SXSW and the Future of TV: Welcome to the Era of Relationship Television

From DVR to Netflix streaming, technology has the changed the business of the TV industry; now the push towards transmedia has content creators dreaming up new and creative ways of forging relationships with fans.

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Top Chef's web series "Last Chance Kitchen" enticed more than one in four fans to log online

Considering that a company called Netflix is commissioning its own original programming – and debating whether to join the ranks of basic cable — it doesn’t take a tech genius to see that the implications of our streaming future go far beyond issues of data caps and broadband. The more that we stream, download and DVR, the more that tech developments come to shape the television industry, and our own TV experience.

In previous years at South By Southwest Interactive (see our full 2012 coverage), most discussions involving television have had to do with connectivity. On a personal level, I know that my engagement with TV changed drastically in 2007 when I finally bit the bullet and paid for my DVR service. An even greater quantum leap was made two years later, in 2009, when I realized that if I purchased a Samsung Blu-ray player, I could stream Netflix straight through to my new high-def TV.

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Yes, with every new mention of developments concerning Apple TV and the Roku Streaming Player, I realize that I’m still well behind the trends. But my point is that at South By Southwest, this notion of pervasive connectivity has been key: How to bring more programming to more people more conveniently? When I hear about people streaming March Madness on their iPhone, planning to watch Olympics coverage live via YouTube, and watching movies in chunks across multiple devices, thanks to their UltraViolet DVD locker, it’s clear that there’s been a paradigm shift. Appointment TV has become a term of the past.

The central TV discussion of this year’s SXSW, however, is a renewed, and urgent, push for context – an animated debate as to how a network can make the most of the on-demand TV experience. One of the final people I spoke with last year about the future of television was Intel futurist Brian David Johnson (it’s somewhat telling in its own right that a tech company has a futurist focusing on the TV experience). At the time, he said that the next important – and great – television show would be the one to master the context dilemma, and deliver on the promise of not just appointment TV but also relationship TV.

The difference between the two is vast: In the old model, an entire TV franchise would be built around a weekly chunk of 30 or 60 minutes. But in the new model, the challenge is to keep a fan’s engagement not just for a single night but throughout the week. Fans today don’t just want to disseminate; they want to interact and participate. And thus, the intensifying demand for online previews, fictionalized social feeds, live-tweeting and webisodes (or other supplemental web content).

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But up until this last TV season, all these supplemental materials were far inferior to the prime-time programming. Webisodes were a distant cousin to their feature-length alternative. And that was precisely Johnson’s point at last year’s festival: The first show to figure out how to marshal all these streaming, social and geo-location tools to create a dynamic virtual empire equal in entertainment value to the TV series would be a game-changer.

This past weekend, SXSW celebrated Top Chef for its innovative push this season in devising a more intricate and pervasive relationship with its viewers (Read our full coverage of the SXSW panel). Not only did the reality series launch a text campaign to crown a “fan favorite” and expand its website to offer a more thorough portrait of its key culinary contenders, but unlike most programs, these sideline extras had a direct and palpable impact on the prime-time product. Each and every week, as contestants were voted off the TV show, they moved instead to Last Chance Kitchen, a special web competition that, late in the game, brought back one excised contestant into the prime-time competition. The web series directly changed the TV series.

During a Saturday presentation in Austin, it was revealed that more than a quarter of the prime-time viewers followed the show to the web, a secondary audience so impressive that now Bravo has announced plans to expand its transmedia campaigns with The Real Housewives of New York City, launching a special Facebook game that will run concurrently with the series, allowing fans to create identities, interact with Housewives personalities, curate their own virtual beach house/condo and climb a virtual social ladder by winning challenges. After watching the show, now fans can go online and play along with the show.

The key to it all, of course, is maintaining ratings and developing secondary platforms that boost both viewer engagement and lucrative sponsorships. The more you can engage a viewer – keeping he or she tuning in, as well as logged on to your network’s websites, videos and social feeds – the more lucrative that franchise becomes. And it all leaves me wondering: How long until we have twitter feeds that affect prime-time plot lines? That we see web extras bring key twists and turns into the central story? That a social campaign allows viewers to cast votes and dictate a character’s actions? Will there be a day when a key story development takes place outside of the conventional narrative, as a network effectively forces a TV viewer to cross platforms if they want to know the full story?

These are the transmedia issues that will drive the industry going forward. As broadcast ratings continue to splinter, this push to retain and engage the audience through cross-platform initiatives will only grow more intense.