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May 13, 2009

What Service Providers Can Learn From CSI and Television

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates


This is my second article focused on takeaways from last month’s MetaSwitch Forum, and this one is a bit different. Events like this often feature guest speakers from outside the industry. Sometimes, they’re unrelated to the business and have a motivational theme around things like team building, selling, branding, etc. Other times, the speaker has little or no connection to telecom, but imparts some best practices ideas that apply nicely to the audience.
 
The guest speaker at MetaSwitch (News - Alert) fell squarely into the latter camp, and while his industry is tangentially related to telecom, his message was highly relevant and worth expanding on here. Fans of the hugely popular TV series CSI will know the speaker right away; for the rest of us, it’s a name we should know and, if you care about the future of telecom, you should be listening to his ideas. His name is Anthony Zuiker. If you think he was an odd choice for MetaSwitch, your instincts may be right. However, television has a lot more in common with telecom than you might think and I will have done my job if this article gets you to see why he was a great choice for the MetaSwitch Forum.
 
At face value, CSI has nothing to do with telecom, so we have to get beyond that. Anthony Zuiker is the creator of CSI and, being new to television, he has brought a fresh vision not just to the crime story genre, but to creating, delivering, and branding content in the Internet age. In this context, I think there is a lot here for service providers to worry about, and I can only touch on a few big picture ideas in this article. If you want to explore these ideas further, I’m not hard to find and would be happy to hear from you.
 
First, