April 11, 2006
Future of Television II: The Multiplicity Play

The future of television got a little clearer today, as news of the Disney/ABC plan continue to trickle out.

(Piercing this together feels a little like pouring through Pravda to figure out Soviet intentions during the Cold War.)

One thing that jumps out is a multiplicity theme. I think that's the "new new" here.

What we learned today:

1. Unskippable ads will be shorter than conventional TV ads (still no indication of how "unskippable" is possible)

2. it appears that some people are thinking that more engaging ads will help make ads at least "less skippable." Noreen Simmons of Unilever says, "It's going to be a different viewing experience. Rather than people sitting back in their chairs watching TV, this is going to be a lean-forward experience." This seems to resonate with the notion of "engagement advertising" recently proposed by Joe Plummer. Clearly, this does not solve the fast-forward problem, but it appears to be part of the strategic package.

3. Assuming Disney/ABC continues to sell episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives through the iTunes music store, the consumer will be able to choose whether to buy an episode that is ad-free (for $1.99) or watch ad-full.

4. Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, (pictured) appears unconcerned about the possibility of cannibalization (and channel discord). Indeed, Ms. Sweeney seems to see multiple streams as a value add for the viewer. If we miss our show in first run, we can use internet download to catch up, and iPod purchase to catch up on the run.

(This model assumes that the viewer will not choose one stream, but work with several of them to manage the complexities of their own lives. Some seem to assume that viewers will segment by channel choice, as they choose a single platform and use it exclusively. This does not conform to anything else we know about the new consumers.)

5. Ms. Sweeney volunteered, "None of us live in the world of one business model." I think this marks a big shift in the world of marketing thought and practice. This is a senior manager saying, 'listen, the world is multiple, we will work its complexity for our advantage and as a value ad for the consumer.' When you think about how much the notion of cannibalization has terrorized marketing decision making, this is pretty remarkable. We might go so far as to say that Sweeney has opened up the future of TV by embracing a multiplicity model.

6. No hint in any of this whether Sweeney will open up shows like Lost to greater cocreation. The studios and the networks are sometimes slow to relinquish any kind of creative control to the viewer, but cocreation is precisely one of the things that encourages the use of several media and if this is one of Sweeney's objectives, she might want to give MIT's Henry Jenkins' a call about this thing called "transmedia."

7. Sweeney was quoted today as saying,

"In the future, consumers will rely more and more on strong brands to help them navigate the digital world, and we have some of the strongest brands in entertainment. Our digital media efforts will help us strengthen our connection with our consumers. Stay tuned ... because this is just the beginning."

If I were an analyst with a bet to make on Disney, this sort of talk would make me uncomfortable. It is unquestionably true that the Disney is a choice making portal that guarantees certain standards of quality and a certain moral tone. This makes them a favorite supplier for families struggling to rise their kids well. Got it.

But the world of the viewer has changed dramatically here. (Henry Jenkins is once more the go-to guy on this question.) We have seen the emergence of a more confident, more participatory viewer/consumer. Now we could just as easily say,

"In the future, the brand well rely more and more on strong consumers to help them navigate the digital world..."

And as it stands, there is nothing in these several Pravadas that suggests Sweeney understands this part of the proposition.

In sum, the Disney move appears to take a page from the multiplicity play book. Thus does TV change to remain the same.


Barnes, Brooks and Brian Sternberg. "Disney's Web Move Shakes Up Decades-Old TV Model." The Wall Street Journal. April 11, 2006. B1, B2.

Bosman, Julie. 2006. "Soon, Catch 'Lost' Online, a Day Later." The New York Times. April 11, 2006.

Shields, Mike. 2006. "ABC to Put Hit Shows Online." AdWeek. April 11, 2006. by subscription.

This post originally posted at http://www.cultureby.com