Ninety years ago John Logie Baird, a marvelously inventive Scot, showed scientists how he could transmit moving images a few feet through the air. A year later, in 1927, he demonstrated it between London and Glasgow before sending pictures across the Atlantic. This was the birth of television. Disruptive technology writ large. And it moved fast.
Now we think nothing of using it to record, inform and entertain. Indeed, it’s almost expected, from free education to home made comedy to singing astronauts, we’ll consume it all—and then share it. There’s even a content trend in which viewers live stream other people playing video games, which they’ll watch quite happily. Things are changing fast.
The big driver for this is on-demand content. Video and audio will generate 89% of consumer internet traffic by 2018. Like salmon leaping against the stream, Netflix, Amazon Prime and others have dodged the lumbering bears of traditional broadcasting to create a whole new way of watching. Today’s swain won’t invite his intended to watch a few films. Instead it’s a text offering “Netflix and chill?”
As the on-demand sector’s players stretch their new muscles, they grow big enough to influence what we watch as well as how we watch it by commissioning original new content. After too long in the dark, beset by “reality” TV and anodyne re-runs, there is a dearth of quality storytelling.
Netflix wants to get us back to watching documentaries again (and if you want to see how powerful this can be, look at what Blackfish did to Seaworld). And it plans to do this not just by conscience-led commissioning, but by careful use of the vast data it sits on, combining viewing history and habits to create what director Liz Garbus calls an “individualised, interest-driven experience.” That means if you watch a Nina Simone biopic, up next might be something on civil rights – or Walk The Line.
And this, to me, is the interesting bit. This valuing of nonfiction marks an interesting return to quality, relevance and storytelling, free of pressure from advertisers. It’s often tempting for content providers—and others—to simply offer services for the sake of it. Now they can use their data to create informed consumers. The trick will be to still allow clear, compelling exploration, so the breadth of their offering can still be easily appreciated—and advertisers face a big challenge to keep up.