Think about the future of watching television.
First, consider this quote, from a recent Fast Company article, channeling a Twitter executive to summarize the service’s relation to live television: “When viewers watch TV — their smartphone or tablet at their side — using Twitter to chat with their virtual friends about a program, it creates ‘the world’s biggest couch.’”
In other words: Technology will transform TV viewership by drawing us together in real time, perhaps as we live-tweet, as I suggested in my piece from Monday.
Then consider this quote, from a recent New Republic piece, which channeled an executive from Netflix to encapsulate that service’s relation to live television: “Human beings like control. To make all of America do the same thing at the same time is enormously inefficient, ridiculously expensive, and most of the time, not a very satisfying experience.”
In other words: Being stuck on the world’s biggest couch basically sucks. Technology will transform TV viewership by freeing us from the chains of real time.
Nobody, including me, positions Netflix and Twitter as direct business rivals, per se. Still, it’s striking that two of the most talked-about tech companies espouse such clashing big-picture visions of the Way We’ll Watch.
“They’re basically playing different ballgames with the same ball,” David Hallerman of eMarketer, a research firm that covers a wide range of digital media companies and trends, put it to me recently.
Enormous stacks of tech-infused poker chips have been laid on profiting from, and shaping, Twitter’s and Netflix’s competing TV-viewing futures. Facebook and a range of startups see potential on the communal, ad-attracting power of now; Amazon and Apple iTunes offerings are among those catering to the individualistic (buyable) power of whatever-I-want, whenever-I want-it.
So it’s worth taking a moment to examine what’s behind those contradictory sound bites. The social, real-time vision that Twitter’s model exemplifies matches up well with programming that is truly better live (sports, awards shows). In other categories, however, Twitter is battling a yearslong and powerful trend toward the DVR and on-demand programming. In some cases, broadcast and cable networks have latched on to Twitter as a tool for trying to revive “appointment television” — for instance, by putting shows’ stars on that digital “couch” with viewers during broadcasts and by setting up hashtags where far-flung fans can chat.
Perhaps this eventually translates into Twitter becoming a sort of digital TV guide, driving users to tune in to whatever show is trending at that moment.
Meanwhile, Netflix and its ilk push a paradigm that runs directly counter to those flashy, massively-watched event programs. It’s profoundly individualistic, all about choice and control. Indeed, a study of streamers’ viewing habits published earlier this year by research firm GfK suggested that those viewers’ habits are definitively nonmass: Only a handful of shows on Netflix were watched by more than 1 percent of the study’s subjects, and nothing scored above 4 percent.
While allowing for the research’s small sample size and other caveats, even GfK’s Dave Tice, who oversaw the research, found this surprising: “I thought there would be a few more tentpoles,” he tells me.
Obviously this underscores the noncommunal, noninteractive nature of streaming: Maybe you fire up "Orange Is the New Black" while sharing an actual couch with physical friends and family, but live-tweeting the experience would be ridiculous.
The apparent disconnect between the Netflix and Twitter visions recalls the “long tail” debate, revisited just recently in a useful New Yorker piece by Kelefa Sanneh. Chris Anderson’s 2006 book, "The Long Tail," argued in part that precisely because of vast-choice services like Netflix, communal blockbusters were becoming less important than niche-y and individualistic fare. But a newer book by researcher Anita Elberse, called "Blockbusters," offers evidence that niche-transcending hits matter as much as ever, if not more: “We would rather lump than split,” is how Sanneh summarizes her thinking, “and new technology ... is making us lumpier.”
Maybe there’s less conflict here than the evidence indicates. Brian Blau, an analyst with technology research firm Gartner, tells me that if I took an even higher-level perspective, I’d see the real challenge for TV producers is competing for our attention with an ever-widening array of potential distractions, from smartphone games to social media itself. Netflix and Twitter, he points out, both offer ways to do that.
Moreover, eMarketer’s Hallerman noted when we spoke, the real-time and on-demand approaches can actually draw the same people, in different ways. The social media chatter about a given week’s "Walking Dead" draws you in; you later end up binging on old episodes — and tuning in for next week’s episode.
As every expert I spoke to about this argued, in different ways: Nobody really knows what unforeseen factors will shape the real future of watching. After all, I’m leaving out major players (cable companies) and I literally can’t imagine the new players who might emerge. As Hallerman put it, singular-vision futures pushed by any given business have a tendency toward hyperbole that “sounds like what Napoleon said before invading Russia.”
That’s a fair point. There’s only one way to find out what the future of watching really holds: Tune in next week. And every week after that.