Business

Boston Group Talks About What’s Next For Watching TV

By Jeff Cutler, Guest Writer
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(credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

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BOSTON – The Boston business community is vibrant, forward-facing and tied into some of largest brand names in the world.

These brands – Apple, Google, Roku, Boxee, Fios, Comcast, Hulu, Blip.tv, Snapstick, Disney, and more – affect us where we relax, gather with family and essentially nest in our own home.

What these companies have in common is that they are all entertainment firms. They either deliver programming or make it easy for you to control how you watch TV and video shows. And they’re all facing some very real challenges as people try to cut the cord from traditional cable and take more control over their entertainment choices.

In an effort to examine the future of television technology, one of the region’s largest marketing and advertising players…Hill Holliday…coordinated a day-long summit among representatives from the aforementioned names and members of the technology and marketing community.

The gathering, held Friday, January 28 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Hill Holliday’s downtown Boston location, was called #TVNext. In eight hours of discussions, panels and videos, the audience was treated to a series of revelations about the industry, the technology behind current and future viewing methods, and the points of view of television and entertainment executives.

Briefly, here are the chronological highlights from the day…

Welcome video showing attendees where television viewing has traveled over the decades, with some classic, 1950s-style graphics and voice-overs.

From technicolor to betamax to all home-entertainment devices, the crowd was presented with a historical perspective of how people watch TV.

Even something we take for granted these days – the DVR – is now something that seems dated. Especially when you can access all your shows remotely via handheld devices wherever you go.

Introduction to the curriculum by Baba Shetty of Hill Holliday who told the crowd, “Television sometimes gets pigeonholed as this thing that was.”

Keynote by James McQuivey of Forrester Research. McQuivey shared the recent statistic pertaining to viewership that we, as a nation, are watching about five hours of television per person on average EVERY DAY.

McQuivey assured folks that the day’s discussions were not going to be all pessimistic about TV’s outlook. “This is not a story about an industry’s decline,” he said.

Then there was the social television introduction – a talk about how programming on the major networks is now being intertwined with social tools like Facebook, Twitter and others. A number of researchers gave their thoughts on the current entertainment landscape. These included:

Julie DeTraglia of NBC said her network is paying attention to the social engagement that occurs during TV shows.
Specifically tweets that are happening and trending during their broadcasts. One good perspective that she shared was that they are aware of people who are reading these tweets in addition to the folks who are actually tweeting.

David Ernst from Discovery Communications talked about sharing the TV experience. As we used to have a communal experience watching TV, now we have headed back to the communal watching experience – but now it’s virtual.

Lauren Vargas of Radian6 said we need to take backchannel conversations into consideration. To translate, backchannel is the chatter and conversations that happen behind the scenes. Just like millions of people were tweeting during the Olympics, these conversations are going to happen and companies should be aware of these.

Kay Madati of CNN said his network is trying to be very aware of the viewers’ experience. How tweets look on screen. What value they add. How people can interact and get value from the integration of data. Sometimes that type of social interaction isn’t right for a certain group of viewers.

David Levy of Philo said that guides are not useful anymore. Now people can find out what’s on by using their social connections. “What are your friends watching?”

But nesting at home and watching television isn’t just about sitting on the couch with your iPad on your lap and focusing on network programming. These days there are more options for watching video and other shows, and the solutions all have a unique value for consumers.

Here’s a quick overview of the devices presented during #TVnext panel featuring Aaron McNally of Google TV; Andrew Kippen of Boxee; Greg Rivera of Xbox; Chas Smith of Roku; and Tara Maitra of TIVO.

When asked by Hill Holliday’s Mike Proulx, “Who are these devices for?” the panelist responded:

Our products are for anyone who currently watches television and uses the Internet, explained Rivera. Essentially, these entertainment devices are for everyone. He added that the barrier to implementation is actually less daunting than people think. Even your parents can do it, he added. “What we’re talking about is plugging a box into a TV…they will figure it out,” said Rivera.

