a Thesis Process | Background (2/5)
This medium series presents the process of creating my digital design Thesis, done during my MFA at Parsons’ Design and Technology department, 2013–2014.
Picking my Thesis topic — television
I knew I wanted the topic of my thesis to revolve around television. I got a great advice from my teacher, John Sharp: “Make your thesis topic something that you are interested in, enough that you can keep talking about it for a whole year, but something you are not too in love with or that is too personal that you won’t be able to accept criticism on”. I can talk about TV forever; I think — and hope — that I can take constructive criticism.
TV was considered the centerpiece of the western civilization living room, the tribal fire around which the family used to gather and consume contents. Being the common mass media communication device that it was, TV had a profound influence on our day to day lives. In recent years, this perception of television is beginning to change due to multiple other sources of entertainment, so that TV is no longer the major entertainment provider. Still, television used to be the main provider of culture and education during a great part of my life, a role I’m sure is true for many others.
I learned how to speak English by watching TV, and fell in love with New York through sitcoms and movies. It has formed who I am as a person and gave me drive and aspirations that I am now fulfilling.
This is why I have chosen to deal with its current manifestations as my thesis.
What is TV?
TV is both a device and the content which was created for it. In the beginning, these two components were one and the same. Nowadays it is easy to consume TV content without having the actual TV device itself. This fact makes it hard to address the topic of “television”: I’ve talked to many subjects who discarded my attempt to ask about their TV habits by simply stating, “I don’t even have a TV”. Further conversation revealed that they just consume TV content online through various services and content providers.
The English language has yet to catch up with the changes that are blazing through the digital entertainment world. We can no longer use the same archaic words like “television” and “channels” simply because these are no longer relevant. So I have decided to make the distinction between “Broadcast TV” and “Online TV”. Broadcast TV means watching mainly live TV in the traditional sense i.e. on the television device, using a cable or satellite service. Other phrases for this type of viewing include “traditional TV” and “cable TV”. Online TV is any type of content, including movies and television shows, which is viewed online through streaming and can be viewed on any device. Other phrases for online TV include ‘’digital streaming”, “video streaming”, “digital media”, “over-the-top services” and “web TV”. Suffice to say, the media has yet to decide on the new terms for the new age of TV. I will stick to “broadcast” vs. “online”.
What type of thesis will this be?
My main passion is designing useful, functional products. This is probably affected by my background in industrial design. I get annoyed by products that are not easy to interact with, both physical and digital. I love taking on the challenge of designing intuitive, easily adopted experiences. I feel that our interaction with online TV content is lacking and presents many opportunities for new and better design. In this thesis project, I would like to focus on and enhance my User Experience design capabilities. That means that my main interest is to design the interaction with the product and not necessarily to build it or achieve a fully working product. I would like to get my product to the level of a commercial concept pitch: a prototype that can communicate what the product is, what it will feel like to use it, what are its features, and what can be done with it. This will most likely be done by creating a web prototype, fed by static information and a high resolution user flow video. I will accompany these simulations and prototypes with a technical proof of concept that such a product can be developed in the near future.
Understanding our interaction with TV: how has it changed?
Introducing the new “tech”: online streaming
The realm of television has been drastically changing over the last few years. Many services are now offering a new way to consume TV content online via streaming and downloading.
In 2007 Netflix started giving instant online access to streaming content, effectively changing the rules of the game (more about Netflix at the end of this chapter). After Netflix, many other companies followed suit, with TV networks and other content providers finally joining as well. Currently, Netflix is still the leading provider of online TV content, both movies and TV shows, but it is now accompanied by contenders like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, HBOgo, ShowTime, Redbox and more.
While these services are still mostly supplementing the traditional cable/satellite TV consumption, they are very widespread and leading to an inevitable paradigm shift in the way of watching television.
