In Depth

Television in the Future: Q&A with Christopher Kent

Television today is in a state of flux. New technologies, multiple platforms, time-shifting, decreasing audience share for the major networks, emerging digital channels, interactivity—how will the industry adapt to the changes and make them work to keep television viable and thriving in the decade ahead? To get a glimpse at what’s to come, TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman spoke with Christopher Kent, a futurist with Social Technologies, a global media consulting firm.

TelevisionWeek: Where is TV going to be in the next 15 years?
Christopher Kent: Your question of where really hits on it, because the really big thing in the next 15 years is going to be moving away from the traditional television set itself, with programming being in a number of different places. We’re already starting to see this a bit today with iPods and Apple TV, but the emergence of mobile TV on any number of platforms—be it your phone, a media player, even in your car—the where is the big thing with mobile standards now being finalized. It was in Europe last year, and the U.S. is still working on it. The future of television is going to be mobile. It’s going to be less sitting in front of the TV and more taking your TV with you.

TVWeek: How is that going to affect content and programming? Will there still be networks programming prime-time entertainment for evenings, or will they release shows whenever they choose to?
Mr. Kent: That’s the big question. We’re already starting to see what way consumers are engaging with content through TiVo, Slingbox and Apple TV, and even something a little more basic like DVDs, where you can take your shows with you. To keep the attention and interest of the viewers in the ever-fracturing media landscape, I believe that television is going to have to move with them as well. You are finding TV shows are being created with a very distinct endpoint in mind; they’re only going to do three or four seasons. They’re doing short runs as well to better package them as discrete units of entertainment content. Eventually, that’s going to be what the TV networks as they exist now are going to have to do. Not just create programming and release it at certain times. Rather than broadcasting 18 episodes of “Lost” over 18 weeks, they’ll release 18 episodes and you can buy it in any way you want. You can buy it and watch on your television, you can buy it and watch on your phone or you’ll be able to buy it on DVD simultaneously with its release as a broadcast. You can have it in a definite form and watch it at your leisure.

TVWeek: If television seasons cease to exist, will we ever again look forward to a fall TV premiere like we did in the past?
Mr. Kent: September was always a magical time. You’re seeing this year for the first time that NBC has finally acknowledged that they’re programming for a 52-week season. That is the model. HBO has been very successful with that when it comes to their original content. There was no set time when “The Sopranos” was coming back on, or “Sex & the City.” They would do a very good job in the months leading up to the premiere of those shows, advertising that they were back. As TV moves toward a more modified product that you can get when you watch, rather than a broadcast event as it has been in the past on a set schedule, the success of this will boil down to whether or not the networks can advertise the premieres of the shows that they think are going to be hits in the same way that HBO has been able to do with its original content. Even to a lesser extent we’ve seen that with the cable networks that have original content, like TNT’s “The Closer” and FX when they introduced “Damages” or “The Shield.”

TVWeek: Is the term “appointment television” a thing of the past?
Mr. Kent: Appointment television will still exist, but it will be a lot more finite. The appointment will not be each week or when the new show comes on, but the appointment will be the date that the show is released. It goes from being Thursday being the first new episode from the second half of the season for “Lost,” to Thursday being the release of the fifth season of “Lost.” The appointment becomes a more singular point rather than every week.

TVWeek: What about something like the Olympics, which NBC is banking on as event viewing?
Mr. Kent: Sporting events, because of their immediacy, will always be appointment television. People like to watch games live rather than on TiVo for any number of reasons. That’s not going to change. In this oversaturated information world in which we live, it’s impossible to stay ignorant of the results of a game. NBC and those who have bought the big sporting events—the Super Bowl, the NCAA championship, the Masters—as we move away from the older models of television programming and how we program and what we program, having those live platforms will be far more important because they will have the eyeballs captured that they need to really promote their shows as the shows move from being weekly things to being products that are released all at one time.