Accordingly, viewers have adapted their viewing habits to various devices that have come down the line. Maitra indicated that people will adapt. “It took a long time to figure out what the value of a DVR was,” she said. Now people are figuring out what value connected devices have.

Similarly, Smith said the design and functionality is important. But by making this technology user-friendly, companies like Roku can find an audience/customer base.

While this type of tech is new – and Kippen confessed that it’s the first time that anyone has done this – there are going to be challenges. He said there are bound to be a lot of obstacles and a lot of learning. Although, he added, I can definitely put a Boxee box in my mom’s home and she can use it without much hassle.

Perhaps the barrier to entry or the learning curve is over-estimated for a population that is figuring out how to email, Facebook, Tweet and even share videos online. We’re not talking to the first-adopter audience, but the bulk of the people in America and the world.

Maybe creating some familiarity will encourage adoption. McNally said his company is partnering with trusted brands that people are already comfortable with and that can offer some benefits to viewers. Names like Sony, Logitech and Samsung were mentioned – big brands in the entertainment space.

Ultimately, some of these devices are seemingly in consumers’ view because people want to cut the cord to their cable company. Or are they?

According to Scott Karambis, EVP/Director of Planning at Hill Holliday said that results of a study his company did indicated some interesting things.

TV watching is very ritualized Some habits are hard to break Entertainment provides comfort Programming fills a void People are often frustrated by technology The households in the study are not ready yet Change is hard and sometimes puzzling TV watching is hard when it’s an active activity

Kippen summarized people’s experiences and the role some of these devices have. When creating Boxee, we weren’t thinking about people dropping cable, but still watching content on different devices and in different ways.

“The shift isn’t getting cable or not getting cable. But am I watching stuff online?” said Kippen.

Sometimes these standalone or connected boxes were less about cord cutters and more about the cord never getters – people who never sign up for traditional cable or satellite programming.

“TV should still be easy to watch,” said Maitra.

But, while TV should be easy to watch, there are companies that haven’t woken up to the fact that users want some more flexibility and control over their entertainment.

As the summit moved into the afternoon, there were sessions on going portable and an an examination of other philosophies.

Mike Hudack of Blip.tv said his company is providing services to content creators. He talked about how television production has traditionally been predicated on a scarce linear distribution.

Essentially, he was saying that traditional TV can only really deliver one show at a time to a viewer while other options give you more flexibility in time, in specific topics and in overall flexibility.

Kevin McGurn of Hulu said that moving forward, consumers will want more choice and his firm is dedicated to creating the best possible interface. Whatever allows viewers to consume more content is their goal. And he added, “people are consuming more TV, not less.” So at Hulu, they’re trying to ensure that the viewing environment is as clean and clutter-free as possible

Mike Flanagan of Xfinity pointed out that “linear is still very strong.” He added that Xfinity’s on-demand product has only grown and so far they’ve had 18Billion on-demand views. Which speaks to the flexibility and control people want these days.

Also on the panel was Rick Mandler of ABC/Disney. He said, “We like the idea of building complementary content for our shows.” Further, he said, “We know what’s the dog and what’s the tail and which wags which.”

Maitreyi Krishnaswamy of Verizon/Fios said live TV is here to stay because it’s a valuable property. She said events like the Super Bowl and Golden Globes all drive viewers to watch in real time. She also said that people are concerned about content and the experience of watching that content. She also commented on how being more connected is allowing the entertainment companies more power when measuring interactions and brand engagement – essentially responding to ads – during programming.

Ultimately, the entire day was an informative introduction for many audiences into where entertainment is headed. The industry is on the whole still trying to figure out the best way to maintain customers and add features to their programming and their viewing interfaces that people want.

If you’re interested in seeing more, the team at Hill Holliday is planning to archive the videos of the sessions at their site. Just contact them at TVNext@hhcc.com.

Jeff Cutler is a freelance journalist who lives in Hingham. His website is jeffcutler.com.

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