Viewpoint: Taking TV out of the Bronze Age

In the app-filled world of tablets and smartphones, interactive engagement with television is still a relative anomaly. Here, K7 Media's Phil Birchenall suggests ways to drag TV into the 21st century.
June 13, 2016

In the app-filled world of tablets and smartphones, interactive engagement with television is still a relative anomaly. Here, K7 Media’s Phil Birchenall suggests ways to drag television into the 21st century.

When my four-year-old daughter wants to watch an episode of her latest ‘find’ on Netflix up on the big TV screen, she drags her tiny pink chair to the center of the wall below it, clambers up, and starts waving her arms to ‘drag’ the shows up and down until Dad finds what she’s looking for.

It’s a scenario now commonplace in living rooms across the world. I, on the other hand, take an unnatural amount of pleasure in turning the home thermostat up and down from the same screen… just because I can.

In our own way, we’ve both come to expect different things from our TV than that quaint old vision of telly. And this puzzles me. You see, for all the ‘golden age of drama’ rhetoric, most of how we watch and interact with TV feels distinctly like we’re staring at a Michelangelo carved on a cave wall: the television experience is still very much in the Bronze Age.

The biggest screen in the house is the one that we currently have the least depth of relationship with. Whereas our smartphones and tablets have become to feel like a natural extension of our senses, keeping us in touch with the world and our loved ones, the TV rarely engages us in anything than a one-way flow of content. It truly is an idiot box (it, not you, dear reader).

This has to change.

Where television has gotten a connection to the digital world, through the rising onslaught of SVODs on smart-ish TVs, the excitement of boundless choice is quickly tempered by the agony of finding something you’d actually choose to watch. Our thumb muscles have never been so well developed.

I don’t want to get into the financial implications of the current war between the FCC and the U.S. cable operators. However, looking purely from a creative perspective; moving away from the status quo – where you’re forced to rent a cable box from your cable provider – brings competition into just how you get TV into your living room. And with competition comes much-needed innovation.

The Apple TV 4 offers a glimpse of how a more open, app-based, ecosystem might evolve. The Roku and Amazon Fire platforms are seeing increased take-up, and Samsung is deploying its Tizen operating software across its smart TV range – now pre-installed on over 20 million sets globally.

We’re now seeing the beginning of an age where how we engage with our TVs, isn’t constrained by technologies that have barely progressed in a period where Moore’s Law has accelerated change in every other aspect of our digital lives.

But what could this power do for us in the TV world, and why should you care?

First and foremost, by unleashing a supercomputer in your set-top-box, those creating user interfaces for the aforementioned SVODs can create truly intuitive ways of navigating those acres and acres of shows.

In a recent series of blogs called The Future of Television, Lee Simpson, a product designer at Sky Kids development studio ustwo, proposes some fascinating ways of serving content to audiences that are possible in this app-based paradigm. Imagine Netflix suggesting what shows to watch based upon discussions you’ve had on Facebook. Scary? Yes. Super useful? Hell, yes.

Since Apple TV 4 launched, some of the TV apps that have captured people’s imagination aren’t necessarily native SVODs or the casual gaming titles; the really interesting examples layer a unique digital experience over traditional TV content, and I think this should offer inspiration for those looking to do “something different.”

QVC might not be your channel of choice, but with its clever tvOS app audiences can browse, access product information, and order high quality wares they don’t need with just a tap of their remote. Meanwhile, the official March Madness TV app gives basketball fans a chance to binge on live games; watching two games side-by-side on the screen. Each blurs the line between what we previously understood to be either an app or a TV show.

Some of the best fun I’ve had with my Apple TV has been spent with my family competing on quiz apps. It’s a natural fit for the living room.

So imagine delivering a big game show through a standalone TV app – rather than as a traditional broadcast – where interactivity is baked in? With no need to connect another device, viewers could dive in and play along with what’s happening on their big screen instantly through their remote. Why not think about how a show’s interactive elements can be made core to the experience, rather than just added as a ‘bolt on’?

As we found with smartphones, when creative people are given clever technologies, the ingenuity of the results grows exponentially. The big monolithic box in our living room is on the cusp of a similar shift: let’s harness that, challenge our thinking, and drag the TV experience out of prehistoric times.

Phil Birchenall is projects manager at Manchester-based consultancy K7 Media.

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