Television and the Data Salt Mines
Sharon Strover / The University of Texas at Austin


I am not given to crystal balls and talk of the future. I prefer data – frail, suggestive and vulnerable though they may be. Data trap you in the present but hint at a future, and certainly suggest a past. And this is an interesting time to be talking about data, because television is generating a lot more of it. Digitization is core to the transformation of television into data, and the new sites of data creation and collection that are strongly linked to television are out of the reach of public policy or regulation. Television itself creates more data on all of us, and it contributes to uses of data that are outside of our policy apparatus’ ability to control.

Even as the device we used to call a physical television set has morphed into a variety of screens of various sizes and shapes and levels of mobility, so too the industry behind it has fractured into numerous businesses. Of course television has never been just one industry; it has always been a terrain with creative writers and actors, distributors, hardware manufacturers, and networks, among others. However, the layers – with all of the resonance of that term for Internet architecture – have multiplied enormously in the 21st century, and a characteristic becoming more and more dominant across the layers involves using data capabilities resident in distribution and service platforms to better track, predict, and market to users or viewers. If this came down to a superior method of having advertisements follow us around from device to device, service to service, program to program, this would be a trivial development. However, the stakes are much higher.

I spend a lot of time thinking about infrastructure these days, particularly broadband or high speed network infrastructure, a significant component of the system providing television to homes. We often think of these networks as “the Internet,” even though they are just one component of the Internet, the so-called last mile, or first mile, depending on your perspective. Cable companies and telephone companies (both pretty outdated designations, given what these companies actually do with converged services) control most of those last mile networks in the U.S. Unlike the regulation associated with systems like broadcast television which uses public spectrum, the rules and protocols for public policy associated with these wired or wireless phone networks that are providing much more than “phone” service are uncertain: there is no automatic “public interest” standard, as was written into the 1934 Communication Act for broadcasting, and no common carriage mandate – traditionally an idea associated with telephone (and other utility) services but relevant to contested net neutrality principles ((A decision on net neutrality challenges to the FCC should be forthcoming in early 2014. In the current case before the US Court of Appeals in the DC Circuit at this writing, Verizon charges the FCC is treating its Internet service like a common carrier instead of like an unregulated “information service.” Net neutrality’s nondiscrimination prescriptions disable carriers’ abilities to preferentially advantage some services over others in terms of delivery/loading speed. The carriers view their networks simply as private property. Many predict the Court will rule in Verizon’s favor, prompting the demise of net neutrality. Click here for example.)) – and forget anything related to price regulation. The situation is compounded by the geographic monopoly or duopoly power that provider companies enjoy – i.e., they face very limited competition.


Why should we care, and what does this have to do with television? Let’s look at some data:

  • Subscriptions to multichannel television are not increasing – Charter, Comcast and Time Warner all reported cable television subscriber losses last year ((See here for example ));
  • Yet cable companies Comcast and Charter simultaneously reported gains in Internet service subscriptions; Comcast is the largest broadband provider in the U.S., followed by AT&T;
  • Internet traffic is rising vigorously, and one third of the traffic last year was associated with Netflix ((Click here));
  • Prices charged by cable companies increase at about a 6% average, according to the FCC, outstripping the yearly consumer price index average, which rose 1.2% in 2012-2013 ((See here for consumer price index details));
  • Internet service providers were ranked lowest across numerous industries in a national annual consumer satisfaction survey, with Comcast and Time Warner rated lowest (( See here));
  • Even though carriers are improving our high speed networks, the U.S. ranks somewhere between 14th and 38th in international surveys in terms of speed and geographic reach, and data suggest we in the U.S. pay more for less bandwidth than do consumers in other developed countries. ((See here for background))

What this amounts to is an increasing dependence on Internet transmission providers, wireline and wireless, for television and other content, with rising prices and less than satisfactory service. I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly feeling a little trapped. As more aspects of our lives are entangled with the online world, controls on access, prices, data service volume and quality do matter.

On top of this, our ISPs, whether cable or telephone companies, aren’t really charging us for television. Rather, they are charging us for anything we do using their connections – YouTube videos, Hulu, Netflix – or email, uploading videos, and sharing files. It just so happens that a lot of what we “do” amounts to watching television in some way. And everything we do constitutes a transaction, a new data point.

