Digital shape shifting: of media content

Monday, May 07, 2012

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Charles Dickens made his name writing newspaper serials before he ever saw it on the spine of a book, no forward-looking media company should discount the power of a good story, whatever its form.

It’s not just the advancing technologies from tablets and Smartphones that keep digital media executives up at night; it’s all the things that have yet to hit the market, from wearable devices and surfaces to augmented reality. The SMPTE Forum on Emerging Media Technologies delves into the future.

Already reshaping content-delivery models, this rapid convergence of broadcast, Internet, wireless, and computer technologies – and the influence of social media as well as consumer demand for instant, pervasive access to information – also poses a fundamental question: what will the content of the future look like? 

It is for that reason that the Society of Motion Picture of Television Engineers (SMPTE) in collaboration with the European Broadcasting Union, is producing The Forum on Emerging Media Technologies in Geneva.  As part of The Forum, SMPTE will convene a panel of distinguished expert speakers to focus on the kinds of content that people will want over the next decade or so – and for which they will be willing to pay. 

Two factors at the heart of this discussion are as old as civilization itself.

Emphasis On Storytelling
Whether it’s watching a broadcast on a television at home or on a tablet device while riding the train  into work, people are motivated by stories about people. More specifically, they are drawn to stories that reflect how they see themselves – or would like to see themselves. Sport plays to a sense of being heroic. Crime dramas reflect a desire to see one’s self as observant and clever. Historic fiction reinforces a self-image of intellectual curiosity. The content of the future will continue to be driven by good stories.

What form will these stories take? In the near and perhaps the longer term, it’s likely that many will follow the conventions we have today. A good film, for example, needs about 90 minutes to tell a compelling story no matter the device on which it is viewed – and maybe this tells us something about continuing to need for large-screen viewing, where this is a more comfortable experience.

But for sure we’ll see experiments with these kinds of conventions. Yahoo, for example, recently obtained exclusive the rights to an original Web science-fiction series called Electric City produced by and starring the Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks. With a promise to deliver mystery, double-dealing, and murder as well as themes of energy consumption, freedom of information, and justice, each of the 20 episodes in the series run just 3-4 minutes.  

Will people see themselves in  this series – and will their enthusiasm move the needle on the most important metric, that of audience time? It’s impossible to say and will be exciting to see. But just as  Charles Dickens made his name writing newspaper serials before he ever saw it on the spine of a book, no forward-looking media company should discount the power of a good story, whatever its form.

Need For Community
Human beings are a garrulous bunch: we love to report what we experience. Yet unless we want to be the conversational bore for all occasions, our reports are narrowly cast. We talk about horses with one set of friends and economics with another. Football with one group and Eurozone negotiations with a different circle altogether.

This kind of interactivity and focus has always accompanied our conversations. The content of the future, wired more tightly to IP-based platforms and social media technologies, will make available more opportunities for more people to interact in ways that continue to validate their experiences. Sport programming, which is often an early adopter of new technologies, is already rife with online discussion boards that comments posted in real time. Was the player really offside? How bad does the injury appear?  Does the game strategy seem to be working?

Yet sport hardly has a monopoly on the potential for viewer commentary. Music fans of all stripes are just as passionate – they classify pop music as either ‘fantastic’ or ‘rubbish.’  So are those who follow politics, grain prices, or sea and surf conditions. It’s easy to imagine any of them watching an event unfold in real time – from a live concert or policy speech to the latest commodity reports or weather radar – and weighing in with their views on screen. Content plus comment is actually a kind of  augmented reality that is likely to be much more common in the decade or so to come.

Future Preparedness
Whether it’s 3D, UHDTV, or some other approach, the solutions that will drive future media consumption are by no means set. Nor is there unanimity on how to future proof content for the next disruptive technology wave. But with gatherings like the SMPTE Forum providing a non-commercial, scientific-based venue to sort out these and other issues, the industry would do well to remember what has made media leaders successful, no matter the technology: a great story, experienced by many, and who recount their experiences of it again and again.

A widely recognized authority in the broadcasting industry, David Wood is the Deputy Director of Technology and Development at the EBU and the chair of the program committee for the SMPTE Forum on Emerging Media Technologies.


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