The shift is greater than we know
These streaming services that have slowly been “stealing” viewers from broadcast television, have been named by Nielsen “over-the-top” services as they were initially perceived as supplements for the traditional television experience. This is the same Nielsen Company whose rating statistics are no longer accurate because so much of the viewing has migrated to devices and platforms that have not yet been monitored. Just as an example, “Breaking Bad”, undoubtedly one of the more popular shows as of late, stood at a very low market share of less than 3 million viewers per episode. And yet, the finale attracted more than ten million viewers. The only explanation is that these additional 7 million viewers, and probably millions more, have been watching all along. They just haven’t been watching via traditional broadcast TV, which is the only device that Nielsen can currently account for. Starting fall 2014, Nielsen will be taking into account the ratings on mobile devices, but only in applications that stream with the same ads as they would on broadcast television, like the ABC streaming app. The streaming companies themselves are reluctant to share any type of individual show statistics, so there is no way to get stats for the unofficial consumption of content through the internet. The eventual outcome is the skewed ratings. These will remain skewed as long as networks request ratings for the sole reason of selling ad spots. Even if there are ads online, it is still not considered a big enough market share for them to actually assess.
Introducing the new “tech”: hardware
“Over-the-top” refers to any type of digital entertainment providing service that is connected to the television. The connection can be hardwired or wireless.
The recently released services rely on internet connection to supply the viewers with digital content that is mostly pre recorded. All over-the-top services available so far offer a basic interface that includes multiple dynamic applications, similarly to a smartphone. These apps can be downloaded, updated and interacted with one at a time.
The biggest names in over-the-top hardware devices are currently Roku and AppleTV.
Some newer TVs and devices come pre-loaded with smart apps that supply the same access to over-the-top providers: smart TVs, some Blu-Ray devices and combined cable and internet boxes.
Another whole section that provides access to digital media on TV is gaming consoles. All modern gaming consoles come with the option to stream media through individual applications. Some consoles are now trying to expand their definition of use to encompassing entertainment boxes, giving the users both gaming and viewing access.
Xbox One has taken this approach a step further, connecting directly into the cable box and essentially taking over the viewer’s TV. The new release allows access to live cable channels and even DVR content by using the Xbox interface and the Kinect voice commands.
A relatively new development in the hardware department is Google’s “ChromeCast”. This is a small and cheap ($35) HDMI device that connects to any smart TV. After a quick and simple setup, it allows viewers to cast content from any Chrome browser and from most smartphones and tablets straight to the big screen, exactly like AirPlay does for Apple devices. While the product is still in its early stages, it supplies a smart and simple solution to consuming internet based content on the big screen, using your own wireless connection and at a minimal cost.
The differences between watching broadcast TV and online TV
Consuming traditional TV is located on opposite side of the TV viewing experience spectrum to that of online TV consumption. On the one side of this spectrum there is traditional TV — a device hooked up to an external content provider, a cable network or satellite service. These provide live channels with constant independent streams that are not controlled by the viewer. Some additions to these services allow the users to digitally pre-record contents and to watch contents on demand, paid or free of charge. Traditional TV treats the viewers as a captive audience, giving them minimal control over content and timing. On the other side, online TV allows the viewers full control over their choice of what (contents) and when (the appointed time of watching). While traditional TV provides the viewer with a seemingly effortless experience — just flip through the channels and find something — online TV requires the viewers to be active in their consumption, picking what they want to watch next, actually finding a source and activating the player. In some cases it also requires more technical knowledge of both hardware and software. Most traditional TV watching is accompanied by ads, especially in the US market where there is an average of 15 minutes of ads per hour. Online viewers can mostly avoid ads. There is also a significant difference in cost since most online paid content providers charge only around $10 a month, while viewers can also access great quantities of content online for free.
An overview of the streaming services available today
As mentioned before, Netflix is the market’s current giant content provider. It is a paid service that allows its 40 million customers access to over 10,000 titles online. Another content provider is Hulu, which has a free tier as well as a paid tier, Hulu Plus. Hulu’s main focus is on television shows, and it primarily provides contents which are also available elsewhere, through individual network sites. Hulu essentially acts as a hub for the available content, making money off the commercials they add on both the paid and free tiers. Amazon has gotten into the streaming game by introducing Amazon Instant Video as well as a movie rental service for streaming and downloading. The basic service is included for all prime subscribers, but allows only low quality content for free, while anything else has a price.
Many networks who create content and air it on broadcast television, also provide their content online. HBO released HBOgo in 2010: a cross platform streaming application that provides all of HBO’s content to its paid subscribers. The same year, Showtime launched its online service Showtime Anytime, providing a similar experience for its paying customers.
Other networks (CW, CBS, NBC, A&E, PBS and more) supply online content for free, making it easy for everyone to enjoy their shows. Some, like HBO and Showtime, grant access to content only to those who pay for said network through their cable plan: USA, TNT, ABC, TBS, and others.
Official resources vs. alternatives
Up until now I have mentioned only the official means of consuming television contents online. It is important to recognize that there are endless resources of unofficial online contents; these are both streaming and downloading sources. While I understand that these services could make my product content limitless, I prefer to keep my resources solely official. I feel that it is important to support the current legal content providers and bring to light all networks that allow for free viewing online. I hope that the greater consumption of content through network sites will boost networks’ eagerness to provide more online content for free.
The social aspect
Before Netflix and DVR and AppleTV, all we had was television sets. Back in those days, everyone watched the same shows at the same time; there was only little choice in that matter. The rocket scientists among us, who were able to program their VCRs, got to enjoy the privilege of watching at different times. Back then, when you were watching something, you assumed your friends were too. The day after, viewers used to discuss the shows that aired the night before. This led to a communal feeling, because the contents that occupied people’s free time were pretty much the same for everyone.
The emergence of new technology meant watching live television was not imperative anymore, so everyone started watching content at different times.
Presently, the interaction over shows and the discussion of what happened the night before is not as intuitive as it used to be: you no longer assume that your friends have watched the same shows you have.
Why do we need to talk about TV with our friends?
TV is an undeniably powerful storytelling medium. If a TV story is made well, we as viewers are compelled to feel as the characters feel; we are affected by the goings on in the shows we watch. We travel and experience amazing adventures through these stories and we feel the need to discuss what just occurred, similarly to a real life event. This is very apparent whenever major events occur, like the death of a character. I’ve noticed that my outspoken ultra social friends feel the need to discuss TV, more than the ones who are quiet and introvert; as if what happens on TV is just another part of our daily lives.
Why is Netflix so important?
Netflix has been consistently flexible and adaptable and hence successful. Netflix was formed by Reed Hastings after having to pay a $40 fine for not returning a DVD on time. He decided things needed to change.
Starting in 1997 as a mailing service for DVDs, Netflix is today a media empire with the biggest supply of online streaming content online. The company has managed to stay in the game by both playing it safe and taking a risk. It still provides the US with the DVD rental services needed while constantly innovating in the online section of its services. A recent big success was Netflix’s original shows which were released to the public as full seasons. The media giant created House of Cards and Orange is the New Black and also brought back Arrested Development from its untimely demise. These were a major success because Netflix listened to its viewers. On August this year, Kevin Spacey gave The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. In this lecture, he explained the importance of Netflix’s attitude towards the new age of television: “Clearly the success of the Netflix model, releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once, proved one thing: The audience wants the control. They want the freedom. If they want to binge as they’ve been doing on House of Cards and lots of other shows, we should let them binge. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me on the street and said, ‘Thank you, you sucked three days out of my life.”… “And through this new form of distribution, we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I think we can take a bite out of piracy.”
It seems that Netflix is highly attentive to its viewers and gives them what they want, which in this era means immediate access to content - easily, from anywhere. There is no doubt that there is still much to learn from America’s largest and most successful online streaming provider.
This medium series presents the process of creating my digital design Thesis, done during my MFA at Parsons’ Design and Technology department, 2013–2014.