The use of transaction/interactive data affects our lives in a number of ways. For example, the FTC will release a report early in 2014 that describes the extensive data broker business, building on a Senate Commerce Committee staff report from December, 2013. Data brokers compile and sell information on us based on our Internet searches, health profiles, and an array of personal information: “data brokers maintain data as specific as whether consumers view a high volume of YouTube videos, the type of car they drive, ailments they may have such as depression or diabetes, whether they are a hunter, what types of pets they have; or whether they have purchased a particular shampoo product in the last six months….” ((From A review of the Data Broker Industry, A Staff Report for Senator Rockefeller, December 18, 2013. Available here.)) Our digital footprints leave traces that these companies follow for purposes that go beyond normal marketing practices. ((The Staff Report notes: “For example, millions of consumers are now using computers, smart phones, and tablets to make purchases, plan trips, and research personal financial and health questions, among other activities. These digitally recorded decisions provide insights into the consumer’s habits, preferences, and financial and health status. A wide and ever-expanding variety of other routine activities also are becoming part of consumers’ digital trail — from viewing decisions regarding video streaming services to online searches and mapping requests to personal fitness monitoring through wearable devices to stocking “smart” refrigerators that record food purchases and monitor expiration dates.”)) For example, Netflix uses data to inform its creative process, analyzing what people like in order to formulate their original content. ((See here for details on this process.))


Furthermore, thinking of television as data, as a range of interchangeable digital capabilities, changes things. If you throw data caps (the caps are the usage threshold that trips large fees if we use more data than in prescribed plans) that Internet providers impose on us into the mix, or if we consider usage-based billing for Internet services, suddenly “television” becomes curiously equivalent to a lot of other data services, including that distance education course that eats bandwidth and the new mobile health application your doctor wants you to try out. Which one will put you over your data cap? Which do you need more?

This amounts to more than constrained consumer choice. As the Internet has absorbed all media forms (photography, music, newspapers, film, etc.) and become a central means for distribution, the absence of an explicit public stake and role for regulation means public interest values are jeopardized.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf (Google’s Internet Evangelist, and President of the ACM, the worldwide educational and computing association) optimistically commented that the contemporary mobile and embedded Internet will create more opportunities: “One of them is related to measurement and monitoring. It gives us the ability to see trends and to see things that we might not see if we under-sample. That, plus being able to see large aggregates of what we hope is sufficiently anonymized information, can help us reveal states that we might not otherwise see. It is like being able to figure out flu trends. I think of it as a kind of sociological or a socioeconomic CT scan that is helping us to see the dynamics in the world in a way that we couldn’t otherwise see. And of course it leads to all kinds of worries about privacy and the like” ((Source here)). The problem is that the data are not anonymous, and neither we, as citizens or consumers, nor our policymakers, have access to or control over the data or the industries generating it. A socioeconomic CT scan sounds useful, but with the current state of affairs, it is highly unlikely that we, the public, would ever see it. It would be data for sale, or possibly data that is hidden if it jeopardizes industries with a financial stake in what could be negative information. Television is one portal – but an extremely important one – contributing to the growth of physical networks and business practices that are flourishing outside of any serious scrutiny.

Image Credits:
1. Binary Code TV
2. Statistics
3. Connectivity

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The Future of Television?
Sharon Strover / The University of Texas at Austin

The Future of Television

Amid all the doom and gloom coming from incumbent broadcasters as they face the fact that some of their spectrum may go away and that people are finding a lot of things to watch besides their channels, a perennial bright spot for most media industries is South by Southwest (SXSW). The Interactive Festival in particular has morphed from a developer’s bonanza into all things web, and this year (and for the past couple of years) that has included television. But the festival has backed into television: it arrived at it through new, interactive technologies, rather than the other way around, i.e., getting to new technologies through plain old television – and that’s what keeps the media folks at SXSW upbeat. The venue known for introducing Twitter and Foursquare, and for mixing up the futurists with the alarmists and all of us in-between, will have a lot of people debating the merits of the latest innovations and actively trying to figure out how to monetize them. SXSW generates a lot of fun and a lot of press about whatever is the latest and greatest, and its brilliance in bringing to town not just the developers and the money people but also committed and innovative users, people doing things good for society as well as people doing things good for themselves, means that there will be some wacky and wonderful ideas kicked around the halls However, unless Bruce Sterling addresses it in his closing keynote, the program probably won’t have time to entirely connect the dots on how people – co-creators, users, participants in the jargon of the day – are driving technologies and re-inventing where and how entertainment works.

