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Welcome to the Future of Storytelling

Creators are now free of many of the limitations of broadcast television, but few have taken advantage of this fact.


We are in the midst of a sea change in the way broadcast content is delivered and consumed. HBO and CBS announced that they would offer standalone Web TV services without a cable subscription. Dish announced Sling TV, which will allow anyone to subscribe to a live TV bundle that includes the Holy Grail, ESPN.

Last Sunday, NBC streamed the Super Bowl online without requiring a cable subscription.

There’s no longer any doubt that traditional TV will be everywhere, accessible by viewers on their own terms. Better yet, television created for digital platforms is as good, and in some cases better, than its counterpart on traditional platforms. The current awards season is proof, with digital-first series winning at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The large pond of traditional television is getting very crowded, with audiences benefiting from the continuously increasing standards of storytelling. But every show, whether it’s made for Amazon or Netflix, looks, smells and feels exactly like its counterparts on FX, HBO or Showtime.

Same content, different place

Major online distributors have taken the HBO model and applied it to digital. Creators are sold on getting to do what they want without tedious network notes, while viewers get to binge-watch shows on their own free time. But the show format is exactly the same as TV: Each episode is the same length, and each season has the same episode order. By maintaining this consistency in user experience, and often relying on foreign sales to traditional TV outlets, the major online distributors are not positioned to embrace new expressions of video storytelling that don’t look and feel exactly like TV.

If we want to see real innovation, the storytelling itself has to be different. Television’s format (as well as its magic) was set by the technology limitations of the broadcast spectrum. A network could only program linearly, 24 hours a day. A natural way to split that day and encourage consistency in tune in was to air content on the hour or half hour. With increased broadcast ad load, a 30-minute program became 22 minutes (with eight minutes for ads). Season orders were made in 13- and 26-episode batches to accommodate the weeks/seasons in a calendar year. Most importantly, unlike live theater or call-in radio, television as a medium could not accommodate user input, and evolved to simulate it, sometimes in an awkward manner (cue the laugh track).

A new kind of storytelling

As consumers have shifted their viewing to interactive devices (iPad, Xbox, PC), creators are free of many of the limitations of broadcast television, but few have taken advantage of this fact. Why shouldn’t premium video vary in length to accommodate the story? Why not embrace interactivity and innovate on formats that television simply cannot accommodate? Why not acknowledge the viewer, and engage him or her in real time? Why not embrace features from other media, such as video games?

I am not describing something in the distant future. Twitch, which sold to Amazon last year, took the experience of going to the arcade and gathering around a great gamer to watch him play, and expanded its reach dramatically. Indeed, it established gaming as a sport, one that major athletes now embrace.

Chinese portal YY has created a virtual concert marketplace that allows viewers to join a broadcast, sing along, perform and donate to the performers. Even major broadcast networks are starting to experiment, allowing fans to influence what’s happening on screen and interact with their favorite stars via video call-in, answer polls and social media.

The venture capital community is starting to embrace innovation in video again. Some are skipping traditional video altogether by taking bets that are far ahead of the market, but Vessel’s massive seed round, as well as call-outs like this one, are highly encouraging.

To be a video consumer in 2015 means you may have tuned in to last night’s premiere of AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” It also means that you are about to experience new forms of premium entertainment you haven’t seen before. We are about to witness the start of something truly new and fresh, something we haven’t seen before. “TV Everywhere” is a start — it’s a must — but this is just the beginning.

Alex Kruglov is co-founder and CEO of Smiletime, a video platform for premium content that allows audiences to interact and engage with content on screen like never before. Prior to that, he was head of content acquisition at Hulu for six years. Reach him @akruglov.

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