Time for a reintroduction: Hello everyone! I'm Simon Applebaum, and at the stroke of midnight this past January 2, I launched my 39th year of covering the television universe.
Reaching 39 was a great thing for Jack Benny. Look what it did for his career. That's why, in my thinking, it's a great time to expand what you've been catching under my byline for some years now, through this web destination for outstanding TV and media commentary and forecasting. Consider this the first installment of a weekly check on this medium's advanced pathways. They are numerous in nature, from smart TV sets and TV-connected devices (along with the services and apps they offer), to interactive developments and ATSC 3.0 rollouts. We may discover some new pathways taking shape as well. And yes, I'll still be on the Upfront/NewFront event beat. That rite of TV passage will resume little more than a month from now.
No question, this is perfect timing to launch this column. You can make the argument we're living in three eras of TV at once. The era of plentiful original TV -- both scripted and unscripted programs. The era of diverse TV, with more content than ever put together and featuring people of color and other unique communities (gay, lesbian, transgender, disabled, etc.) and the great promise of much more to get produced. And by far the most important of the three: the era of smart TV.
Why smart? You can make a strong case that these TV sets, made by Samsung, LG, Vizio and other manufacturers, and TV-connected devices from Amazon Fire TV to Roku, Apple TV and Google's Chromecast, are driving the other two eras forward. Roughly 75 percent of all U.S. TV households have a smart set, smart device or both. Those households now watch billions of hours of content and applications -- billions -- through these products. More than eight billion hours alone last September, according to Nielsen. This is how people are watching Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Facebook Watch, CBS All Access, Sony Crackle and, by extension, their favorite broadcast, cable or satellite services. Not via the smartphone, computer or tablet -- but the TV set.
Moreover, without much notice from most media outlets, or promotion from the smart TV/device makers, a new class of programming services are using these products as their main way, or exclusive way, to get distributed. Some of these services, such as DC Universe, ESPN+ and Blueprint, are from leading entertainment players like Warner Media, Disney and NBC Universal, respectively. Others, such as Afrolife.TV (Netflix for the African-American audience), Revry (gay/lesbian/transgender content), PassionFlix (romance-oriented fare) and Bisversity (entrepreneur/business development) were created by independent ventures. Figure that the new crop of major content ventures coming over the next 12-15 months from Apple, Walmart, Disney+, Warner and Comcast (with Costco among the companies exploring an entry here) also will be smart product-distributed.
Major TV station groups also have entered this new service marketplace over the last year. Check out Investigate TV from Raycom Media (now incorporated into Gray TV) and Localish from ABC's owned stations. A few weeks ago, Sinclair launched STIRR, a multi-channel mix of nationally available channels and customized news contributions from the company's local stations.
The new advancement in this smart age, one with important consequences to which everyone should pay heed, is the growing number of sets and devices with built-in voice features powered by artificial intelligence. We're talking Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Bixby and their counterparts that allow viewers to control how they watch and use TV with their voice. As their penetration hits critical mass, just like smart sets and devices have now, and their capabilities expand with electronic upgrades, this feature can be the trigger for mass adoption of interactive TV -- content, advertising and commerce -- on the wide-scale observers of the medium have predicted for decades.
Some media players are not waiting for that mass adoption to fire up an interactive business. After several experiments with kidvid episodes, Netflix struck gold with ITV pathway-formatted Bandersnatch, an expanded installment of prize-winning anthology series Black Mirror. Netflix developed its own "branch manager" technology to craft all the possible pathways viewers could choose, and reports suggest the company is all in on ITV series development in quick order . Walmart made a $250 million investment late last year on Eko, the interactive web portal owned by Samsung, MGM and venture capitalists. With more than 30 million Samsung smart sets in use, Eko may be ready for a conversion to TV. Legendary, the blockbuster moviemaker whose TV series resume includes Colony (USA) and Lost in Space (Netflix), has a similar web venture going in Project Alpha, which last fall offered Orbital Redux, a live science-fiction series where, at various points, viewers could dictate both plot and character directions. Converting Alpha to a full-time TV service is under review there.
There's no time like right now to track how these three ages of TV, especially the smart age, will unfold. You're invited to join me through your reading and your reactions here at MediaVillage.
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!
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