’t practical historically. You couldn’t air two versions of a show live, and it was impractical to put multiple editions of a feature film in theaters concurrently. With OTT, you not only have a business case, you can economically support myriad versions and distribute them via personalization. Do you want violence on or off? Cursing? Sex scenes?
If planned in advance, the impact can be great. For example, studios often struggle with the decision to make a film (such as Terminator: Genisys or Venom) PG-13 or R-rated. While the latter can often serve the underlying story better (the first two Terminators were both Rs), it limits the number of tickets sold (which always scares a distributor). As a result, many succumb to the self-sabotage of making an R film into a PG-13 one. Going forward, we may see films originally shot to support different versions. This means added cost, but it also means different versions are more than just removing explicit content or adding more in. Instead it’s different characters or characterizations, even different motives or set-pieces. Once Upon a Deadpool, Fox’s PG-13 re-release of Deadpool 2, was a cute idea – but while cutting jokes and adding a new framing device may mean that the title is now acceptable for minors, it doesn’t mean it works for them. Content is more complex than this. The box office agreed. The original release grossed $319MM domestically, while the latter hit only $6MM.
More interesting, however, is the way that versioning can be the point in and of itself. In 2018, Terence Malick released a new version of his Academy Award Nominated film The Tree of Life. This version is 35% longer (50 minutes) and fundamentally re-edited and sequenced. But crucially, Malick has staunchly rejected the idea that this new release, which he has been working on for seven years (versus five for the original film), is a “Director’s Cut” or “Better Cut”. Instead, it’s a different cut.
“No one asked Bob Dylan to play a song the same way every night,” Malick reportedly told a Criterion executive. “Why should I have to make one film?” To this end, why indefinitely rewatch the same take? Why just ‘remaster’ old footage? Especially as times and styles change?
The focus on “living” content might seem disconnected from this essay’s initial focus on robust interactivity and audience immersion. And it does represent a more incremental evolution to the past century of mass media. But the macro-point is that more than a decade since the launch of Netflix’s SVOD service, we’ve yet to see a fundamental rethinking of how content is conceived, produced or maintained. Almost all content – to the tune of nearly $100B per year – it is made the same way. The advances made have been almost exclusively in technical delivery.
The next decade will – or at least, should – see much of this change. The idea of “locked” content is likely to dissipate, and with it the idea of single–release versions of a title. Beyond that, the fundamental structures of content will change – when is it made, who does it focus on, what is the experience versus the packaging, who designs it, how does it evolve over time, when does it start or stop. This is all newly possible. And with every mobile device sold and every incremental minute spent online, the opportunity grows. And it means a lot more than simply moving a video from the TV to a tablet.