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In a Social Networking World, What's the Future of TV?

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As the news media focused on Jay Leno's relocation into a regular five night a week prime time spot, the veteran Tonight Show host expressed growing confusion about the state of his medium. He told The Los Angeles Times, "I don't know what TV is anymore."

Well, if Leno doesn't know what TV is, who does?

He's not the only one scratching their heads these days. Joss Whedon, the veteran television producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the current Dollhouse, expressed confusion over the Emmy he won for Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog, a program which was never aired on television (broadcast or cable): "If we were on TV, maybe we would've won an Oscar...We don't understand."

Whedon had produced Dr. Horrible as a personal project during the television writers strike, circulated it for free via the web for the first week, and then began selling it on iTunes (and now through DVD, not to mention screenings and singalongs at movie theaters). This top flight television creator taking his latest brainchild directly to his fans without passing it through the hands of a network. Felicia Day, Dr. Horrible's leading lady, has developed her own cult following around the series, The Guild, which has been primarily funded through PayPal contributions from her fans and is now being distributed through the Xbox 360.

Meanwhile, Susan Boyle made headlines through her appearance last week on America's Got Talent, having amassed an American following primarily on the basis of content pirated from the series's British counterpart and circulated via YouTube. More than 26 million viewers watched the finale of American Idol last season, constituting a significant broadcast hit. By comparison, over that same time period, the Boyle video was watched more than 103 million times across 20 different websites within the first nine days of its circulation. Her success depends less on the decision of some network executive to give her airtime than on the decisions of hundreds of millions of people to pass her video along to their friends.

Some call this a "post-network" era and are suggesting that it constitutes a change as dramatic as the shift from broadcasting to cable. Yet, actually, television may be in the hands of a different kind of network -- Facebook or Twitter rather than ABC or Fox.

Is this television? It depends on how you define your terms. My students at University of Southern California are watching more television content now than ever before but relatively few of them own television sets. They are watching television series through boxed DVD sets and off sites like Hulu (for free) or iTunes (at a price), or through illegal downloads. They are watching television on computer screens and through their ipods. And those who own television sets may be watching it through their game systems rather than subscribing to cable. So, television without TVs?

Is television the stuff we watch on our TVs? My local cable company allows me to watch grainy YouTube videos on my big screen television and allows me to download movies directly from Netflix or Amazon to watch on demand. And of course, I can play Wii games through my television set. But is any of that television?

Is it television if it doesn't get distributed by the networks? Whedon and Day are demonstrating that television may be a genre or format of entertainment -- which looks and feels "like television" even if it is never broadcast. Here, television may refer to a form of storytelling which comes in short chunks which are organized as part of longer series which unfold across seasons. We may not know what television is but we recognize it -- in this case, with an Emmy -- when we see it.

Susan Boyle's success suggests that decisions about what kinds of television are being watched may rely increasingly on consumers who are able to scan the planet for interesting content and spread it through their social networks. Witness the growing number of Americans who are watching Japanese Anime, East Asian dramas, or Latin American Telenovelas, series that may be marketed commercially only after they have established a solid fan following through illegal circulation. Call it spreadable media. In a world shaped by social networks, if it doesn't spread, it's dead.

The networks are trying to rethink their programming practices in the context of this unstable and ever expanding media landscape. The move of Leno to primetime is one more marker of a shift away from dramatic series and sitcoms and towards lower-cost reality-based programs as the economic core of American broadcasting. The networks announced surprisingly few new series this year, choosing to stagger the release of series year round, rather than roll them all out in one big September splash.

Increasingly, these television programs come bundled with a range of other media "extensions" as part of what people in the industry are calling "transmedia" or "crossplatform" or "360 Degree" strategies. New series, such as Glee, Melrose Place or The Vampire Diaries, have been building up their fan followings all summer, rolling out advanced content via the web. In the case of Melrose Place, fans could do a walkthrough of the famous apartment complex by visiting a fake realtor site, while fans of vampires could watch videos dramatizing the events leading up to where the new CW teen drama begins.

More established series, such as Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Ghost Whisperer, have tested and refined this transmedia strategy: Heroes has now produced nearly 150 web comics, Lost has staged Alternate Reality Games, basically informational scavanger hunts or puzzle quests through the fictional world of the series; Battlestar Galactica's producers encouraged fans to rewatch recent episodes by offering podcasts with director's commentary; and Ghost Whisperer made secondary characters from the aired episodes the focal point for web series, "The Other Side".

Industry gurus believe such sites attract new consumers and allow existing fans to dig in deeper, opening up more "touchpoints" with the media franchises and their affiliated brands. Transmedia content is part of a shift away from talking about "appointment-based television" where we race home to watch our favorite show when it is aired and towards "engagement-based" television, where our passionate interest leads us to seek out the programs we want when we want. Transmedia content is designed to intensify our engagement and generate fan loyalties rather than offering the "least offensive option" available in a particular time slot.

Is this transmedia material marketing or content? Increasingly they are being used to introduce new characters or provide backstory and foreshadowing; they are part of the creative development of the series, often taking shape in the writer's rooms rather than outsourced to hired guns. Indeed, the nature of transmedia content was a key issue in the Writer's Strike several years ago since writers get compensated differently if they are doing promotional work or contributing series content.

When transmedia is done well, the result is a richer, more "complex" entertainment experience, one which may continue even after the series is taken off the air. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the showrunner for The Middleman, a little seen ABC Family series, used a graphic novel to provide closure to some of the many plot points dangling after the program's cancellation. Coming full circle, Wheedon has declared the comic book series he penned after Buffy's demise "Season 8," suggesting that fans consider it as much part of the television series as any of the aired episodes.

For the moment, there's a strong imperative to "protect the mother ship," as industry insiders put it, by treating the extensions into other media as non-essential and keeping primary focus on the television series. But, in Japan, we are seeing series which unfold simultaneously across comics, games, film, and television, without having a dominant medium. This may well be the future not only of television but entertainment more generally. As the content expands across media, when does it stop being television and become something else?

As we enter the traditional fall television season, we should pause and ask "Do you know what television is anymore?" Jay Leno doesn't know how to answer that question and neither do I.

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