SXSW has hosted several panels in the past addressing what is often called interactive television – an old term that has been around for a few decades but realized in fitful, jerky ways that have been underwhelming (anyone remember Qube?). Folks at the conference usually don’t quibble that much over what to call these innovations; they are too busy moving on to the next big thing to worry about finding a better term for what seems like dramatically different engagement or a total re-thinking of a medium. In fact, many conferences try to stake their claim for bringing out the next dominant technology: This year the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) showcased a lot of television systems for the future (Google TV, Apple TV), with no clear winner and no single, persuasive vision. I like this quote from ZDNet about CES:

Too many hardware choices? That’s problem number one. The second: there are too many ecosystems, too. With so many players (none truly dominant) in the TV space, it’s becoming challenging for a consumer (and developer) to pick one with confidence. There’s a serious need for natural selection to occur in the space.

CES is all about things (to sell), not ideas, but the techno-centric vision it supports masks a lot of the complexity of the “ecosystem.” The often clunky and arcane visions of television systems captured in the European Interactive TV conferences for the past several years at least investigate the “entertainment experience” from a design point of view. But the visions from all these conferences are only partial. Maybe I like what I often see at SXSW because they don’t aspire to see the complete picture since they realize it is always changing – and the idea of “natural selection” is laughable. The Darwinian process is upended between IP laws, technological developments in cloud computing, net neutrality, screen innovations, and the ebb and flow of sociality in places like Facebook. Selection, yes; natural, far from it. The SXSW view at least does a better job of recognizing the layers in the process by bringing users and designers and content creators into the same room, giving them the same chances to speak and explore together.


SXSW Interactive

This is a contrast with how we scholars try to fix a moment in time, halt a capability or a technology, at least for a few years, so that we can characterize it and study it. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (2004) differentiated “TV” from “television” almost a decade ago, defining television as the expanding terrain of multiple viewing and interacting experiences, and while their attempt to find a better term for what was going on is laudable, it failed to standardize how we describe the new entertainment domain ((Spigel, L. & Olsson, J. (Eds.) (2004). Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Durham: Duke University Press)). Jonathan Sterne’s recent essay here on Flow used the helpful word “diluted” to refer to the uncertain experience-that-used-to-be-known-as-television, but more important than that, he draws our attention to the unstable nature of conceptions of “medium.” Our own research group, The Immersive Television project, recently found evidence of this in an empirical fashion: in a recent bi-national survey of college students, the language people use to distinguish platform from content, viewing form from delivery method, or uses from distribution method, multiplied into a combinatory morass. For a researcher, this creates the need to specify platform, setting, content, and user behavior in order to understand much of anything about any specific engagement. While a traditional view might understand television delivery as the physical intermediary between sender and receiver of the signal (such as cable, DSL, or over-the-air antenna-based signal processing), viewers/users increasingly understand “reception” of programming to be dependent on a mix of services that function as go-betweens for digital content; the idea of “reception” fails to capture what people are doing with and to the content.

One of those intermediary services is Facebook, the heavyweight of social media and a favorite subject as well as target at SXSW panels. Statistics from the service ComScor, for example, show that by 2011 Facebook was more important for online linking than other conventional portals; this social media site currently occupies a central role as a communication and entertainment platform for its users. Our own research found that Facebook is a control central, a Swiss Army knife of capabilities that allows people to keep up with friends, read or watch the news, play games, and figure out what else there might be to watch – on Hulu, YouTube or network TV or your friend’s blog. A huge majority of people we surveyed used Facebook as a recommendation system for deciding “what to watch.” And this is the point that panels at SXSW will probably amplify this year: content is everywhere, and we follow it throughout our days and nights. Time-shifting has morphed into something in which the temporal lacks an index – it is all time. And it is all screens, with Facebook at the center of all of it.


