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Television folks in industry conferences have been bombarded with “the coming of digital” for the past 8 years now. Words like ‘convergence’, numbers like ‘360’ and threats like ‘the end of TV as we know it’ have led to a collective hunger for practical answers: But what does digital really mean? And how do we make money from it?

Matured infrastructure (high speed internet, smartphones) has allowed practical answers to rise in the past three years, and businesses to develop around them. Those answers were, for the most part: VOD, digital activities (like play-along and Facebook voting) and social TV apps.

Their arrival restored the equilibrium. Generally speaking, we know what digital means and how to make money from it.

However, this is not “new television”. It best we made a few steps forward, at worst were settling for less. ‘Digital activity’ is mostly an added layer applied to a finished TV product. The show itself hasn’t evolved.

From book, through theatre, to film and television, every new technology has not just enabled a new stage for existing stories, but it has also provided unique and new ways to tell them. The digital revolution and the unfathomable reality of multiple screens hasn’t changed TV. It has mainly enhanced its marketing.

When The Million Pound Drop app allowed people to participate from home it was a breakthrough, yet three years have since passed and play-along hasn’t really advanced. Talent shows today allow voting through Twitter, but the audience pretty much has the same visibility on screen since SMS voting circa ten years ago.

Fans are encouraged to connect with the show on Facebook, but end up talking to the marketing person in charge of social media. A multitude of social TV apps allow you to discover added content synched with the show; stuff like IMDB pages and backstage footage that would have the exact same value if you had discovered them at any other time.

I’m not protesting against any of these. They are wonderful and innovative answers to the digital question, yet they are far from being the only answers. Focusing industry efforts almost exclusively around play-along and branded social activities is selling short the vision and possibilities of TV in the digital age.

What about allowing viewers to shape shows’ content? For example:

– Occupy Conan allowed audiences to interpret a pre-taped episode of Conan O’Brien’s show. From their animations, impersonations and recreations, a full episode was made.

In Holland, public broadcaster NPO/Nederland 3’s TV Lab got to act as TV critics and could judge 8 new pilots

– In DIY show Blog Cabin, the audience designs the house that the TV crew builds

– In 2005, the Lost community created worlds that the writers drew from in order to create a later season.

 

Unfortunately, not much in that spirit has happened since.

The TV world is an extremely saturated one. This is true on both a global and local level. It is also a world facing a growing demographic who consumes television in a very different way. Broadcasters have to address the digital question (and that’s the number one reason they do it); however, they have to be bolder.

Everybody has a talent show. In order to stand out from the crowd you need to say something new or say it in a new way. Digital is perfect for that pursuit because it corresponds to the biggest cultural change affecting our viewers, those who are not our viewers, and everyone else.

Being bold is also an economic imperative. In today’s fast-paced world, when something takes off it quickly reaches a mass audience and all that’s left for those joining the trend are sloppy seconds (think Facebook, Google, and iTunes). This means that you have to be ‘out there’ and ready to fail, but if you’re not out there when innovation happens, it’s impossible to attain a real advantage.

In digital, a broadcaster has room to move. The good news is that today, more than ever, fortune favours the brave.

 

Daniel Ravner is head of digital for Israel’s Armoza Formats.


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