TVWeek: How is this going to affect advertising in the future?
Mr. Kent: The advertising question is the last piece of the puzzle that needs to be solved, because obviously the networks and the broadcasters are not in the business of providing content for the good of all of us. They need to make money off the content that they’re showing. The advertisers are going to have to be on board with however these changes happen, but advertisers over the last 50 years have proven themselves to be more clever than television programmers. We’re already seeing aspects of the future in product integration and products embedded in the programs. As DVRs become more prevalent and people hook their televisions into their PCs, you’re going to have the ability to buy products right off the TV. As you’re watching a show, you’ll see some new gadget—and they don’t have to be talking expressly about it. It may just be on the screen and advertisers can link that directly to your home. “Hey, do you like those sunglasses or that dress? Press here for more information.”

TVWeek: So television will become interactive like PCs?
Mr. Kent: Exactly. Far more interactive. And with the advent of mobile televisions, people are taking their programs with them, so how do you advertise to them? One of the things that we’ve been seeing is having global positioning systems in mobile devices. So while I’m watching a TV show on my iPod Touch here in Washington, D.C., and I happen to be flying to Chicago for a meeting, advertisers will know that I’m watching and be able to tag advertising specifically for Chicago and not D.C. They’ll insert items from local businesses into the programming for wherever I am.

TVWeek: In the 1970s, a miniseries like “Roots” was event TV that you had to watch for one week, every night. Could an idea like that be reinvented in the future?
Mr. Kent: They can try to do that, as a stunt let’s say, but until they come up with some technology to block DVR use—which would be against what they want at this point—the immediacy of a miniseries like that is going to go away. Even 10 years ago, with a regular VCR, you could tape every night. That’s one of the reasons why big events like “Roots” have gone by the wayside. Technology has made it not useless, but there’s no longer a need to watch every night. You don’t have to be there like in the past.

TVWeek: How will fragmentation affect the Big Four networks?
Mr. Kent: Obviously, the fragmentation nibbles away at their core audience. But the Big Four are the Big Four, and they have the history and the money and the recognition to remain the leading networks out there. Viewership will continue to erode, but I don’t think that viewers or the industry are going to stop looking at them as the flagship channels. Advertisers have too much money invested in them and they have such robust and well-functioning content pipelines. It’s going to be a long time, if ever, [before] a TV producer would take his project to some small niche channel versus ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox if he had the chance. That’s not to say that some of these programs don’t work better on a smaller channel. “The Sopranos” on broadcast television would have been a completely different show than it was on HBO. But as a whole, I think the Big Four will always be the Big Four. Maybe not to the stature that they are today, but I don’t think there’s any getting around that.

TVWeek: In the future, will there be do-it-yourself television?
Mr. Kent: Reality TV has shown that ordinary people love to be on television, and the rest of the viewing audience loves to watch ordinary people on TV. I think the rise of do-it-yourself TV is going to come from kids today being far more video-savvy. YouTube, Internet video…. As we’ve studied young people and their media habits, the way they use the Internet and use other media sources, they’re far more open to things like putting themselves on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. They’ll film themselves and friends doing stuff and put it online for everyone to see. As these kids grow older, and they’ve grown up with the concept of broadcasting their lives and casting themselves, whether that be on YouTube or Facebook or a Web site that they’ve created, that will evolve into their own programs for themselves or their friends or the world.

TVWeek: That sounds very ego-driven. How could something like that be monetized?
Mr. Kent: I think you monetize it by selling it to a network. Eventually there is going to be a network that’s going to be the YouTube network. Whether it’s YouTube that creates it or it get referred to as the YouTube network but someone else does it, to capture the people who like to watch that stuff on the Internet, TV programmers are going to start buying this content. This is the sweet spot for advertisers, the 18- to 24-year-olds, and you’re going to have kids who like to watch this stuff already for free put it on TV to get a bigger audience, which will drive kids to do this even more. It fits in with the reality TV niche.