ComScor demonstrates how Facebook became more important for online linking

What does Facebook mean for the structure of entertainment – or taste cultures in the near future? It seems clear the idea of entertainment needs to encompass the social nature of media, whether by rebranding interactive TV systems as “social TV” (Chorianopoulos & Lekakos, 2009), a term that comes up repeatedly at SXSW, or recognizing that audiences have extended their entertainment considerations beyond what we used to think of as the traditional logics ((Chorianopoulos, K., and Lekakos, G. (2008). Introduction to Social TV: Enhancing the Shared Experience with Interactive TV.” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 24, 2, 113-120.||D404A21C5BB053405B1A640AFFD44AE3)). Perhaps we can look to efforts like the Immersive Television project (, for some insights; ImTV links computer scientists and designers with information and media scholars, to design and map new digital media workflow models – including the “workflow” of the user (João Magalaes from Portugal is the lead on this project and we have a group here in Austin working on it). The Connected Viewing Initiative from UCSB’s Michael Curtin and Jennifer Holt has assembled a range of researchers to look at the evolving digital media ecosystems from a large range of perspectives – including economic, regulatory, user/participant, social media and archiving facets. These new projects are grappling with the way that television is becoming social and pervasive, but also recognize that it is linked – or mired – in an industrial setting with unruly economic models and a tumultuous regulatory landscape that is undecided on some crucial issues of access, privacy and control.

SXSW celebrates the chaos and fertile ideas that flow when we bring a broad mix of people into the same room and it reserves a place at the table for us, for users/participants, alongside the developers and industry figures. It brings the post-flow model into view: people are highly selective and engaged participants with media, co-creating their experiences, for better or for worse. And we can rely on Bruce Sterling to unravel some of the dark as well as the passionate and brilliant dreams within this vision.

*Thanks to numerous conversations with Nick Muntean, William Moner, Brett Caraway and our ImTV group for these observations.

Image and Video Credits:
3. ComScore (2012). Report by Dan Piech.

My Big Flat Screen TV

by: Sharon Strover / University of Texas at Austin

Our household finally succumbed to the lure of the big flat screen TV. Because I teach technology-related classes, many people assume I have a subscription to TiVo and the latest integrated computer-TV-sound system available, but in fact I am a latecomer to the latest round of television-related innovations even though I’ve been closely watching them develop over the past few years.

As in many families, our big screen was just one piece in the newest generation of home theatre innovations. An improved sound system came first (linked to our computer’s CPU with its digitized music tracks), which ultimately “demanded” a high definition digital picture accompaniment, which in turn logically led to an upgraded cable subscription (the digital tier) plus the personal digital video recorder capability. Now issues of the consumer-oriented magazine Sound and Vision (successor to High Fidelity) arrive at our house regularly. The prospect of adding TV-centric furniture pictured in the magazine — LaZBoys with drink and remote control pockets — prompts some lively discussions at home. But more broadly, I wonder what we’ve brought into the house that may not be as obvious as the big screen itself.

Big Screen TV1 The new home theater system

The first sessions of home theater experiences included movies with booming you-are-there soundtracks, Blue Crush‘s thundering ocean waves, Amelie‘s mood-setting music and surprising sound effects, and other fare that had won awards for best sound. We are now into the months of bone-crunching professional football, the injuries and insults reverberating in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. It is less appealing to go out when theater-quality audio and crisp digital pictures are right here, but what exactly are we giving up?

Whether we call this “cocooning,” Faith Popcorn’s 1980s term for hunkering down in living rooms during one of the domestic crises, or whether this is another logical stage of what Raymond Williams describes as “mobile privatization,” an industrial command and control system to better channel social communication, big screen TVs and DVRs create a kind of hybrid personal space. We listen to music, watch TV and movies, play games in tailored, private environments, often choosing the living room over engaging a diverse and unpredictable public in the open spaces — the cinema, the theater, the concert hall or club, even the game arcade. Big screen TVs usher in a large investment in home entertainment systems with all the ancillary technologies that properly outfit the 21st century living room, but maybe the package is a deal with the devil.

I know of at least one person who uses Dance Dance Revolution, that most public and group-oriented of video games, as a workout tool in the privacy of his own home. Sales of small, portable DVD playback devices (including Playstations, of course) have soared as people take their personal viewing spaces with them. Cars embed screens to quell the attention demands of children in the backseat, and WiFi sites multiply in cafes, bars, and other gathering places, inducing a curious key-tapping ambience into venues once marked by conversation’s conviviality. Third generation (3G) mobile phones can download television news, sports games, and other live entertainment.

