With Siri TV, Apple Will Dismantle the TV Networks

This article was published as a guest post at All Things D, and is republished here for DigitalQuarters readers.

Steve Jobs died without fully transforming television, but the day after he passed away, Apple unveiled Siri, its natural language interface. Though it’s currently only embedded in the new iPhone 4S, Siri could eventually change the face of the TV industry.

Notice I said “TV industry.”

But from my perspective, Siri’s greatest impact won’t ultimately be on users, or on device manufacturers (though they certainly risk losing market share to Apple). It will be on the TV industry’s content creators and packagers. Why? Because a voice-controlled television interface will fundamentally disrupt the six-decade-old legacy structure of networks, channels and programs. And that’s a legacy that — until now, at least — has been carried forward from analog to digital.Most observers and analysts believe that Siri’s voice commands could eliminate the need for those clunky TV remote controls. With the blurring and exponential proliferation of television and Web content, telling your TV what you’d like to watch, instead of scrolling through a nearly infinite number of program possibilities, makes a lot more sense.

There’s an important underlying precedent here.

If the Internet can be generalized to have one effect across every industry that moves online, that effect would be disaggregation. Choices go from finite to infinite. Navigation goes from sequential to random access. And audiences choose content by the item far more than by the collection. We’ve gone from the packaged and channelized to the unbound and itemized. Autonomous albums are fragmented into songs; series into clips; and magazines and newspapers into articles and individual photos.

As much as we may think that has already happened with video, it is nothing compared to the great leveling that will occur in the voice-controlled living room. Voice-controlled TV means direct navigation to individual episodes, programs and clips. And it will almost certainly lead to a discernible deconstruction of the network and channel structure — not to mention the decomposition of even the aggregated marketplaces like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.

Here’s the simple reason: No one is going to sit on their couch and say, “Siri, show me NBC’s ‘Community.’” In a voice-activated world, monikers like “NBC” become useless. They don’t stand for anything meaningful to the consumer. They’re just remnants of a decrepit channel structure that’s unraveling. And, in the end, they’ll simply connote the fast-fading allure of mid-20th century mass appeal.

To be sure, the TV majors will lose much of their ability to realize network effects. Already, you’re hearing less about “lead in” and “lead out.” What you are hearing more about, however, is disconnected videos. A program on YouTube, for instance, will sit on a level voice-controlled playing field with an NBC show, and that field will soon become even more level, because Siri will eliminate the menus that structure the artificial hierarchies of content collections.

So how will we be able to get network effects back in video? Let’s look at four possible ways:

  • Branded Content — Players can build a strong brand that stands for something with their audiences. Break.com, Discovery and Oprah are all meaningful and build long-term customer loyalty. (“Siri, show me new TED Talks.”)
  • Curation — Brand the collection with a curation strategy so that the curator’s name and stamp of approval means something to the audience. (“Siri, show me Jason Hirschhorn’s latest movie suggestions.”)
  • Social — In the fully social world that we expect to see, focusing on the virality of content means you tap the human distribution network and social operating system. (“Siri, show me what videos my friends are watching.”)
  • Personal — We’ve already seen the extraordinary value of well-tuned personalized recommendations, with Netflix’s notable prize and other famed stories of the benefits of great recommendations. Increasingly, our own patterns of individual videos and the brands we affiliate with, along with recommendations from friends, will be combined into personalized recommendations we won’t even have to ask for. I have no doubt that Siri will be as good a “Genius” as iTunes is at recommending what else to watch. Ultimately, in the age of data, whoever knows the most about us will be able to give us the best experience.

Beyond disaggregation, personalization is ultimately the most powerful consumer value of digital media. My mother’s TV experience was to walk over to her TV set and turn a dial to select among three channels to satisfy her individuality. But in the next generation, no two people will receive the same recommendations from the millions of content choices available.

Before he died, Jobs now famously told Walter Isaacson, his biographer, that he had finally cracked the TV code. It’s unclear what Jobs meant, what this entailed or what he thought it would lead to in the years to come. So, barring further posthumous disclosure, Jobs’s own predictions of his ripple effects will be a media mystery for now.

One thing that’s clear, though, is that Jobs’s Siri will start the dismantling — or creative destruction — of the TV industry as we’ve known it for the last 60 years.

The Future of Software Looks Like Media

Microsoft unveiled its first preview of the Windows 8 user interface at the All Things D D9 conference last week.  It was a thrill to see it.  And my first reaction was that it looks more like media than software.

But upon further reflection, it’s more than just Microsoft.  It’s been the theme of the recent wave of operating system overhauls on mobile devices, which are now taking root on the desktop, too. It’s happened on the iPad, on Palm/HP’s WebOS, and now finally on Windows’ mainstream interface. User experiences are showing more design heritage from print and media, and less from software roots.

