28 January 2007

The Present, not Future, of TV

That's the problem with (nominally) being an expert (yeah, I'm in there). People are always calling to ask, "What is the future of...?" The trick is, if you know how to perceive the invisible, "the future of the future is the present." And that brings me to someone who is probably one of the worst prognosticators in the business, Bill Gates. Yes, the same Bill Gates who famously said that the Internet was a fad, and can typically only predict what is already in the super-secret Microsoft R&D pipeline. Take a look at his latest prediction, spoken recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos: "The Internet is set to revolutionize television within five years, due to an explosion of online video content and the merging of PCs and TV sets."

Talk about predicting the present. But what is a little more interesting, if only for its rear-view mirror quality, is this gem: "In the years ahead, more and more viewers will hanker after the flexibility offered by online video and abandon conventional broadcast television, with its fixed program slots and advertisements that interrupt shows." A few years ahead?

I have to admit that I just got hooked on the fabulous new show from NBC (shown on Global in Canada), Heroes. My family watches it on either the east or west coast feeds via satellite for time flexibility, and records it on the computer so I can see it later during the week to accommodate my seminar facilitation schedule at the university. I missed the fall broadcasts, but have caught up on the first eleven episodes via downloaded torrents (legal, for now, in Canada). So yes, the UCaPP world (which includes more than just the Internet itself) provides considerable flexibility and availability of this fabulous content. [A side note on the downloading bit: If I hadn't downloaded the torrents, I would not have become hooked on the program, and would have missed not only the experience, but the constant advertisements for the Nissan Versa. And yes, we'll probably buy the DVD boxed set when it comes out for next holiday season. So there is something to the argument about so-called pirated downloads expanding the market for the legitimate goods and merchandising spin-offs.]

But there's more to both the story and experience of Heroes that enables it to transcend what was formerly called broadcast television. First of all, Heroes uses non-linear storytelling to construct its narrative as a linked network of events, connected via character nodes, drawing from the changed structural metaphor of UCaPP (start in the middle and work your way to the periphery), rather than conventional literate linearity of beginning, middle, and end.

Next, using the 'net for augmentation of the show experience, rather than as a billboard or simple rehash of content, NBC offers character and plot background, and lately, previews through the graphic novels offered on its website (graphic novels and their artist being a key theme/character in the show). There is an official wiki, and one of the main characters has a weblog with comments enabled. Naturally, there is the now-obligatory fan wiki, chock-full of Hero-ly goodness. In addition, there may be a physical space game related to the in-show company, accessible via the "company's" website, a toll-free phone number, and SMS texting. There are also full episodes available on the NBC site, but only if you live (or use a proxy server) in the U.S.

For now, Heroes is a fairly fine exemplar of the present of television. As for the future? I'm betting on WiBrain implants that enable true UCaPP, with flash memory capable of holding several lifetimes worth of immersive, participatory, collaboratively-produced emergent narrative and culture.

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