The Future of Read/Write Television

Social TV

In 2004, Tim O’Reilly and others brainstorming at an O’Reilly Conference coined the term “Web 2.0”.  While the term has been (over) used by many a marketer, at its core is a simple precept: Users Add Value.

In a journalistic context it is relatively easy to see how users can help enhance the news.  Everything from Sohaib Athar’s tweets of the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden to the images coming out of the closed city of Homs to the Ushahidi crisis mapping in Haiti common and not-so-common users are producing stunning, insightful and almost impossible-to-get content for journalism.

(We should also note that there are cautions to be taken by journalists with regards to user-generated content , as noted by Andrew Keen in his book Cult of the Amateur!)

Read/Write Television – Next Gen TV

While Web 2.0 is a certainly easy-to-remember term, I prefer the more accurate Read/Write Web, which is the term coined by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the worldwide web.  This term embodies a more direct relationship between actors on the web: you can read information or data, as well as affect online services by “writing” information and data; you can participate, change and augment someone else’s service.

The growth of the Read/Write web was an inflection point that fundamentally evolved the Internet and added billions of dollars of value through companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Netflix among others.

I think that TV is at the same inflection point.  I think we are just seeing the emergence of Read/Write Television.

For journalists this is an easier leap, as they are more fully embracing that user participation increases the relevance and even integrity of their product.  However, applying this to TV fundamentally challenges our current formats, production workflows and distribution methods.  It forces us to re-look at the full value chain of television, from show concept to end point distribution

A recent conversation in New York with digital leads from Bloomberg, Major League Baseball, Fuse, CBC among others helped me chart what Read/Write (or more improperly stated “SocialTV”) might be today, but more importantly what it might become.

“Social TV” Today is a Baby Step

First, let’s dismiss what is NOT Read/Write Television, or perhaps more charitably the baby steps.  There is cable company-led concept of “TV Everywhere”, where you can watch television on any device or TV manufacturers putting an IP port so you can access Facebook on your television.  And there are now services that are hitting the street that allow for your social networks to suggest video selections, such as GetGlue, IntoNow (Yahoo), TunerFish and Miso.

In my mind, these are just the topical starts to something much more important and profoundly different for the future of TV.

Future Read/Write TV Formats?

For me, Read/Write television allows the audience to not only interact with the program, or “talk back”, but even change the nature of a program, as well as programming.  There may also be a time where the full television experience – the program and all of the information surrounding it – allows individual users to customize it to their own interests.

A couple of “what-if” examples:

The Twitter or Facebook conversation that is taking place about a program becomes more nuanced and interesting than what is taking place of the set, so the producer instantly brings in audience members via chat or Skype to virtually sit on the couch next to the guest as full participants, or even as new guests.  (Or what if you did not even have an interviewer, but just a moderator between the guest and the audience…)

During a Presidential debate, the audience – as well as experts – fact-check candidate statements and feed that information back into the format resulting in a more parliamentary-style debate, but this time between the candidate and the governed.

The conversation between the interviewer and guest is lively, interesting and smart.  However, so is the conversation amongst the audience on the topics discussed (before, during and after the program).  The producer recognizes this and recruits a small team of passionate, knowledgeable audience members to moderate and approve publishing of audience content directly to the television screen. (No doubt this would be a high-wire act for traditional television.)

A news analysis program is no longer shot in a one hour block, but produced in 4-5 fifteen minute segments over the day, allowing analysts, daily guests and audience to have multiple conversations, fact-checking, polling with an eye to iterating towards high-quality content.

Challenges to Read/Write TV

And even reading over these examples does not feel like they even scratch the surface.  But even these run into a number of issues that are challenged by Read/Write television.  They include strongly traditional formats and workflows of television, acquiring new set of skills (and risk tolerance) by producers and talent, inclusion of social media producers in control room, as well as workflow, the need for more integrated cross-platform analytics and data mining, technology integration and even physics if talking about live television and the delays between humans, graphic engines and broadcast.

On the other end, there are challenges with the emerging group of companies interested in Read/Write Television.  Limitations include a lack of standards or integration of services.  There is no true open development community or a GitHub of this new form of audience-participant television on something that feels just like it should be open web service based.  There are limitations in the data source integration beyond Facebook and Twitter that limit interest for international media markets.  And there are problems with overly technical workflow management that put these tools out-of-reach to a whole cadre of television and social media producers.

However, whether US International Media (USIM) knows it or not, they are right at the cutting edge of defining the future of Read/Write Television.  Programs like Voice of America’s Podelis or OMG Meiyu, Middle East Broadcasting’s plans for Al Youm and B-Link segments and what Persian News Network’s Parazit are starting to flex their muscles to try new things.

The Future Has Landed

I recently watched from the control room the first satellite live stream of Podelis, a VOA Russian program that the Office of Digital & Design Innovation has been supporting.  I watched in real-time how television and social media producers began to synch the feeding of content into the show, of how talent and guests began to adjust themselves to what can be mildly unexpected and how management began to make notes on what they would do differently.

Podelis is not perfect yet, there are rough spots, but what I felt standing in the glow the monitors and the frenetic activity of producers and technicians was the birth of something new.  The one word that lodged in my mind: Potential.

And that potential is what is going to power the next generation of content, user engagement and technology strategy across international media. As a journalism organization it is no longer possible for us to lean back, rather we need to lean forward into discovering, telling and interpreting the news with our audiences.  This is sweeping over digital journalism and the next leap right through our television screens no matter if they are 55” or 5”.


Coming Next, Part 2 of this Blog Post: Thinking about the Value Chain of Read/Write Web


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Rob Bole is the Director of Innovation for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @rbole.

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