While the status of the movie theaters and the clubs as public spheres can be questioned, there’s no doubt that the technologies that enable people to design their information and entertainment environments drive them into their homes and introduce a very private element into formerly public spaces.

Plasma TVPlasma TV

Systems that join television and movies to the Internet, both in physical networks — the infrastructure — and in content cross-promotion and reinforcement, are now the norm. The big screen TV and its circulatory system of computer, cable, remote controls and sound system signal some new possibilities for viewers/users as well as for industries. Television programs and movies are wedded to Internet sites, and all are bound to advertisers. So too as people watch, play, engage the television and computer screens, they are locked into the cycle. Whether it is encouraging people using cell phones to text message their votes for favorite American Idol performers, cultivating TV show fan bases through Internet sites, sending radio listeners to websites for extended versions of news stories, or establishing “star” personality blogs, media industries are creating new, integrated ways of cultivating our attention and interest. Raymond Williams’ notion of flow has a very different meaning in this space that moves across platforms and across people and products so seamlessly. The way academic and critics talk and think about “TV” or “film” or “the Internet” just is not up to the fluid way we experience technologies or media. In addition, that connected fabric of media interactions is penetrated with mechanisms that allow industries to obtain data about us that is far superior to what was available under the conventional television or cable model, giving us a glimpse of the less desirable qualities of the connected environment.

Nielsen people meter and diary data cannot compete with the sorts of profiles that are compiled through new communication technologies; the capacity to track viewer/user attention, communication and consumption behavior are now built into hardware and software. DVRs yield extensive pictures of viewing habits, sortable by zip code and, under some circumstances, address. When TiVo reported earlier this year that its users had watched the Janet Jackson Super Bowl episode three times more often than any other moment in the broadcast, TiVo users expressed shock that their viewing behaviors were scrutinized so closely. Data mining is plugged into all communication systems, and as two-way devices proliferate in the living room, collection and manipulation of that data will become an art form. As we’re increasingly tethered to systems that gather information about us — what we’re watching or doing, for how long, and who we are, where we live, what we purchase, how we entertain ourselves, who we talk with, our personal profiles — businesses are able to target their marketing efforts with precision.

Flat Screen TVFlat Screen Plasma TV

Interactivity used to be the word used to describe the future of television, but the interactivity accompanying the large HD televisions isn’t exactly what the hawkers originally had in mind. This year Nielsen is crunching viewer data from TiVo to figure out how detailed viewing data can mesh with marketing purposes, and even though TiVo insists their data have been anonymized, somehow I am not entirely reassured given the frequent reports from all corners on database hacks and security breaches. Even the interactivity built into DVRs that allows viewers to fast-forward over commercials is controversial within the industry. One media analyst recommended in all seriousness that DVRs be regulated to eliminate any commercial-skipping or fast rewind capability, likening this in importance to federal legislation on tuning VHF channels, or closed captioning requirements. Interactivity is fine only if it does not conflict with market goals.

Maybe my big TV doesn’t directly present privacy threats, reduced social contact, and questionable levels of insularity by itself. And insofar as a lot of those big screen TVs (really most TVs) are sold around the time of the Super Bowl with all the event’s attendant parties, it’s clear that big screen TVs can be vehicles for sociability. Media and technology enthusiasts repeat that all these new technologies are about collaboration, social interaction and access to knowledge, and they may well be all about that. But equally they are just one piece of a larger enterprise that embeds us in intensified networks of video, audio and data flows. The push-pull of control over the networks will continue at least for a while as we figure out the significance of four to six major companies controlling all the backbone networks in the country and media conglomerates that continue to merge, consolidate and joint venture. Meanwhile the big flat screen TVs will keep slipping into our living rooms.

CNET News “TiVo watchers uneasy after post-Super Bowl reports”
PC World “TiVo Compiles, Sells Users’ Viewing Data”
Nielsen Media Research

Image credits:

1. The new home theater system

2. Plasma TV

3. Flat Screen Plasma TV

Please feel free to comment.