TVWeek: What else do you envision in the future of television?
Mr. Kent: There’s going to be a convergence between television and gaming systems. Already you can do stuff using Wii as a portal to the Internet. You have the interactivity between the games and the Internet, where you can get on your game and play with someone who’s on the other side of the world. As video games and TV start to converge, you’ll see more interactive TV in regards to gaming. You’re going to have a TV channel that’s all about gaming. You can either watch or you can play, you’ll push a button to decide, and it’ll all be broadcast on TV. That’s not so far-fetched. You already have this in South Korea, where gaming is as popular as regular sports. There are arenas of 50,000 people getting together to watch two people battle it out in a video game contest or championship. It’s likely that one day there will be an ESPN-G for gaming.

TVWeek: How will this be rated in the future? What will Nielsen do?
Mr. Kent: Along with the advertising, the ratings are the other thing that has to be determined because ratings and advertising go hand-in-hand. The question is going to be what makes a hit? Is a hit how many times a DVR records it; how many times you sold it; if you’re only releasing things in blocks, then how many people downloaded it immediately; or will it be like music and book sales, where week after week you chart how popular it is based on how many people view it? Nielsen is not going to go away, because there is going to be a need for metrics and they have proven themselves to be fairly flexible when it comes to new technologies. They’ve launched an Internet rating system and a number of new ratings categories. How to judge a hit is already a question that programmers and producers are wrestling with in terms of the DVR.

TVWeek: Will ratings matter more than demographics, or vice versa?
Mr. Kent: Demographics, both age and socioeconomic status, is where all this technology is going to be very helpful for producers and programmers, because there are so many new ways to capture the information of the people that are watching a show. In the next five years, all the networks are going to have such a clear demographic picture of just who watches their shows and why. That will allow them to meet the needs of their advertisers because you can do a lot more targeted advertising. If you know that 90% of your audience is men between the age of 55 and 60, there’s a whole range of products that you can sell to them that you wouldn’t sell if your audience was men 25 to 29.

TVWeek: Fifteen years from now, am I going to be looking back at today and say, “I miss the good old days in 2008”?
Mr. Kent: Well, do you look back at 15 years ago now and say that? If you look at today compared to then, TV is a lot more user-friendly now. If you miss something now, you can find it at your leisure. The thing that TV is going to do is become a little less communal. There’s not going to be a need to get the whole family together to watch a show; everybody will have their own set to watch something. But as a consumer, you’ll have a lot more control. That’s the point for so much of the technology and media and information today: to have what you want when you want it and be able to watch it at your leisure. I think the one thing that will be gone which I sort of like is the anticipation. You know, watching a cliffhanger on “Lost” and having to wait a week to see what happens next. As frustrating as that is, there’s a deliciousness to that which will be gone. The cliffhanger will be up until you buy the next episode, or pop the next DVD into the machine. But I think we’re going to be much more satisfied and happy because people will be able to enjoy their media how they want it and when they want it.

TVWeek: Will the TV industry embrace these changes?
Mr. Kent: Yes, because the seeds of the future have been planted today. First it started with you buying TV shows on DVD, three or four months after the season, and now you can go to the Web site if you missed it the night before and download and watch the episode that you missed. They’re already doing a fantastic job of engaging the technology in a way that’s beneficial and helpful to consumers today, much more so than the film industry. They are very much stuck in the paradigm of the past and can’t seem to find a way to break out in such a way that makes it profitable. With surround-sound and high-definition television on 52-inch screens, people are choosing to stay at home and watch movies in their living rooms where you don’t have to worry about getting there, parking, the jerk behind you kicking the chair, or the person next to you laughing obnoxiously or talking loudly to the person they’re with or using their cell phone.

TVWeek: Will “Law & Order” still be on NBC 15 years from now?
Mr. Kent: It’ll be interesting; I read an interview in which Dick Wolf said he’s looking to beat the “Gunsmoke” record of 20 years on the air. How many months after they hit the 20-year mark will it be before NBC finally pushes it off to one of its cable networks?