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TV or Not TV

Having 18 million YouTube subscribers earns Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox the right to be called "stars" -- with no "digital" qualifier.


“The Walking Dead” is a TV show that I watch most often on my iPad. “Honest Trailers” is an online series that I often watch on my television. Netflix is a digital service that makes traditional television programs that I watch via my gaming console. Amazon is where I order diapers, but it also provides me with original television-style programming via the Web or Roku device.

If my experience is at all typical of the new normal, it feels like it is time to update the labels we use to define programming and the time frame upon which we judge success.

A “TV show” has long referred to a program that aired on television. That made sense, since you were almost always watching a 22- or 44-minute program that was made specifically for you to view on a television set. In fact, up until about 15 years ago, the only place you could enjoy that programming was on a television set, the only kind of TV show we had was scripted, and it was materially difficult to time-shift. The success of programs like “Survivor” and “American Idol” led to the first major labeling innovation — the “reality TV show” — and the introduction of TiVo led to ease of use in watching something on your own terms.

Now, however, many people experience “television shows” primarily through their tablets or computers. Others who watch these shows often do so through apps such as Hulu Plus, Netflix and Crackle, and don’t associate them with television at all. Taking a step back, it is clear that it is less “TV show” and more just a “show.” Others record television, but watch at their convenience, often choosing to binge-watch versus watch live, or even within weeks of when an episode airs.

While people are viewing television content digitally, they are also viewing a lot of digital content via television. One look at the best-selling devices on Amazon indicates that people are seeking this flexibility, and that more are joining the ranks every day. Each generation of TVs, cable boxes and streaming devices continue to make it easier to view services such as YouTube, TwitchTV, or hundreds of others digital-first content providers.

This is driving many companies, like mine, Defy Media, to build systems that are more “lean-back,” and to program content accordingly. It hardly seems logical to call a Web series we create a “digital series” when an episode is viewed three million times on a television. Not to mention that in the digital world, almost everything is binge-watchable. There is also rarely windowing for digital content at this point, although many in the space are trying to build systems for it.

As content is moving between platforms, the kind of programming being created by digital providers is looking more and more like TV, and vice versa. I sometimes cringe when I see how traditional media portrays digital content. They almost always show the viral meltdown, or have someone saying something like “Isn’t that where you see cat videos?”

I can only imagine that while they were busy filming their opuses, they did not have time to see how elevated so-called “amateur” digital content has become. There are Web series that look like they were made for television, and short films on Vimeo that look better than theatrical releases (and are, in many cases!).

Even some content made by “vloggers”is beginning to look more produced and even scripted … which sounds a lot like reality television. Just over five years ago at our company, we used to joke that our budget for a video was $25, which included the pizza we fed the crew. Now, at Defy, we are profitably able to pay upward of thousands of dollars per minute. Times really have changed.

While digital production is getting better, television programming — especially that targeted toward younger audiences — is more and more reflective of digital practices. Adult Swim has long had 15-minute programs, and often has even shorter segments, while MTV often features shows where you see people talking into Webcams, going all the way back to the days of the “Real World” confessional. Of course, clip shows, featuring many a feline friend, are a staple of many traditional networks, and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” remains one of the longest-running and most profitable shows on television.

Those adapting their programming this way are actually the smart ones, and in many ways the thought leaders — the media graveyard is littered with the bodies of companies that did not adapt as programming tastes evolved.

As confusing as it is to have TV-quality digital content that is viewed on television and television content that sometimes looks like digital content and is viewed on digital platforms, it gets worse. Increasingly, the labels defining talent are becoming irrelevant descriptors, as well. About 10 years ago, we saw the removal of the stigma related to television and movie stars. With the exception of the “superstars,” there were just “stars,” and they were free to headline movies and television shows … and even play the leads on Broadway. Similarly, you are now seeing many television stars appear in digital series, and digital stars appear in television series.

Now the influence and reach of the digital stars is eclipsing that of the traditional talent. Recently, Variety commissioned a survey that demonstrated that the top YouTube stars have higher Q Scores among teens than stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Johnny Depp, Vin Diesel and others. Having 18 million YouTube subscribers and 10 million Facebook and Twitter followers earns Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox the right to be called stars, with no “digital” qualifier.

Given consumer trends, we are almost at a point when labels like “television” or “digital” will cease to exist — there will just be shows. We will also need a radical redefining of success, given binge-watching and library-viewing habits. It won’t matter what platform it was originally produced for, or when it was watched, only that it has managed to find an audience that enjoys it, and is able to access it across the most convenient platform for them.

It is not difficult to imagine a world where if you ask, “what did you watch on TV last night?” it won’t be weird when someone answers Smosh or Pew Die Pie, or a world where your channel guide showcases top YouTube and Vine talent, as well.

Keith Richman is president of Defy Media, a leading media company for the “cord-never” generation. Reach him @keithrichman.

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