The Drama over Digitalization

The other day in The Guardian, this headline ran: “Could online video consumption overtake linear viewing TV by 2020?” Recently, the director of YouTube Latin America made the prediction that “the online video audience will eclipse traditional linear TV watching by 2020,” citing changing consumer desires that can only be addressed by Internet video platforms.Image

The article argues that a pre-emptive focus on consumer needs and personalization is key for the major players of TV programming. A surprising example used is that of Netflix’s varied trailers for recently released House of Cards – the platform edited 10 different cuts of the show’s trailer based on users’ Netflix viewing history, to guarantee that the subscriber would be interested in watching the show.

In “Broadcast Television: The chances of its survival in a digital age”, Jostein Gripsrud makes a case against these types of headlines, becoming more and more prolific as digital television keeps rising. Using Raymond Williams’ seminal work on broadcast TV, Gripsrud argues that digitalization is less dramatic that it is often portrayed for a variety of reasons relating to the attributes of both types of television. He points out that patterns of viewing aren’t changing drastically, because analog satellite TV already involves a multitude of choice and time-shifting technology has existed since the VCR. He claims that the idea of individuals watching TV in complete freedom is utopian, since the choices are still pre-determined and based in commercial interests.

I really like Gripsrud’s article for two main reasons. Firstly, he emphasizes the continuing importance of watching TV “live” using the concept of water cooler discussions. While the water cooler may be a bit of an outdated notion, I see Twitter as the current equivalent – during a popular show, you aren’t part of any online community discussion unless you’re watching simultaneously with the rest of the audience. While it is convenient to be able to watch a series on one’s own time, there have been many times where I wish I had watched a show while it aired so I could engage with other viewers in real-time.

Gripsrud also addresses the concern that with a proliferation of channel choices, viewers may be led to watch more “trash” or “low-quality” television programs. He argues against this concern, pointing out that “the greater the number of channels, the more valuable to viewers are those channels that experience has taught them can largely be trusted as suppliers of reliable information and genuinely high-quality engaging, relevant, and entertaining material.” Looking at channels such as Showtime and HBO compared to channels that show primarily reality shows, etc., I think this argument really makes sense. Just because there are approximately ten channels on which to watch cake decorating competitions doesn’t mean I’m going to choose to watch them. As Gripsrud aptly sums up, “the fact that daytime gradually fades into nighttime does nto mean we cannot tell the difference between day and night.”

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