The great American philosopher Pogo once described a situation as ‘fraught with opportunity.’
So it is now with the arrival of interactive television. The importance of the new technology entering the market cannot be overstated. At a time when the documentary business is booming, the Internet is creating an atmosphere of new expectations. Viewers are rapidly changing what they expect of networks, and networks will, in turn, change what they expect from producers.
It all begins with the Internet, which is a fundamentally different experience from conventional television. People watch TV passively, allowing programmers to lead them from place to place. By contrast, users surf the Web, choosing their own route through a virtually endless world of information. The difference between the two experiences is profound. The Internet is helping to eliminate the audience’s tolerance for the unwanted.
The same technology is changing the role of the network. In a broadband world, where real-time broadcast-quality video can be delivered by anyone to anyone over the Internet, networks as affiliations of distribution outlets may cease to exist. Instead, they will become brands that convey information about the material contained within, and marketing alliances that can call programming to the attention of a potential audience.
Of course, as interactivity blossoms, the definition of ‘programming’ changes. No longer simply what goes on the air between commercials; it becomes, in essence, the entire entertainment offering, from the show on down through the layers of interactivity backing up the programming. Those layers indulge the viewer’s penchant for surfing, but at the same time they must cement the relationship between the viewer and the network. They must interlace show with show, series with series, to draw the audience from place to place within the network brand.
And here is where the future is fraught with opportunity. To make interactivity real, networks need ‘content’ to fill all those interactive layers. It is, naturally, producers who are most conveniently and economically able to deliver that content, whether it be detailed biographies of key characters in a story, or a kind of multimedia footnoting system for documentaries on the air. Producers will increasingly find themselves subject not just to broadcast specifications, but also to a Web strategy.
This is a brave new world that, like most brave new worlds, sounds both promising and ominous. The melding of the Web and television promises to enrich both media. tv does emotion well and facts badly; the Web allows consumers unlimited access to facts, but is an emotional void. Documentary producers, comfortable in both fact and emotion, are in a prime position to create an entirely new medium.
But it will not come without complications. Producers steeped in production budgeting will have to begin calculating the costs of delivering Web content, and networks will have to decide the value of the material the producers are delivering. Everyone will have to assimilate new technology into their methods, and find new systems of production.
Whether we embrace this opportunity or not is our own decision. Those who choose to ignore the revolution going on around them will find themselves marginalized, with less control of their own product and a growing inability to satisfy their customers.
At that point, they will find themselves living with one of Pogo’s other famous phrases: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’
Tom Johnson is VP of production at The Military Channel, a recently launched U.S. cable network.