Peter Cowley, CEO, Spirit Digital Media

How television can learn from The Geeks

The annual South by South West (SXSW) Festival has officially been taken over by geeks.  It began as a music festival 25 years ago, grew to include a successful film festival and is now dominated by its interactive festival.   Now over 20,000 visitors congregate in Austin, Texas for the interactive elements of the wider SXSW festival.  In the past it has hosted keynotes from Twitter and Foursquare as these services went global.  It is where the geeks come to discuss the future of everything.  As a ‘start up’ in the digital/social space, this was a perfect place for me to work out the trends of the coming year and to help my partners and clients make money from the digital world.

This year, the festival was dominated by cutting edge themes such as ‘gamification’, ‘second screen viewing’, the use of ‘QR’ codes and the pop up Apple Store nearby selling the iPad2!  

The interactive conference agenda was littered with panels on social entertainment (second screen applications linking TV to social networks), web 3.0 (where the web is our world: where we are, what we are doing) and how gaming will influence our real lives (gamification).  The conference meeting areas were littered with cards, posters and advertisements strewn with QR (quick response) codes, which would take you instantly to the website or application of the service being advertised through a QR reader on your smartphone.

The keynote speakers came from the old and new parts of ‘new media’.  Tim  O’Reilly, a publishing legend from the beginning of the Internet age, who first coined the phrase web 2.0, talked about the next phase of the Internet: web 3.0.  This is where the user forgets they are using the internet, since it has become part of everything we do: motion and location services on your devices tell you where you are, what you are doing, how fast you are moving and what is around you.  From the ‘new’ new media sector was 22 year old, Seth Preibatsch, chief ninja of SCVNGR.  Seth is the latest entrepreneur to be touted as the next Mark Zuckerberg.  SCVNGR creates a game layer over life, or that is what it sounded like at the time.

So how does the SXSW interactive (SXSWi) conference help the common or garden TV executive and producer create the content and channels of the future?

Over the past year we have seen broadcasters and producers get on the bandwagon with the ‘new’ new technology.   Last year at SXSWi, Foursquare was the darling on the conference and within 12 months they have begun partnering with companies such as Endemol USA and the History Channel etc. to create new television formats and television channel promotions.
If we follow the key themes of this year’s conference, we should see an explosion of TV shows that begin to use the key themes from this year’s show.  Look out for more second screen applications, the gamification TV programmes (think virtual loyalty schemes) and QR codes appearing in programme marketing.

What Does This Really Mean?
If you want a more practical view of what is going to happen in the TV world over the next 12 months you need to delve a bit deeper in to the panels and seminars at SXSWi and the companion movie festival.  I think producers and broadcasters can learn a great deal from what is going on in the digital space and if you believe the speakers, it is still all about harnessing the power of social networks to build audiences and make money from them.

At the festivals, the film movie marketers seemed more interested in the bloggers than the press.  Zynga (the largest social game developer in the world) seemed to be everywhere speaking about the incredible rise of social gaming on audience behaviour and making money from consumers.   Facebook were out in force talking about social commerce and how they can help e-commerce partners make the most of the Facebook tool set.

There were more panel sessions on social media than on any other subject and this is where I predict we will see the most dramatic changes to how TV programmes are made, promoted and broadcast.

So key trends for the next year will be around building fan bases around TV shows and TV channels.  Once a fan base hits critical mass, it is then about creating products and applications that these fans will use and share.  These products and services will make money from the fans through transactional services such as games, virtual goods, pay per view and digital merchandise.  

This is an area of competition for producers and broadcasters as each party strives to control the social exploitation of TV brands.