More Time Shifts

I wanted to follow up on my time-shifted media post. Although that was written some time before this one, I imagine that they’ll end up being posted together.

As in many of my posts, I was looking at the concept from a personal point of view. I do believe that the ability to watch what I want when I want to is – on the whole – an advantage to the way I consume media.

When SkyPlus introduces Tivo-style learning about my viewing habits then I will, most likely, find the need to consume television as a linear medium wholly redundant. I am, however, not convinced this is a good thing.

The technology and the concepts are great but there are some things that this personalisation of the media experience will destroy and it won’t all be for the better.

To start with, shared-experiences will be dead. With the introduction of multi-channel television they are almost dead now and I don’t think that’s good. The use of the shared experience should not be underestimated in our ability to socialise. The common ground we used to share about last night’s EastEnders will be gone. I may watch it, but my machine has stored it for a time I see fit. Increasingly, as society fragments into smaller units, this lack of the common ground will reduce the ability (and the appeal) of socialisation. Now, I’m not trying to paint any kind of doomsday scenario where people live in individual bubbles with no other human contact, but this lack of experience can not be ignored. Any community starts with a common ground and that common place may just be last night’s 8pm BBC drama.

Similarly, an ‘appointment to view’, as the broadcasters call it will be useless when my machine records only what I am interested in. This will make broadcasters – traditionally governed by ratings – panic. Without a ratings scheme their whole models crash and burn. Ratings are the justification of much of what they do (even dear Auntie Beeb). Why would you want to own a TV channel if viewers have no loyalty (this of course can lead to a whole new discussion where the BBC is but a programme maker and not a channel, but that’s for another time)?

Broadcasters will also argue that a passive audience allows experimentation. If I am drawn to a new drama by the existing schedule (and millions of pounds are spent researching schedules) then I can love/appreciate it. If I have no prior knowledge than my personal media won’t include it. The results? Broadcasters fail to experiment or sink to attention grabbing lowest-common denominator programming. That can not be good but it is not a wholly convincing argument.

Finally, the passive viewer should not be discounted. Generating my own schedule with any kind of time-shift media is something I will have to put effort into (learning and refining the technology). People will, of course, try this and new systems will be developed but it’s not easy. If you have a mobile ‘phone, pda or computer – how many times have you had to repeat something when the basic concept was supposed to make your life easier? I do not want to re-teach a machine when it forgets because somebody unplugged it. I do not want to have to re-browse a broad selection of programmes again because the machine forgot.

There are, of course, examples of this non-passive media. Video Networks supplies programming on demand. I would. however, be interested in the statisics about who views what. I suspect that in many cases it is in addition to (rather than a replacement for) traditional linear channels.

Many viewers want to remain passive. They want a simple schedule where they watch the familiar and are, sometimes, caught out by the unfamiliar. Teaching a system is effort yet media consumption, particularly television, is designed to be entertaining; almost deigned to be passive. The success of time-shifting will be down to the numbers who reject the passiveness of the existing system.

The skill of the schedulers should not be under estimated. Keeping an audience throughout an evening with a mix of programming designed to appeal is a challenge. Without it we are left with the specialist channles (who, I acknowledge, have their own scheduling issues) but I am in favour of mixed channels with a range of programming that can be viewed as a whole.

You may have noticed that one of my pet mediums, radio, is really excluded from my discussions, Radio rarely has an appointment to listen (Radio Four the exception as a channel, with a few great shows on the others stations). Radio is also much more of a background medium – it doesn’t need (although it may deserve) the attention required by television. Radio is a pointer or a guide to my day: Wogan tells me it’s morning, Daryl Denham tells me it’s almost time to leave the office and Dr Pam says I should have been at home but am stuck on a train. Time shifting that would not work. Having said that, my SkyPlus is full of recorded radio that I want to listen to so maybe I need to consider some more.

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