How TV has reinvented itself

The experience of watching a show at the same time as your friends can't be replaced by video-on-demand services, Robin Wight argues.

How TV has reinvented itself

A fortnight ago, I was one of 50,000 TV and media types – if such a specie exists – who invaded Amsterdam for the annual International Broadcasting Convention.

Although you might have expected this to be a celebration of the triumph of new media, it revealed the actual victory of the old media warhorse of television.

This was demonstrated by The Million Second Quiz, a British production that has just ended in the US, which had 26 million supporting apps downloaded and is a model of how TV has reinvented itself.

Inspired by David Blaine strung up in a glass cage in London, the show had an hourglass hanging above Times Square, where the quiz on NBC occurred. Using the "new media" of apps, viewers could answer questions over a million seconds – with the biggest cash prize in game-show history at $2.6 million – and try to get on the show.

The clever bit is that NBC could look at the answers and pick the smartest participants to fly out to New York to take part in the show.

All3Media’s Steve Morrison, who invented The Million Second Quiz (and was the fall guy blamed for the failure of ITV Digital), probably had no idea that this concept actually responds to the biological need of all of us to be connected into a friendship group of 150 people, which the programme exploits.

It was Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford who showed that our neocortex expanded millions of years ago so that we could each "manage" a friendship group of 150 people. All was fine when we were at our ancestral villages, with our friendship groups of 150, until around 4,000 BC – in Baghdad, of all places – when we moved into cities. Then our "friendship groups" shrunk down to 25 and we had "friendship gaps" that our brains were wired up to try to fill.

Soap operas and celebrities provided some of this, but our clever brains invented the internet to recreate our "friendship groups" of 150. It’s not a coincidence that, on average, a person has 130 Facebook friends and 170 in their mobile phone directory. It’s what our brains were wired up for.

So what is repowering TV is the live experience of being connected – by Facebook, Twitter and the internet – to your friends as you watch something together. Second-screening is not a dilution of the TV experience but an enhancement of it.

And most of the viewers of The Million Second Quiz will have been connected into their "friendship groups" as they watched it together.

It’s not just The X Factor that gets this sort of second-screening engagement; so does Downton Abbey – though, in that case, the Tweets come in a flurry at the end and the beginning, not wishing to interrupt the dramatic flow for your friends.

All of this is bad news for the likes of Netflix, which has backed video on demand as a TV killer. The trouble is that you watch House Of Cards on your own; there is no "live sharing" with your friendship group. And if you could somehow synchronise all the House Of Cards viewers at the same time, it would crash the internet. I heard in Amsterdam that, if just eight football matches were broadcast in HD on internet TV at the same time in the US, the entire country’s internet would crash.

So the business model behind House Of Cards is likely to prove a house of cards, despite the show scooping an Emmy last Sunday.

Rumours that Netflix has committed to pay $6 billion for content over the coming years make one wonder where it is going to get its subscribers from, particularly as so many of them are on a short trial and don’t renew (once they have downloaded all the episodes of House Of Cards!).

Meanwhile, the strength of BSkyB – a client of mine, I confess – is about to be reinforced by 4K broadcasting. This was also on show at Amsterdam – it provides TV viewing of cinema quality. Chances are this won’t be available on terrestrial TV, as the 700Hz frequency it depends on is likely to be snaffled by the mobile operators. This will mean that terrestrials such as the BBC won’t have enough frequency to broadcast in 4K, which gobbles up much more frequency to transmit the extra "data" that makes up the 4,000 "lines" on the TV screen.

If the BBC does manage to compress its remaining bandwidth to get 4K to viewers, it will need a second digital switchover to change aerials and out-of-date TVs to make this possible for everyone – a step that could make the BBC even more unpopular than its recent performance in the House of Commons.

Although, in this case, the European Union and the International Telecommunication Union are really to blame.

So, as you can see, the Amsterdam conference had even more excitement for us media and TV types than the red-light district.

If only the old ladies of that pleasure zone could reinvent themselves in the way the old lady of TV has managed.

Robin Wight is the president at Engine