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 domain1. 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 logics2. 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.

  1. Spigel, L. & Olsson, J. (Eds.) (2004). Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Durham: Duke University Press []
  2. 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 []


  • It’s uncertain how future media will be received, but I’m not convinced that “social TV” and tech re-branding changes the game. It’ll certainly have impact on the distribution of media. I admit a large percentage of my daily video ingestion goes to facebook, tumblr, and twitter, however the bulk of my clicks go to video titles or images that support my interests or my friend’s judgment, not based on if I can communicate my opinions freely and immediately.

    There’s definitely a new demographic of viewers that seek this kind of show, however, I have the feeling that the majority of viewers are like me and there to view, not respond. After all, isn’t that an aspect of all entertainment? To just unwind and relax? With streamlined browsing, the folks who crave the sociality of media can quickly jump to twitter or facebook if needed, where those sites have community homepages to fuel the most current of trends.

    A friend recently gave the example of sports coverage and the inclusion of twitter/hashtags/trending with specific programs. Is anyone actually driven toward a particular network’s sports coverage because they encourage social media sites? The reason to watch the bulk of today’s programming is as it has ever been.

    SXSW and CES are great examples of folks who already devote their time and attention to these issues. Most TV viewers are still drawn to content that entertains. In the 1940’s and 50’s, television brought us together in a nationalistic ritual. As the scheduling and time-sensitive aspects of programming become less and less applicable to modern viewing habits, perhaps social media will fill that communitarian spirit.

  • Tyrell Lloyd (Niccolo Bodner)

    With newer generations being raised within an ever advancing technology and constant access to social media through smartphones, television has largly become something to not devote your full attention to. There is a longstanding divergence between those who intently tune in to their favorite programs and those who watch while engaged in multitasking, including those plugged into social media via phones or computers.

    The ones who seek quality programming are less and less bound by premier dates, with the easy availablility of on-demand stations, internet streaming and downloading (both legal and illegal), services like netflix streaming, and the advent of season dvd box sets. The result, in conjunction with easy access to social media application, is that live TV is more and more being reduced to background noise meant to compliment other forms of socializing.

    I can see quality narrative programs and miniseries becoming seperate from broadcast television, instead finding their home on streaming services unassociated with networks. At the same time, the mindless entertainment that riddles the airwaves, most notably the vast amount of reality programs, would do well to embrace social media as an important compliment to their experience. I could see live television morphing into a large interactive experience fully utilizing social media such as the internet and other mobile plattforms, while more traditional narrative television carves out a new existence on the streaming frontier.

    New implemented technology such as 3D sports programming could also potentially lead to lust of creating new additional narrative programming which could result in a new form of interactive participation through traditional cable service

  • It seems to me that generally, possibilities for time-shifted viewing and other forms of post-broadcast consumption, whether DVDs, streaming, or any of the myriad other possibilities, do not necessarily reduce the possibility for media as a society-making artifact. Certainly, the need to be tuned in for a first-run broadcast is not as pressing when time-shifted viewing is available, but at the same time, the variety of available options for viewing means that “missing” a media event is no longer a disqualifier for participating in a popular culture moment.

    Facebook as a gateway to new media, I suspect, will amplify this possibility, but at the same time presents its own risk of segmenting audiences into disparate islands of culture, in ways that are not necessarily apparent to the casual user. It’s easy to imagine a new video making the rounds as a user shares it on a wall, and its passed on from friend to friend.

    At the same time, however, it’s impossible to know the effect that Facebook’s coding has on this process, and as a for-profit entity, it’s under no obligation to reveal either the results of its data mining or its own code. It could very well be the case that when a shared video is posted it’s equitably spread through a user’s entire network of friends, but it may just as easily be the case instead that it is distributed differently (with more prominence, for example; or appearing at all) on a friend’s wall who’s previously viewed a video post from that user, as opposed to one who doesn’t routinely consider that friend’s video choices.

    It’s easy to mistake Facebook for a “portal,” a convenient service that enables us to see what our friends are enjoying, and base our media choices on those choices. Fundamentally, however, Facebook profits from two essential services: sell our data to marketers, and sell marketers’ products to us. This will naturally tend to package consumers into demographics, and with finer and finer means of distinguishing these sets of consumers, content can be custom filtered. It hasn’t yet become common practice (to my knowledge), but it’s worth bearing in mind also that facebook, as a private company, is within its terms of service and its rights to ban users for various infractions, cutting them out of this media referral space.

