Our Role in the Future of Television

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We are the puppeteers

Last fall, I remember watching the premier of one of USA’s shows, called Covert Affairs.

The story centered on a young CIA agent named Annie, a novice at anything and everything related to government intelligence activities.

Through each episode, you learn that even with her mistakes and errors, which sometimes put her job on the line, she brings the organization a new perspective and techniques that allow her to solve cases other might have thought she couldn’t. It wasn’t a stellar show by any means, but the producers kept it interesting. I believe I watched every episode that season.

I recently learned it is coming back for season 2 this summer. I was hoping it would. When the season ended I remember thinking, I hope it made it, I hope people liked it, I hope it comes back.

Thinking back on those thoughts, it’s interesting to me how most of us are aware of the role we play in the success of such shows. They depend on our viewership and we have become very attuned to that as television viewers and critics.

Although financial success is also at stake, producers know the importance of really making a good show by focusing on aspects of the show that will keep viewers watching, like making sure the characters give you good laughs or making sure the ending is always unforgettable. The last time you heard a show get cancelled, your thoughts were probably, ‘why didn’t people like it, it was sheer awesomeness’ or ‘well obviously it’s not coming back. Who gets a kick out of an extremely dull cast?’ Truth is, we know they stay or go based on our viewership.

This week, I attended a panel discussion with KWCH’s general sales manager Brian McDonough and director of marketing and digital media Shawn Hilferty. The session covered topics such as how KWCH has become involved with digital media, how people in the company have dealt with the rapid change in technology and in what direction they believe television might be heading in the next few years.

Listening to Brian and Shawn got me once again thinking about my beloved show, Covert Affairs. I started to see many similarities between TV, digital media, and between any corporations that depend on customers/consumers for that matter. The idea of the people formerly known as the audience is so evident.

The future of television stations, online news sites, social media platforms, and any form of human experience that involves online technology is lead by none other than you and I. How cool. Facebook will only be around as long as the people say so. New seasons of Covert Affairs will come back as long as we ask for them.

It’s a powerful, desirable and at the same time a terrifying feeling to know that in many ways new media and new new media are puppets for our pleasure. Not to mean that in a manipulative way, but as viewers, we have a say on what we want and what we don’t. Give us good stuff and we won’t throw a fit… or at least the levelheaded ones won’t.

Happy customers = happy company

Leaders in new new media seem to understand consumer loyalty more than anyone. Due to the fact that user involvement is the essence of platforms like Twitter and Facebook, leaders in this industry depend on those users and know that as long as users/consumers are kept happy, Facebook, Twitter, or –insert social media platform name here– will remain happy.

From listening to the panel discussions, first at The Wichita Eagle and then at KWCH, I noted some differences in how each organization viewed their publics. I don’t necessarily believe one to be better than the other, for they involve different dynamics and represent different media. But given my thoughts on consumer loyalty, and because these organizations to some extent share similar publics, it’s interesting to look at what perspective each takes on the subject.

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The Wichita Eagle goes by a “follow the leader” perspective in which their publics represent the leader. In the panel discussion, editor Chisenhall emphasized more than once a need to continuously learn from their publics in order to be successful. She believes that for The Eagle to succeed in this digital era, they have to be the platform people want at any given time, and have to remember to focus on understanding the consumer if they want to keep those consumers loyal.

KWCH seems to embody a “follow the gold” philosophy. McDonough says “it’s the Wild Wild West out there in digital media, and you don’t know when you’ll find gold or bust.” Although he says page views are important, he believes that the most important factor with digital media is the profitability of the website, because it’s no good to have views if you can’t monetize them. He says that because of the quickly changing environment that is digital media, KWCH has to figure out ways to engage and monetize.  

Within the context of a digital media environment, I find that The Eagle’s perspective is more on target in that in order to market effectively to consumers through digital media, you must understand and follow your consumers. A range of philosophies will seem appropriate for most other industries, but with digital media, media organizations simply hold no control over their publics. They have to remain in tune to what they need and want and be able to deliver. 

Even non-media organizations that deal with publics still have to keep public satisfaction in mind. Consider the popular department store Nordstrom. A while back, they instituted a “customer is always first” policy to remind employees to that, as employees, you can never do too much for a customer. By fulfilling the customer’s needs and concerns first, the people at Nordstrom firmly believe that money would follow.

Their strong, people-centered corporate culture rather than a profit-centered one keeps customers coming and builds a reservoir of goodwill. Today, most retailers have adopted similar policies. It’s uncommon now to shop at a major department store that doesn’t let you return merchandise with no questions asked.

This happy customer concept is not new, but I think it’s especially important in the media arena.

The future of TV and Consumer Loyalty

One point McDonough from KWCH made was that right now is an interesting time to be in broadcasting. As a sales manager, he’s noticed that networks aren’t as profitable as they once were, and that the collaboration between broadcast and networks hasn’t exactly proven successful thus far.

As an example, he talks about how they bought the syndicated popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Because the show is no longer exclusive to one buyer, other networks are buying and airing it at other times, meaning less profitability for each network. People who watch the show will be split into those networks based on what time is most convenient, not on what network they like best.

This is the current dilemma. Now imagine how things will change for broadcasting and television in years to come. As of now, many viewers are already choosing Hulu and Clicker to find the shows they like and watch them online whenever they wish. Again, it’s evidence of what can happen when you don’t fulfill consumers’ needs. People can’t find the time to watch their shows when they air on TV, so they go online and find them available virtually 24/7 and at no extra cost. It looks like Hulu’s creating some strong consumer loyalty. I’m a big user myself.

Entrepreneur and blogger Mark Suster has already delved into this issue. Not only does he believe that the migration from TV to online video watching will continue, but he also envisions a merging of video to PCs, mobile devices and television. He believes these services will be much more linked together, in effect changing how its users consume it.

roletelevision3What I wonder is, how will the digital media and television industries adapt and take full advantage of such plausible changes? Suster discusses the role of Apple TV, Google TV and the Boxee Box as huge contenders in the digital living room. How will broadcasters, networks and cable providers stack up against such companies? Who’s going to win the “consumer loyalty award” and what kinds of consumer needs will they have to meet and exceed to achieve this?

Suster also considers the idea of a “torso TV” as the new TV for niche global audiences and the idea of “2nd screen” technologies that will incorporate not just TV watching, but online socialization and virtual experiences with friends. It’s amazing just thinking of the possibilities. But on the skeptical side, what kind of power will this give us, the puppeteers? Even in our current technological state, it seems that people quickly take them for granted and expectations only grow. How will these new technologies affect consumer expectations?

Thinking about these possibilities only brings me to more questions than answers. As an avid user of both traditional television and online video services like Hulu, I’m anxious to see what’s in store. I’m also anxious to see how and which of the industries involved will focus on embracing a “customer is always first” concept. No matter where we’re headed digitally, the consumers will remain the puppeteers and only organizations that realize this will survive.  

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