The quiet revolution in digital TV

The Superseding of the Goggle-Box is well underway, as streaming video and YouTube celebrities start to reshape the way we watch video.

TV used to be such a simple medium. You checked the schedule, you switched it on and watched it. Or you missed it. All very simple.

Those days are very long gone. Television has been going through the same digital disruption as other forms of content – but in slow motion. A decade ago people were talking actively about the end of linear TV – and yet, it endures. There hasn’t been a single device-based disruption to change things, or a single service that upended the business. Instead, disruption is coming from all angles, in a multitude of forms.

A surge in streaming

On one extreme you have the rise of paid streaming services. The last couple of years has seen a proliferation of streaming boxes to attach to your TV. Apple’s “hobby”, the Apple TV, has long been a front-end for iTunes content, but now serves as a streamer for Netflix and an ever increasing number of other services. This week’s event saw Tim Cook drop its prices – and make it clear that the price drop “is just the beginning”.

Google has two offerings in the fray: the Chromecast stick – a tiny budget device, which allows video to be ‘cast’ from other devices, and the new Android TV-based Nexus Player. Amazon released its Fire TV earlier in the year, primarily as a front-end for its Prime Streaming service.

Streamer as studio

What started as peripheral services have now become proto-TV studios in their own right. Netflix has been creating original series for a while – and extending the life of cancelled series like ‘Arrested Development’. However, it’s now going even bigger by expanding the vastly successful Marvel Comics movie franchise. The first of these – Daredevil – is due for release later in the year:

It’s the first of five interlinked series that are being shot now, introducing a group of street-level superheroes, who will eventually come together as a team.

Amazon has also dipped its toes into the original content production world, with three rounds of pilot productions, many of which have gone to series – including the well-reviewed Transparent. And, unlike traditional broadcasting, these series are usually released simultaneously, rather than serialised across weeks or months. This is no longer appointment TV, but storytelling for the post-DVD boxset age.

This changes the relationship with marketers and advertisers. For one, this new breed of television series does not carry advertising. In effect, the series is, itself, advertising for the streaming subscription. For those looking to ride on the back of their success, the only opportunities seem to lie in product placement.

The rise of the YouTube celebrity

Perhaps the most interesting development, though, has been the rise of the YouTube celebrity to the point where they have become viable media brands in their own right. YouTube has been heavily promoting its biggest celebrities – because of the advertising revenue they can draw.

PewDie-Pie – real name Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg – is the biggest celebrity they have right now. He produces videos for gaming fans which rapidly cruise past the 2m to 3m views mark, from 30 million followers. According to The Atlantic, ads on those videos net him between $140,000 and $1.4m – a month. His current contract with maker Studios ends now. It’ll be interesting to see what he does next.

Michelle Phan, Bethany Mota and Rosanna Pansino, the stars featured in YouTube’s advertising campaigns, cover fashion, beauty and cooking. They’re one person lifestyle brands, talking direct to huge audiences in a way that traditional Tv would have rejected as unprofessional. A new medium is emerging, one with very different content rules from the old one.

A new vocabulary of video

There’s a new vocabulary of video content that makes sense in a digital world. BuzzFeed, that content powerhouse, has invested a significant amount of money in both hiring top-flight talent – renowned online video pioneer ze Frank – and building a studio to produce its video work. The studio has a large number of standing sets of classic locations – homes, offices, cafés, and the like – which allow them to quickly go from drawing up an idea to shooting the video on the set. BuzzFeed’s funding is expected to grow so that they can offer everything from animated GIFs to motion picture-length productions.

This is the new dynamic of online video content – fast, personal, with smart use of technology and standing sets to bring ideas to life fast. And they’re consumed, on demand, on any one of a huge range of devices – a range that continues to grow year on year.

This quiet, slow revolution is still rolling on, but it’s far too advanced to ignore now. If you’re looking to take advantage of it, the traditional media buying route is looking ever less relevant. Will you support emerging media, shown mainly online? Or will you enter the cheap, smart and personal content production game yourself?

ADAM TINWORTH is a business journalist, publishing strategist and lecturer
in digital journalism. For over a decade he’s been studying the intersection media, tech and business and writes about them both here on the NEXT blog and on his personal site.