    Further, and perhaps most interestingly, is that an entire industrial ecosystem has sprung up within facebook, game designers and other app designers using its infrastructure to not only market, but distribute and operate their software. This practice is spreading to media as well, with companies such as Katalyst Media producing content specifically for first-run distribution on facebook.

    It is not simply that it’s “an industrial setting with unruly economic models and a tumultuous regulatory landscape that is undecided on some crucial issues of access, privacy and control.” It is that many of these app and now media producers, along with consumers, are surrending both privacy and control for access.

  • With so many new avenues for content, it is clear that Facebook and other social media will play a crucial role in how we choose what entertainment to consume. Especially considering the fact that most entertainment, or more likely, all entertainment, will be available online. The notion of entertainment ecosystems is especially interesting to think about with respect to the ability for social networks to spread “television” shows. It will be interesting to see how demographics both find and consume their entertainment. For example, will people branch out beyond the tastes of their friends,

    The Hollywood Reporter recently did a poll that found 90% of young people would PREFER to text and engage with social media during a movie in a movie theater. So imagine how integral social media now is in the lives of young people. It is considered another form of entertainment, one that enhances the other. However, there is a certain downside. Mark Zuckerberg has made the case for adding a “social networking” aspect to all entertainment because [paraphrased] “who wouldn’t want to enjoy watching a movie or TV show with friends?” The only problem I foresee is that some programs you really don’t want to see with friends, and moreover, many people don’t consider their Facebook friends to be real friends at all. Consuming certain types of entertainment (say entertainment that would be considered unpopular in your online social group), may not be enhanced by social networking at all.

  • The future of TV seems to be going in the directional flow of “social TV.” Consumers now are turning more and more to family, friends and social networking to choose what shows they watch and how they watch them. Facebook, for example, is one dominant form of social networking that exerts a significant influence over the structure of entertainment (“taste cultures”) both now and for the future.

    Our culture today is focused on quantity over quality. We constantly want to know what is going on as it happens. This up-to-date mentality has produced an almost ADD society as a result. The days of engaging in one thing at a time, such as just watching TV are a thing of the past. Many people feel the need to multitask, and pushing the limit on how much can be done at once. As stated above in a poll by the Hollywood Reporter, young people “prefer to text and engage with social media during a movie” in a theater. The same goes for driving too. TV, like going to the movies or driving, is not enough by itself. I have to admit that I am one of those multitaskers when it comes to watching TV. I will either be doing homework or work on my laptop while checking emails in addition to watching TV. It’s not that I don’t appreciate TV, but TV has dramatically changed over time. Commercials, for one, drive me crazy. They are more annoying, aggressive, longer, and even louder than the actual show be watched. And during a single commercial break many times I will see the same commercial two or three times.

    Another issue is that there is not enough substance on TV anymore. The quality of shows and their run time is shorter. For example, when the Oprah Show used to be on she would say three words then reveal “more when we come back.” Many TV talk shows and local news shows encourage their viewers to follow them online for “more information,” or “up-to-date, minute-by-minute news.” In a way, television itself is encouraging more viewers to switch over to the Internet. The future of TV is influenced by the rapidly changing culture that has emerged in part through Facebook and social networking.

  • I am also not convinced that “social tv” is the next step. While I enjoy social media and recognize its entertainment power, I do not believe we should rush things. Although new media moves at an extremely fast pace- often so fast we are unable to keep up with it as described above with the different definitions of television and other media terms by scholars- integrating social media with television could be detrimental and a misstep. We must be able to move fast enough to keep up with the technology but realize when to take a step back. In an industry where not acting upon an idea can make or break you in terms of the economic system, it is understandable why you’d want to. As a relatively active consumer of all media, I would rather Facebook stay off of my television. While, yes, we can find links and clips to different television shows on Facebook, the reverse integration is not logical as a consumer. Facebook may tell me what I would “like to watch” but it does not do so physically through my television, a separation I enjoy for the time being. Lastly, placing all of our eggs in one Facebook basket contradicts the point of this article. Technology moves so fast, that creating “social tv” could be a thing of yesterday, similar to all of the other ideas such as Google and Apple TV. This is merely a re-working of the term “interactive media.”

    If Facebook and social media WERE to converge backwards with television in the broadest sense, we’d hear about it on Facebook and Twitter.

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