Did digital kill the television star?

An analysis of the ways that converging media platforms have influenced television industries and production.



The shift from fixed to mobile usage does not simply result in a transfer of the same experience to a greater range of places – rather, it profoundly changes the ways in which people orient towards these technologies and how these artefacts become integrated into people’s everyday lives.

– O’Hara, et.al. 2007, p857.



Convergence refers to many ideas, and for the purpose of this argument it will refer chiefly to the relationship between media texts and the various screens they are now able to occupy and move between. Logan (2007) states that “hybrid or convergent technologies extend and amplify the technologies of which they are composed and hence each represents the end product of a chain of a cascading chain of technologies”. The clear-cut division between television screens, computer screens, hand-held devices, and even game screens becomes blurred as each platform merges into the realm of another. As new products that serve or double as television screens are introduced to the consumer market, the converging properties of previously independent media interfaces become clear when, as Stobbe explains (2006, p3), we see “a qualitative change connecting two or more existing, previously distinct markets”.



In this essay I will be discussing many theoretical areas that impact the consumption of television products, including aspects surrounding the mobility of the TV product (both geographically, and between TV and new interfaces); consumer tactics and approaches to manipulation of TV texts; the inherent advantages and limitations of new interfaces to view TV products; and the responses made to create media specifically for the new ‘smaller screens’ (and subsequent issues in textual immobility). I will then consider the changes imposed by convergence that alter traditional models of television consumption and advertising, by looking at the implications of the spaces within which we view TV itself; the problematic issues surrounding the changing culture and viewer behaviour in new systems of television consumption; and the change in the TV product as the power and role of advertising and revenue sources are re-negotiated.



Visual media have become increasingly mobile, colonising the smaller screens offered by new technology and impacting consumer demand for programming which can migrate between platforms (Johnston p147). Consumers now expect that the television product can be transferred between one screen and back, while retaining visual quality. iPods can be plugged into televisions, allowing programs stored on the iPod to be watched through the TV screen, with little difference to the quality (simultaneously merging individual and group consumer habits by recontextualising the personal space of the iPod into a communal space).



Consumers find ways of moving television products onto new screens where they can enjoy it in new spaces, and enjoyment is also gained from actually moving the content itself, as a way of controlling technology. An additional appealing aspect of mobile television lies in making programs “move between devices located in different rooms of the same house” (e.g. from a DVR to a PC to a mobile videophone), suggesting that “a truly mobile television program would be that which could be started on the home receiver, continued during the commute on an iPod, and finished at the office on a work PC, but which in practice would just as likely be watched on the living room couch” (Dawson p238-9). Computer programs such as iTunes allow consumers to download individual episodes or parts of episodes, creating a large amount of ‘segments’ from which to select while watching programming on portable media players. New mobile screens like the iPod and mobile telephone accentuate the segmental quality of the television text (Dawson p240).



‘Unbundling’ is the term given to the act of dismantling integral television texts into fragmentary, yet self-contained, segments (Dawson 234). This technique of acquisition, segmentation and replaying of content mirrors the seamless yet segmented nature of television programs themselves, as well as the inbuilt segments of each show (in particular, variety shows) that may appeal to different audiences. The unbundled text is exemplary of an emergent mobile television aesthetic that exploits the segmental quality of the television text to reconfigure integral media commodities into flexible forms expressly constructed so as to flow freely between screens (Dawson 239).



Consumer attempts to relocate TV content within available technological formats reflect the pervading presence of media convergence in consumer attitudes and behaviour. As audiences begin to utilise new technology which allows them to exert more control over the television content they receive and consume, the traditional consumer role within the television market is redesignated. The viewer is now entering an experimental period of ‘pro-suming’, (consuming-producing) where the consumer participates in producing media and feeding it back into systems of circulation such as YouTube and other social networking sites. Users have moved beyond their traditional role of consumers of content, now exploiting the possibilities of the Internet by copying and up or downloading files through peer-to-peer file sharing networks (Slot 2007, p304). Consumers play an active role in mobilising texts, using technology and innovative techniques to mobilise texts and read them in multiple ways.



Early adopters of mobile television technologies have repeatedly demonstrated their desire to make programming move, sometimes in ways that contravene copyright laws and circumvent decisions made by producers (Dawson p238, Johnston p147). Dawson (p234) explains that when programmers fail to provide content (that is adept at inhabiting a number of screens), viewers take initiative and create it for themselves, employing complex methods to ‘unlock’ content from one platform to consume it on another (for example, video-recording videophone content with a camcorder, uploading it to the Internet, to burn it to a DVD). Attempts made by the consumer to manipulate the product (in terms of where it is viewed, when, and in which order) enable a wider understanding of both its malleability and its resistance to manipulation. It can now be recorded, re-arranged, and reconsidered in its recontextualisation. By becoming familiar with the properties of technology, TV consumers of this generation consider the television product itself to be more tactile and ever-present than ever before, instead of being thought of as a static media text that ‘disappears’ after being viewed.



