Microblogging will Save Network TV

Advertisement-supported television is in a crisis. Between lower ratings, increased production costs, and DVR’s ability to skip commercials, people are watching less and less commercials every year. And the solutions are problematic. Adding banners at the bottom of the screen works for sports but not for dramas. “Commercial-consideration”, the new euphemism for product-placement is limited and can create problems with the writing staff. After all, what can you insert into an episode of ‘Deadwood’, and Philips medical equipment in ‘House’ doesn’t really translate into sales.

Quality makes a big difference, as is clearly demonstrated by the Apple Mac/PC commercials, but you have to be watching the ad in the first place to want to watch more of it. If you have one of the old DVRs that still allow 30 seconds skips, you probably didn’t know about many of them.

It is safe to assume that DVR usage and on-demand programs are only going to increase in popularity, posing a greater challenge to network television with it’s completely dependency on ad revenues. Removing the 30 second skip from cable boxes forced  viewers to become extremely capable using the fast forward button to achieve the same effect, if only a little slower. Commercials producers are now making them more effective in fast forward, trying to extract some value from even the quickest glimpse.

Micro-blogging provides a powerful platform for real-time content delivery. Hollywood and the networks are already using the power of micro-blogging for promoting shows and movies. But this is still limited to viral campaign MySpace-style and limited fan interaction. During the premiere of Fox’s short lived action drama Drive, the pilot director used Twitter to provider commentary during the broadcast. A live version of the well established DVD commentary feature. But the power of micro-blogging in a television context can go much further.

My favorite example, which is something I hope to enjoy one day, is to have Bill Maher real-time commentary, posted to a micro-blogging site, superimposed on my television set during a State of the Union address. Commentary will never be the same if audiences can add a new layer of content to existing shows, either from other bloggers in an advertisement-supported model (a little image or slogan here and there) or from paid content sources.

The audience gets to choose their source of real-time content overlay, which will make them both more agreeable to sit through ads, but more importantly, will not be able to skip or fast forward as they will lose their sync with the real-time content stream (at least until someone figures out how to record and replay the micro-blogs as well).

All of a sudden, you don’t simply choose a channel to watch – you choose a channel and the micro-blog to go with it. Watch CSPAN with the Daily Show comments, or a football game with a fan’s commentary that is more entertaining than the washed up player the network hired to talk during the game.

Of course you can also turn on directors and actors commentary – and unlike DVDs it will show at the bottom of the screen so you can still hear the soundtrack. Support multiple languages with multiple microblogging channels, or just different perspective (Republican and Democrats bloggers providing competing commentary in real-time to news events). And then there is the option to show completely different content like financial headlines on a comedy show. Mix and match as you please.

The commercial potential in this tie-in is unlimited. There is money to be made producing content, selling ads (Google adSense for live TV blog-streams?), building delivery platforms, display hardware – chipsets for cable boxes or dedicated equipment, and building innovative solutions for more interactivity like linking content to some form of TV Web access. This might sound far from reality but it is almost here. Carl Haynes wrote a TiVo tool to show Twitter updates on your screen, and other are working on gadgets to show updates on an LCD screen.

It is just a matter of time before devices such as Neuros OSD will have software to support microblogging overlay over live TV broadcast, or add-ins for Microsoft’s Media Center PCs. And once anyone starts making money by creating sidekick content for TV shows, it won’t take long before the networks will want a piece of the action. At the end it is hard to guess what the new combined format will look like but it will create more engaged viewers and more TV related revenue streams. This is something the struggling networks just cannot afford to pass.