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Same but different

By Mark Eaves 31-10-2014

It’s official – ‘binge-watching’ is a thing. In fact it’s more than a thing, it’s a recognised part of English vocabulary. Along with ‘click-bait’ and ‘tech-savvy,’ binge-watching is one of several phrases added to the 2014 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Binge-watching is now established behaviour. The fact that people have been binge-watching DVD boxsets for decades is beside the point – the official narrative is that since Netflix smashed its way into television culture, we’ve all been sat round on tablets, lost in a 24/7 mashed-up loop of Game of Breaking Bad Thrones. Days are passing into night, children are going hungry, the hay is spoiling in the field; all because that clever auto-play-next-episode feature has us held, screen captives.

Being a tech-savvy audience, you all know this anyway. You were commentating on this trend when it was still fringe behaviour and fixed-gear bicycles were still cool. For you, this is mainstream. Yes, the impact of technology on television in the past 10 years has been profound. But this is a banal statement, meaningless in its generality.

So it’s worth spending a moment considering what we really mean when we talk about TV and technology and the changes that have ensued. Because when you drill into it, not much has actually changed.

For all the seismic shifts, all the giga-leaps in bandwith, TV is still TV.

In fact, as far as trends are concerned TV is most definitely the new TV. It’s stronger than ever – just look at the way billions of dollars have moved out of the film industry and into episodic drama production. And it’s not just a numbers-driven shift, it’s a creative shift too. Aspirant hipsters everywhere are busying away not with their new screenplay, but with their episodic story arcs.

“Today’s television experience bears little resemblance to the television our parents or grandparents watched,” stated a recent article in Wired magazine. Well actually, it does – my granddad used to love watching House of Cards on the BBC.

All that’s really changed is how TV is delivered: our experience of it has changed mainly in its mode of delivery. I don’t need to wait for it to fall from the sky anymore, I can just carry a little box of it round in my pocket. Magic.

And so it feels like there’s still a bigger story to come for TV and technology – for technology to become a creative input and not just a distribution output. If the past 10 years has been primarily seen the delivery of the same thing in new ways, perhaps the next 10 years will begin to see technology changing the creative product itself.

A big part of this is changing the structure and language of television. Currently everything created for an online world tends to inherit the legacy structures fashioned in the linear broadcast heyday. Some of it is just simply outdated etiquette. Take end-credits. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many 19-year-olds who care about who the gaffer was. And if they did, they’d Google it. Can you even imagine hanging round at the end of a YouTube video to watch rolling credits?

At the same time, how can the live be made more live? Social behaviour is still only a bit-part player in television. It only gets the walk-on parts – a tweet here, a hashtag there. There has yet to be a TV format that is truly reflexive to real-time social behaviour.

Many in the UK have lamented the imminent loss to online of broadcast channel BBC3, but I reckon it might just be its making. The opportunity to break free of broadcast legacy to experiment and innovate around new structures of television for youth audiences is where the true impact of technology can be played out.

It’s creatively exciting. It’s the opportunity to move beyond the same-TV-differently-delivered. It’s been happening on YouTube organically for more than five years. It’s about time the BBC got back in the mix and drove things forward. Let’s hope that when it arrives, an online-only BBC3 is so good, we’ll all be binge-watching it on our next- generation devices happily ever after. Or, as the OED might say, ‘YOLO.’

Mark Eaves is among the speakers at FutureMedia 2014, taking place at Bafta in London on November 18, 2014 as part of C21′s three-day Content London event. To find out more and to book your place while tickets last, click here.

today's correspondent

Mark Eaves Co-founder
Mark Eaves PERSP

Mark Eaves Co-founder, Gravity Road Mark Eaves is the co-founder of Gravity Road, an independent strategic and creative company leading the way in content. Gravity Road exists to "create things people want to spend time with.” In the past year it has created Bafta- and Cannes Lions-winning work for the likes of Bacardi Global, Sainsbury’s, Huffington Post and Cadbury’s. Gravity Road also runs its own YouTube fashion network, FASHTAG.

Mark formerly led Drum, Omnicom Media Group’s content agency. He was also a board member of PHD Media Group. He is a committee member of the IPA and Thinkbox Academy, which champions creative excellence in commercial television. He regularly judges industry awards and speaks on conference platforms about the changing world of content creation and distribution.