While it is obvious that the new screens of iPods and phones provide platform mobility, the loss of quality and also the impact on narrative reception is a consequence of the new screen. While it seems like the only way to receive texts on smaller screens equates to a loss in quality (compared to the size of the domestic television screen), we should first consider the ways in which our reception of these texts is transformed in positive ways. Johnston (p152) acknowledges that the advent of mobile videophones and the growth of portable media players such as Apple’s iPod have altered our ability to interact with texts. The impact of the iPod’s smaller screen has been discussed in positive terms, suggesting that the high quality yet small physical size of the iPod screen challenges viewers to look even more closely at the images contained on these smaller screens (Dawson p245). In turn, this may actually promote a more active approach to viewing where narratives are more closely understood (than viewing on TV screens) and additional information is sought out to complement the small-screen consumption. In contrast, the mobile phone displays visual content with less quality, and as a result, content is filmed specifically to cater to the limitations of this screen. The higher visual quality of the iPod screen is not due to significantly larger screen sizes than the videophone, but partly owing to the processing power, screen resolution and playback software used within the iPod (Johnston, p154-5).



The problematic limitations for videophone content and its resistance to convergence is evident in Dawson’s argument (p238) that a program aesthetically locked to a single platform by a hardware aesthetic may prove less versatile, and, in the long run, less valuable, than a program that can more easily make the jump between screens. Content created specifically for the videophone is somewhat locked to the platform, as transferring this content back to the television screen reveals how the visual styles of production for this screen are compromised. The potential financial losses for the mobile-generated content sector is not overly problematic, but rather, a convergence hiccup that may be improved by the short life cycle of mobile devices (particularly mobile phones) and subsequent rapid diffusion of new technology (Stobbe, p4).



The active consumer response generated by the downfalls of the videophone screen in accepting and redistributing television narratives is another consequence of the introduction of the smaller screen. As the mobile phone screen shows limitations where specific shots, techniques and screen filming ratios have the potential to become counter-productive, new stylistic techniques have been developed to combat these problems (See Johnston, p147, 152, 156-7, and the examples of Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith, Marie Antoinette, King Kong, and The Chronicles Of Narnia trailers on the Apple iPod). The mobile television production community refer to the repertoire of production techniques geared towards producing content suited to small screens as “filming to the phone”: avoiding long shots, fast zooms and pans in favour of static close-ups, slow motion replays, and cuts, increasing the size of props and graphics, and reducing program durations to between 45 and 75 seconds (Dawson p235, Manly p1). These shorter, and more distinct styles of texts, prominently display the segmented aspects of television products that consumers are becoming more acquainted with, as they seek out small media products to consume on their small mobile screens.



The secondary aspect of textual mobility is the ability of the television product to move geographically through physical space, as well as from one platform to another (Dawson, p232). Audiences want to watch programs while moving through the urban environment, which is often ignored in favour of the handheld device. Users engage with these devices as a way of making the impersonal environment more personal (Bull 2000, p2), especially fan cultures who are early adopters of new media technology (Jenkins, 2006 p31). The television is no longer an independent or stand-alone device; it embodies a familiarity that we contradictorily seek to access in dynamic public spaces, through mobile devices that extend the domestic and immobile television object into these environments. The introduction of new platforms and interfaces with which to consume media content relocates both the established culture and the spatial environments of television consumption. Television no longer ties us to the home.



Johnston (p146) states that new technologies have shifted the personal and temporal space within which [texts] are viewed, reviewed and, potentially amended. Dawson (p233) explains that to consume mobile television is to escape the social and spatial constraints of the home – as well as the feminine connotations of domestic viewing – for more interactive forms of perambulatory public leisure and consumption. Television consumption has been traditionally regarded as a ‘lean-back’ practice, in which the newness of technology became a part of everyday habitus. The TV initially became integrated into domestic life, comprising part of our discursive practices within the home. Often used as a ‘background noise’, we tune out and only give part of our attention to what we see on this particular screen.



The creation of the ‘lean-back’ culture in which we can relax and watch television in a “passive environment”, knowing that it does not demand our full attention at all times in order to receive, interpret and enjoy narrative delivery, is being re-negotiated through the advent of Internet-based television content delivery, where viewer interaction and purposeful selection interfere with traditional leisurely practices by introducing aspects of the Internet’s “dynamic environment” to the home (Kizorek, 2008).



