Australia’s major TV networks are seemingly stuck in a rut and true to form, the onset of winter is starting to give way to a tired cavalcade of mind-numbing, albeit high-rating, reality shows, rolled out to capture our attention.
TV producers love a winning formula, so when they find one - be it The Block or My Kitchen Rules - you can bet they are going to flog that horse to the point of exhaustion. However, even this inveterate lot can now see that the business of television is undergoing a seismic shift. One that can put an unprepared network out of business.
The transformation has been underway for some time. If you’ve been playing close attention to TV over the past couple of years you would have noticed something different, something new.
Messages from Twitter and other forms of interactive media now litter the TV screen during any given prime-time show. Network-operated fan websites are swarming the internet, and additional content isn't just saved for a behinds-the-scene episode, but rather loaded online to be watched at the viewers discretion.
Welcome to the future of TV.
Engagement is the name of the game for producers and the networks, that no longer want you to just watch the show. They want you to be immersed in it, possibly to the point where you can’t keep your eyes off it.
Australia’s two major networks, Nine and Seven are taking the lead when it comes to integrating this style of television. With more viewers increasingly turning to the net for their entertainment, these networks have a lot to lose unless they start tackling these trends and use technology to find new ways to spice up their programing.
With this in mind, both networks have set up TV innovation hubs (Nine’s Mi9 and Seven’s Yahoo!7) to explore these opportunities, and the innovation that we’ve seen on the small screen so far has come as a direct result of their work.
But do their efforts go far enough? While the networks have defended their innovations, some industry watchers say they can do more.
More ideas than innovations
The goal post has shifted, according to Zeebox’s co-founder, Anthony Rose. The technology is available to make TV shows entirely interactive and Rose says that’s the future of medium.
“People love to participate in TV shows and they've done so for decades,” he says.
“That doesn't mean that Downton Abbey needs to become interactive. That might turn out to be a very terrible idea.”
“But it could be anything, from the obvious things like a game show where you can participate yourself... or maybe its a documentary where they are trying to find a rare polar bear and you can follow the expedition on Google maps.”
But even the experts are split, as TV producer and social TV guru, Dan Ilic says TV’s future won’t rely on the second screen.
“Live interaction won't be the saviour of television,” he says. "It's not as culturally relevant or important as it used to be."
Ilic says that the networks are so focused on holding down non-tech savvy older audiences, that they’ve neglected to fully harness technology to drag younger viewer back to the screen.
He listed off a number of ways that TV networks could better embrace existing technologies.
For instance, rather than waiting to see if a show is a flop or a hit after it airs to the public, Ilic suggests that the networks could pilot their shows on YouTube, and see how the audience responds to them online. Successful shows could then be ported to the TV with a pre-established audience and the network also saves air-time (and money) by weeding out unpopular shows on the net.
Ilic also said that networks should look to places like Twitter and Facebook to find people to host their shows.
“I'm always surprised that Channel Nine didn't sign up [The Voice runners-up] Sarah Debono to be a host of something, because she's like the fifth most influential person on social media in Australia... It's outrageous.”
“They want younger people to watch their shows, but their not dragging these social influences to their shows to do that.”
Ilic attributed this lack of digital creativity to a “generational gap” that he says pervades the ranks of TV makers.
No magic pill for this tech crossroads
Nine’s director of broadcast operations Geoff Sparke has a rather blunt response to claims that his network isn’t doing enough with technology
“There is no pill that will cure all complaints and satisfy everyones' idea of how we should be running our business.”
“It's very easy to go 'wow, this is the new greatest thing, lets spend a bucket load of money on that to develop it and then find out, there's no market for it, there's no commercial return for it.”
Though, commercial return isn’t the only point on the network’s mind when they invest in technology. It’s for that reason that the network has been in the business of applying tech to their shows since 2010, starting with the network’s most watched form of television, sports.
But over time, Sparke has found that such endeavours are much easier said than done.
The network ran into complication after complication over the apps it tried to release to the market to accompany the broadcast of sports matches. Most of the hiccups revolved around the fact that existing rights contracts had nothing in them about second-screen experience or apps.
Nine’s trying again in a couple of weeks time with a new release of function for it’s second-screen app, Jump-In, which will cater to the State of Origin match.
And despite its rather simplistic appearance Sparke says, its actually quite a task for a network to post a tweet during a show in real time.
“When you’re [airing] across five time zones during a show... the whole Twitter thing becomes a minefield,” he says.
“The amount of volume, it’s like a fire hose. You have to narrow it down into single poignant bits of information.”
“Then, it all has to be filtered. The producers and owners and the executive producers and the production companies they all want to make sure nothing stupid gets on that image.”
And to offer a contrast, Sparke says that while Nine is pushing ahead with second-screen apps like Jump-In, other commercial broadcasts are still stuck “converting to HD”.
Mi9’s director of convergence Rebecca Haagsma shares Sparke’s sentiment about how far ahead she believes Nine is in embracing this new era of TV technology. Though, despite her role pushing second-screen and other engagement tools at Nine, Haagsma still believes that it will be content and not technology that will drive a large number of viewers.
But this hasn’t stopped her from pushing the boundaries of her team’s creation, Jump-In. Haagsmaa’s keen to point out that the app’s been completely revamped in the last year.
Haagsma warned about this idea of being leader in this field of technology. She deferred to some insight she gleaned from Annual Broadcasters Conference in Sydney earlier this year.
“Do you want to be a first mover, or a follower in this space?” she said quoting a speaker from the conference.
“It’s a very expensive place to be the first mover. There’s opportunity for alienation... so it’s kind of good to be a ‘fast follower’.”
“I’m not saying that’s our strategy,” Haagsmaa went on to say.
“But I thought that was a really interesting quote, because everyone globally is grappling what kind of investment should they make in this space.,”
Mi9’s rival, Yahoo!7 declined an opportunity to comment for this story. But to give you an idea of what they are doing, the group’s last major announcement came in the form of a content deal with Samsung, which would see Seven’s shows distributed via an inbuilt app across its device network.
These kind of tech-driven innovations are only the start of a revolution that will completely change the way we engage with our favorite shows. This transition is set to become more apparent when the networks are finally able to create a commercial case for enhancing their shows with technology.
To this point, Sparke says that within the next couple of years the networks will move to embrace the new Nielson Watermarking ratings system - a technology which more accurately measures TV ratings and lays the groundwork for measuring viewer engagement on secondary devices.
It’s likely that in the same timeframe, Australia will bear witness to another couple of rounds of those reality shows that clock up ratings for the networks. It’s also likely that the producers of these shows will be looking for new and creative ways to spice up their programming - all within the bounds of finding some sort of commercial return.
This idea of a guaranteed commercial return is interesting given that TV networks are used to taking risks. They take a punt on each and every show they put on the air, as nobody knows what will flop and what will rate. But in this case, it seems that basing shows solely around harnessing new and emerging technologies is just too great a gamble.
Let’s hope that the networks find the means to take the dive soon, because if Ten’s latest ‘battle of the sexes’ version Masterchef is any example, producers are simply running out of ideas. And nobody wants to see an era where the latest creative twist in TV programing is about turning every reality show into a gender war.