It’s an important marker.  Going back decades to the beginning of the personal computing revolution, software was written by programmers, who were doing their best to make machine instructions controllable by end users.  It was an inside-out approach:  starting with the microprocessor’s constraints and translating them into displays that were at least interpretable by end-users.

Now, programmers have the luxury of fast processors, sophisticated graphics systems, and advanced libraries – not to mention the development of the new field of user experience.  So, instead of starting with microprocessors and asking users to adapt, we are seeing design go the other way:  we are starting with real people (consumers) and making the software conform to them.

When we do that, the “a-ha” to me is that the consumer-first approach is a media approach, not a software approach.  It doesn’t start with the machine; it starts with the audience.  And that’s exactly what the expertise of media is.  The result culminated in Steve Sinofsky’s demo of a complete overhaul of Windows 8’s interface, that looks so much like a media property, and not so much like any desktop software interface that we are used to.  Indeed, the “desktop” metaphor of previous generations of Mac, PC, and Unix interfaces is blown up entirely, replaced by a start screen with so many content tiles, each formatted richly and compellingly in a glossy, high-production-values sort of way

The future of software is looking a lot like media.

 

My Tricoastal Media Map

This week at the All Things D D9 conference, I found myself telling people that lately I’ve been “tricoastal.”  It’s a codeword I’m enjoying for the rotation I have been doing between the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York.  I seem to run between the three of them continually, as I’m trying to put together my best thinking about the future of media.  And, despite the time, expense, and hassle of the travel, I keep finding that blending the three of them is far more powerful than if I spent time in any one of them.  And if I didn’t visit all three frequently, I wouldn’t just be facing the catastrophic loss of super elite status on multiple airliner, nor innumerable calls from my mother asking “where are you and are you wearing a sweater??”.  Far worse, I’d be missing an accurate picture of media.

My company, Wetpaint, has its roots in Silicon Valley.  The Valley is great for its appreciation of the mechanics of digital media.  In fact, it’s obsessed with them.  The Bay Area practically invented the word “virality,” and it understands distribution – both through search engines and social networks, and from person to person – far better than others.  At least at a mechanical level.  The Bay Area culture is left-brained; it celebrates analytics, tactics, and leverage created by software and automation to get nonlinear results from human efforts.  However, it is blind to the art of content and the realities of the advertising business.  It assumes that both of these can be deconstructed successively into analytical components; that all actors are rational; and that these are systems problems, not human problems.  But these assumptions are all patently false in media.

New York, on the other hand, recognizes the art of editorial and the less predictable, more spontaneous nature of the consumer.  The iconic titles of companies like Conde Nast, and their personality-driven cultures, seem to have established a reverence for the editor-monarch with perfect knowledge, and have embedded a culture of royalty based on editorial superiority that translates into sales prowess.  And that last component is met by New York’s enormous advertising machine, which operates based on a currency of relationships and perks.

But it’s Los Angeles that impresses me even more for being image-obsessed.  Hollywood’s influence seems to understand the value of brands the best – that brands are greater than the sum of their parts.  The LA mentality, however, assumes that content creators have captive distribution – as they do in broadcast and cable TV channel agreements and movie theater agreements.  It assumes that once a brand is launched it becomes a pipe through which you can shove whatever content you want, like a cable channel, as though the lead-in and lead-out are guaranteed.  And it carries an assumption that brand franchises have immense value to be tapped and negotiated by dealmakers.

In truth, digital media doesn’t operate this way.  No distribution is guaranteed.  Just as LA has seen the record companies crumbling under disaggregation, now it is happening to other forms of digital content.  Published content online needs to find its audience one “single” at a time.  The brand value of the collection, while still significant, no longer carries guaranteed distribution online.  And the personalities linked to that content no longer have the star-power that an Anna Wintour or Tina Brown have been able to create in the New York model.

None of which is to say that the Silicon Valley mechanists are right, either.  They aren’t. Their mechanical analysis of the universe doesn’t survive contact with humanity.

Instead, what I love to find every time I tour is how these pieces fit together.

If you’re not practicing the art of content that the New York media is best at, then you are creating a bunch of meaningless drivel that will never deserve the loyalty of a branded relationship.  That branded relationship is the exact mantra of LA’s movie franchise creators; and yet, the distribution mentality of LA (that you can own a captive channel) is all wrong.  Instead, I find that the Silicon Valley mindset of each item needing to find its audience – and then self-lubricate for viral distribution – complements it best.  And this, then, reinforces the fact that it all starts with the NYC notion of content, in contrast to Silicon Valley’s algorithmic bias that it’s all about the technology.

By putting the three together, we end up with a complete picture of media – content, mechanics, and brands all working together – and that combination is one that represents how the audience behaves, with human drives around interest, engagement, and loyalty.