The introduction of devices which alter the television experience into one which is more similar to the ‘lean-forward’ experience of watching movies or using computers, which requires attention and interactivity throughout the process, introduces a problematic change in the viewing habits of the masses. People today demand advanced digital TV services, and IPTV (Internet Protocol Television, which delivers broadband TV connection through telephone wires) can deliver “capabilities that will dramatically improve the TV experience for consumers” (Graczyk in Alfonsi, 2005). Hudson further explains (in Alfonsi, 2005) that IPTV combines voice, video, and data, by rendering them into “digital packets carried by the pipe of your choice”. The problem with the move to IPTV is that by moving “all content to digital formats, introducing advanced video compression and digital rights management technologies, and evolving broadband distribution networks” (Graczyk, in Alfonsi), the selection of content is placed more heavily in the hands of the consumer, rendering the lean-back experience void and also impacting the distribution of advertising. Jonathan Taplin (p6) proposes a model of broadband-provided television in which “every movie ever made” could be available to every household, and the “ability to use the traditional remote control and a browser [can] ensure a classic TV lean-back experience”.



However, contrary to Taplin’s proposal, the remote control is not the base provider of the lean-back experience. As Van den Broeck explains, television provides us with “the right to do nothing”, and is comprised of several core aspects: often people choose to watch TV only for the medium itself, but not specifically for a specific content; choosing the content most of the time happens in an irrational way; the choice of the programs that are watched are the result of switching on the TV rather than the reason for switching on the TV; and the element of willingness to be available to the medium plays an important role in viewing behaviour, explaining why people often keep watching, even at programmes they are not particularly satisfied with (2007 p27). The widespread introduction of IPTV and other forms of consumer-produced content eradicates, or at the very least, problematises the lean-back experience, introducing the interactive and dynamic relationship seen in computer use into the living room.



Cho et.al. (2008, p1) argues that the services provided by digital broadcasting technology are “useless if televiewers are unable to change their attitude from what has been termed ‘lean-back’ to ‘lean-forward’”. When we initially purchased video iPods it was for their ability to provide us with short clips of media while on the move; now that static television screens can respond to our programming choices through technology such as TiVo, Foxtel IQ, and Apple TV, we feel a sense of urgency and attentiveness in the home which disrupts the passive consumption practices established by the original systems of broadcast television. Dmitry Shapiro (in Stelter, 2008) raises the valid point that the amount of content on the Internet far outweighs the limited content selections available (in terms of quality, not quantity) when watching the TV “with friends” – perhaps signifying how broadband TV supply may encourage a return to the communal experience of TV-format media consumption that has been impacted through the personal and private experience of the iPod.



Time-shifting devices which permit audiences to watch television content without having to view advertisements are no longer limited to just the outdated VCR or the more recent DVD player. These products and the legal consequences of their usage have been debated over the last 25 years (original case in 1984 argued ‘fair’ use of video recorders for time-shifting TV programs: Dean, 2007 p125), as advertisers predicted the impact these devices would have on the ability of advertising to reach audiences. Viewers, especially younger ones, are increasingly willing to migrate to new platforms and sources – often allowing the user to bypass commercials in pursuit of entertainment and information – although viewers are using the new devices not to avoid traditional TV but to catch up on shows they otherwise would have missed (Greenblatt 2007, p151-152, p145). However, unless the viewer actively participates in the removal of advertising content in the home-made recording by stopping the recorder during advertisements, these ads will still be captured and viewed during playback at a later date.


Zehr (2007, p9) explains that the influx of DVR’s into the homes of consumers has a negative impact on advertising revenues, but that advertisers insist that rates be based only on live viewing and not time shifted viewing. If the actual time shifted viewing was able to be taken into account, rates of advertisement viewing would inevitably be higher. The newer devices (digital video recorders) enable audiences to record program content on discs, therefore opening more channels of convergent material. While VCR tape content could not be mobilised, CD or DVD-recorder content is more able to satisfy the consumer need for content mobility. While some may see this as a huge drawback for advertisers, Zehr (2007, p2) argues that the underlying advantages (of DVR’s) include the ability to allow viewing to be meticulously tracked – thus, advertisers will be capable of reaching niche markets with appropriate advertisements.



New approaches to advertising require media giants to negotiate their presence within newer channels of media delivery. Zehr (2007, p3) states that broadcasters historically remained in control of the negotiation of the selling and pricing of television advertising. He further contextualises current changes (p3) by explaining: “Now that advertising growth overall is slowing, this trend (of broadcaster control) will change. Those purchasing the advertisements now have room to negotiate, and since some of the major advertising spenders are not experience robust profits, those paying for the advertisements are looking for alternative outlets. The internet is an effective way for advertisers to reach consumers.



