Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… TV executives’ concern over changing viewing habits is nothing new. Sports coverage continues to deliver; it’s such thinking that pushed BT to pay almost GBP900m to show some football matches. But it’s not just knowing the score as it happens that has kept audiences from time-shifting. We wrote a piece back in 2011 detailing how the industry was trying to put a renewed focus on live events. Social media have contributed to this; having a constant stream of wry comments on Twitter to snark at while watching Downton Abbey can vastly improve the viewing experience. This is somewhat lost if viewing the show later.
There was a time when live events were much more common on network TV. Back then it was other formats – radio and cinema – that were running scared from the box in the corner. Now it is television that is trying to retain eyeballs; DVRs and OTT rivals are diminishing its sway; the cable industry lost 2.2m subscribes last quarter and Fox COO Chase Carey recently conceded the cable cord was “fraying”. TV viewing in general dropped 4% last quarter, Nielsen reported on Friday. Mobile use in general seems to be the largest culprit (see chart, below). As part of a strategy to keep viewers glued to scheduled, linear TV, NBC has previously screened the live performance of Sound of Music, and recently announced plans for a live rendition of A Few Good Men. Like the latter piece on content, Peter Pan similarly began as a play, and this past week saw its own broadcast, live, on NBC. It was a fine tactic in a broader strategy. Sadly, execution, and timing, are everything. Salon saw much room for improvement. The New Yorker compared it with earlier TV adaptations (NBC did a live version back in 1955) and found it lacking. More damningly, it also saw a broader disconnection from reality, as protests swept the nation in reaction to events unfolding in Ferguson. Viewing figures were half what the network got for Sound of Music. As The Wall Street Journal points out, live events may be losing their pull; both the Emmys and MTV Music Awards saw dips in ratings this year. Meanwhile though, marketers are still willing to pay a premium for advertising during such shows. Brands are said to have paid as much as $400,000 per-30 second commercial for the telecast.
“The nature of the internet as a platform for art is double-edged. The thing that makes it attractive — the fast turnover of content produced by unusual, gifted people — may be what stops it from bringing about a Golden Age 2.0.”
- India Ross, Financial Times
Another tactic in the strategy to retain eyeballs has been to license old seasons of shows still running to OTT providers like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix. On the one hand this may cannibalise viewers who are just as happy watching old episodes as new ones. On the other, it could provide a new platform to find audiences and increase advocacy and engagement. What Nielsen has found is that both are happening. As the WSJ reports, “Dounia Turrill, Nielsen’s senior vice president of client insights, said she analyzed the results of 16 such shows and found an even split of shows that benefited and those that didn’t”. Netflix, meanwhile, closed down its public API and is seeking world domination with culturally diverse content in the form of Marco Polo. Such OTT providers have their own problems to worry about, too; their niche is becoming increasingly cluttered. Vimeo is not mentioned often as a competitor to the likes of Amazon’s services, but it too is now producing original content for streaming, in much the same way as its peers, where shows are greenlit by popular demand and creatives given full rein. An article in this weekend’s Financial Times points out the limits of such a business model, “the internet audience — vehement but fleeting in its interests — may not always know what makes the best content for a more substantial series… returns are unreliable in a marketplace where even established services suffer at the hands of a capricious audience”.
In film, new possibilities arise in the form of ticket-booking innovation. While TV is recycling old ideas of content and engagement, these new tactics look to push the industry onward. This month through January 17, New York’s MOMA hosts a Robert Altman retrospective. One of his seminal films, The Player, shows in some ways how far the film industry has come, and in others how we haven’t moved on at all. The New Yorker wrote a brief feature on the retrospective. It’s insightful enough to quote at length, below:
“In the opening shot of “The Player,” from 1992, Robert Altman makes an explicit attempt to outdo Orson Welles’s famous opening to “Touch of Evil.” He has the camera zoom in and out, track left and right, pan one way and the other, and, before a cut finally comes, pick up with most of the major characters of the film. The scene also situates “The Player”—a movie about a studio created on a Hollywood studio lot—in film history, with passing references to silent film, forties genre work, the sixties, and, finally, the Japanese, who were then moving in on Hollywood, and are seen looking the studio over.
When it came out, “The Player” was regarded as a scorching attack on greedy and unimaginative Hollywood: in the film, the industry’s shining past surrounds the executives at the studio and shames many of them. Twenty years later, the huge profits from big-Hollywood movies—digital fantasies based on comic books and video games—have washed away that shame. The executives in “The Player” have stories pitched to them constantly by writers, and then they say yes or no. They don’t consult the marketing division on what will sell in Bangkok and in Bangalore. The thing that Altman may not have anticipated was that one would be able to look back at the world of “The Player” with something almost like nostalgia.”
While in New York recently, Zeitgeist was privy to a few interesting examples of brand activation and digitally engaging experiences that it thought worth sharing.
While most of Manhattan’s citizens had sensibly fled the city’s dog days of summer, some were still caught in the rat race. It was good of HBO then to attempt to bring some enjoyment into the workers’ commute, in a stellar piece of brand activation that lasted for several days. The cable network HBO has had an astonishing run of successful series – recently noted in The Economist – popular with audiences and critics alike, from Sex and the City through the Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm and now with Boardwalk Empire. According to the Gawker, the network had spent so much on advertising on the Metro over the years, “the MTA let them buy the entire car”. The Prohibition-era series came to life for several days with passengers able to ride an authentic 1920s traincar, replete with the odd advertisement promoting the upcoming new season of Boardwalk Empire. It’s a superb idea, something very engaging while at the same time actually serving a purpose (functioning as an otherwise normal subway train). It also fits in very well with a particular fascination New York seems to have currently with speakeasies, a number of which have popped up in midtown and lower Manhattan.
Similarly, BMW have also been taking over a space, this time in the East Village, promoting the automaker’s take on what sustainability means in the form of the BMW Guggenheim Lab. The Lab will include more than 100 free lectures, movie screenings and discussion, according to an article on Luxury Daily, which quotes Harald Krüger, BMW board of management member, as saying “premium is also defined by sustainability”. PSFK called it an “urban curiousity hub”. A picture of the Lab is below.
It was also interesting to wander through the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition entitled ‘Talk to Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects’. As the website blurb says,
“The exhibition focuses on objects that involve a direct interaction, such as interfaces, information systems, visualization design, and communication devices, and on projects that establish an emotional, sensual, or intellectual connection with their users.”
Running through November 7th, one of the more interesting practical things Zeitgeist noted about the show was the introduction of Augmented Reality as a way of enhancing some of the pieces exhibited. Also included were QR codes featuring more information for visitors, as well as hashtags for each object, to encourage people to talk about them and discuss them more easily via Twitter. Really interesting stuff.
So as you can see, there is an awful lot of interesting and relevant stuff going on in the city that never sleeps. FYI, Zeitgeist will be accepting commissions for future trips, especially ones that involve further investigation into the speakeasies mentioned earlier.