Look, It’s TV!

Interactive technology has dramatically changed the way we think about, and do business within, media. The effect of computers connected to high-speed lines in so many homes has forced everyone involved in traditional media to rethink, reshuffle, and, best of all, reinvent. The one thing it hasn’t forced anyone to do is retreat.

The interactive industry has never been short on hype and hyperbole. Many bold pioneers running Internet companies have shouted that the old rules no longer apply and all the media we’ve known and loved are nothing but dinosaurs, blissfully munching ferns, unaware the meteor is just a few feet away from their heads.

And Yet…

And yet, we still have all of those media. Certainly newspapers and magazines have suffered in the last many years, but they were on the decline anyhow. With or without the Internet, newspapers were headed toward slimming and suffering. Radio as well, but that story involves station consolidation. The disruptive factor on the airwaves has more to do with regulation loosening that kept companies from expanding to (what the companies believe is) their natural size.

But what about that big target of new media: the Idiot Box, the Boob Tube, the Medium (as in neither “rare” nor “well done”) of television? Has it suffered during the interactive years? I don’t believe it has. In fact, there are more than a few cues out there that television, as an industry, is finally getting itself in step with the interactive industry and is ready for its glorious next age.

As an Industry

Note I mentioned television as an industry, not as an art form. Certainly, the argument has been made that TV show quality has gotten significantly better over the last several years (thank you, TV gods, for “Mad Men”), and this change has been driven in part by the increasing competition for attention. If TV remained stuck in the trivial half-hour wasteland of “Two and a Half Men,” it would never be able to compete with the energy found online.

But behind the scenes, the TV industry is making good on its promises to adapt and evolve. There are two big examples that occurred in the last few weeks that particularly show some signs of life: the Nielsen-Google partnership and the prelaunch of Hulu.

The Importance of Being Data

In the long view, the emergence of companies that use data to dynamically manage advertising will be seen as a significant a shift in the way business is done as Bill Bernbach writing “Lemon” under a picture of VW Bug. Google has been at the forefront of this revolution, but Yahoo has done amazing things with behavioral targeting, Facebook and MySpace are experimenting data aggregation, and scores of others are lurking at the edge.

Google has always possessed a voracious data appetite. It thinks of advertising’s core challenge –right offer, right time — as a math problem it could solve if only it had all the variables. It scours the Earth looking for those variables and seems to have found a treasure trove at Nielsen. The two companies signed a multi-year agreement in which Nielsen’s TV data is shuffled over to Google. The first phase will integrate that data with Google TV Ads, which, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear, isn’t exactly its most widely used service.

The announcement, however, hints at a number of subsequent phases, which are totally undefined. The opportunity, though, is clear: mix the Nielsen data with the rest of the Google’s data (remember, it’s acquiring DoubleClick) and, at the very least, Google Trends could become the single best pulse-read on culture today. I’d buy ads based on that data: searches plus viewing plus online clicks.

Who Knew Hulu?

The other extraordinary sign of life coming from the TV world has to be Hulu, the new online video destination, backed by NBC and News Corp. When Hulu was announced, the reaction was pretty tepid. All the pundits have been patiently waiting for Joost to come officially online (for what seems like an eternity, BTW), and we already have YouTube, not to mention iTunes and various channel-specific sites where clips and sometimes full episodes of TV shows are already available. Hulu felt like it would be just one more fish in a crowded ocean. And really, was there anyway the corporate backers would allow the service to be much of anything?

Early reports seem to suggest that Hulu has done it right. Not only does the site let you watch whole episodes of shows, but the quality is outstanding and the social-media needs have been met. Anyone can embed whole shows (and, it seems, whole movies) on his site or blog or wherever. Plus, there’s a handy little clip-maker that allows users to select just a certain section of video to embed.

Advertisers have been waiting for this sort of move. I don’t know anything about the ad model, but if Hulu takes a cue from YouTube and VideoEgg by using an overlay system for placing ads within the content, it has an absolutely astounding solution. This is big media finally seeing that it can benefit (and hopefully profit) from giving consumers the tools they want to consume the media how they want.

TV’s Not Going Away

All you need to know about the TV industry’s current health is one small statistic: ads for the Super Bowl are 90 percent sold out. No, the overly bloated advertising field day hasn’t suffered the massive blockage and untimely demise we all imagined it would just a few short years ago. TV is clearly here to stay as a form of entertainment. And as the industry aligns with not market-forces but people-forces, we’ll increasingly come to see that stability as a good, good thing.

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