As online media consumption increases, so will expectations for its capacity to generate revenue for content owners and creators (Priest, p119). However, as Priest explains (p120), no clear or sustainable model for monetising content has emerged that compare to the level of revenues copyright owners have enjoyed in the physical (as opposed to online) market. In 2006, Warner Music chose not to sue YouTube for uploading songs and videos, but rather, negotiated a deal to share revenue from ads placed next to Warner material (Ardito, 2007). Although this is an example of a music conglomerate entering the digital realm with new approaches to advertising, the television industry has learned from the music industry’s teething problems (in instances such as Napster and file-sharing) that “you can’t keep the technology down, so let’s use it to make our product ubiquitous” (Poltrack, in Greenblatt 2007).



If we consider that a platform leader and its complementors form an “ecosystem” for innovation that can greatly increase the value of the platform and its complements as more users adopt the platform (Gawer 2007, p1), it becomes clearer that established conglomerates and companies will do better to avoid convergence-limiting technology like DRM (digital rights management, which effectively alienates paying customers and drives them to seek unrestricted files through alternative sources online), and instead consider adopting strategies such as retail online content subscriptions, ad-supported content, or voluntary blanket licensing (Priest, p120) . Other conglomerates are also becoming aware of the opportunities instead of the drawbacks of these new models of advertising, which can be seen in Google-Yahoo-AOL’s subscriber revenue packs (combined with advertising and download revenue), Apple’s music and video downloads (combined with device sales), or Google-CBS, Yahoo-Buena Vista or MSNBC (Microsoft and NBC) systems of revenue business models (Murphy & Scadron 2006, p3). Shaun James (Network Sales director of Australia’s Channel Ten) further supports the integration of new interfaces into the Internet-based sales model, stating that “the video iPod… adds to the free-to-air viewing experience, (and) there are now opportunities for monetising delayed (TV) content” through the use of technology (McIntyre, 2005). This idea or approach can also be applied to the use of DVR’s in the home, and their potential to still address receptive audiences and niche markets –although individual programs are not purchased, often the advertising will still constitute part of the recording.



Cho suggests experimental new advertising models, in which participants in experiments accepted conditions of “unskippable ad clips being added to TV programs as a trade-off for allowing interactive functions on a TV set” (p2). It appears that we are so familiar with advertising in traditional television models that we eagerly embrace the content-rich formats now available( such as unbundled TV segments on iTunes, as well as the somewhat quality-deprived in the instances of YouTube, etc), but anticipate that new advertising models will emerge as advertisers and conglomerates locate more effective ways of harnessing the “rapid potential for revenue from downloads and transmissions to mobile phones, video on demand, video iPod, and internet downloads” ( Zehr 2007, p8). Some theorists or industry executives predict that advertising will be replaced by product or brand sponsorship – similar to methods used in the early days of television, a single sponsor will present a show, with “two- or three-minute ads at the start and finish of the broadcasts” – a technique already utilised by Ford in its sponsorship of the television show 24, in which “consumers had unusually high recall of those ads” (Greenblatt 2007, p153).



Just as the spoken word did not disappear with writing but rather its role changed (Logan, 2007), the Internet and the sources of visual media will complement and redesignate the role of the television programme.

Technology now allows us to select media instead of passively receiving it, thereby engaging us in a process of actively re-arranging media texts into ‘un-bundled’ segments. New products on the market enable us to ‘time-shift’ media content, relocating the spatial and temporal context of media according to our own preference. However, by reassembling texts using time and space-shifting techniques, we are creating new narratives from segmented texts, and by relocating the product between platforms we potentially allow it to be visually compromised. There is a possibility that television programmes of the future will contain more segmented aspects, thereby adapting to the emerging ‘unbundling’ techniques used by contemporary media consumers as well as the very sources of media delivery. As we move texts between screens and reassemble them to suit our preferences, it becomes apparent that some platforms feature aesthetic differences that are not as well-suited to translating screen language. Therefore, the narrative codes by which we understand television may be undergoing changes in which a new literacy is required of the viewer, and a new approach to visual design or construction may be required of the television industry in order for us to consume the product on the ‘new’ screens.



The convergence of media industries is impacting the television product by creating problematic new relationships in which viewers must reconsider whether they prefer television viewing to remain a ‘leisurely’ practice or an active one. In addition, the television product must respond to demands for multi-platform suitability and sustainability, as traditional models and approaches to advertising and generation of revenue are restructured in response to new technologies and demands of converging industries. It appears that new interfaces or products for viewing television content may not be the biggest threat to the television industry, but that the modification of content delivery systems through broadband integration into televisions will play a larger part in the alteration of traditional advertising and program content structures.





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