London Calling

In earlier postings, we’ve explored our visions for TV. In this post, I’ve asked Alex Zafiroglu to take a step back and share a small slice of what informs our vision, starting with her role in the first phase in our process – understanding how people live, what they value, and how technology fits (or doesn’t fit) into their daily lives. Alex specializes in ethnographic research. Or put another way, she hangs out in homes around the world, watches TV with people, asks them questions about their daily routines, has them make their own video-vignettes about their media habits, observes them during their daily commutes in Seoul, shops for blu-rays in Stockholm, smart TVs in Parisian suburbs, newly-released Hollywood blockbusters in street markets in Chennai, and puzzles over info cards in Japanese stores that recommend different sized TVs based on the number of tatami mats in the room in which you’ll place them. It’s every bit as fabulous, exhausting and engaging as it sounds. Here’s Alex to talk a bit about the things she’s seeing right now:

I’ve just arrived in London, having spent a long weekend in Leeds. In addition to gorging myself on episodes of Shameless, and checking out Idris Elba in “Luther” and other British series through BBC iPlayer and 4OD while curled up in my hotel bed, I re-visited some favorite research participants I first met in 2006 while researching television in Leeds, Kansas City, Hangzhou and Chennai. My trip has me reflecting on just how significantly people’s daily media routines have changed in the past four years. The UK is a particularly good place to see these shifts as it’s an advanced TV market with world-leading interactive services; it’s good to ‘think with’, as anthropologists like to say.

When I first started studying people’s relationships and routines with television, things were rather straightforward: some people had DVRs while others still used VHS, some downloaded movies from filesharing sites while others bought pirated DVDS or rented from a local shop, some had TV on 24/7 while others consciously limited TV. The lines between TV, PC and mobile phones were rather firmly set with particular types of activities and content adhering to each device, content not typically shifting screens and communication between or among them infrequent or requiring a particular level of technical know-how. Today, as more people adopt new internet-enabled devices and services, people’s daily media consumption is extending far beyond the reach of the stationary, shared television set offering TV channels and high-priced on-demand content.

Many things jump out from my latest research in the UK as real shifts since 2006, though here I’ll mention just a few. First: Our abilities to time and place shift viewing have expanded significantly and become much more mainstream, in turned changing how we define ‘TV’. BBC iPlayer, PVRs, plus 1 channels, catch-up TV, smart phone apps like Justin TV and the like have created expectations for easily accessible television to suit viewers individual schedules. I’m still struck by a home visit with the Devine family late last year during which mom Margaret described the family’s Friday night ritual of moving the sitting room couch out from the wall 90? from where it usually sits facing the TV, so it faces her new 27″ screen all-in-one Apple computer. They cue up BBC iPlayer and curl up together on the couch (2 kids, 2 adults), snack and watch their favorite medical drama. While telling the story, Margaret kept stroking the computer, and calling it “the TV”. This surprised me at first, but on reflection makes perfect sense – TV, in the end, is the combo of desired content and easy interface – and she was clearing describing a TV experience. Secondly, we’ve seen more and more use of laptops and smart phones while watching TV, and recognize that television viewing competes for viewers’ attentions that are splintered, and constantly shifting and re-focusing across multiple devices. This multi-tasking involves not only complementary use (linked activities on the TV and second device/screen- texting about what you are watching, posting comments on social networking sites, checking but also simultaneous use – browsing, watching video, checking out Facebook – unrelated to what’s on TV. And (somewhat puzzling) we are hearing more and more often of truly atomized social experiences (physically proximate, mentally distant) facilitated by the TV set that have me thinking we are witnessing a new form of LAT relationships (living apart, together): people making an efforts to spend time ‘together’ in front of the TV with some watching the television while others are completely immersed in other video on laptops while wearing headphones.

All of this has me thinking about how our vision for TV integrates with our cross-device vision for the digital home, and has our team working out experiences that make sense cross-screens, shifting screens as well as converged on a TV screen. With my head still reeling from working through what I’m seeing in UK, I’m already scheming how to incorporate detours and extended layovers in Hangzhou, Kansas City and Chennai into my upcoming travel schedule. I’m eager to find out what my other favorites are up to now and recharge a new round of inspiration for our designs for the future of TV.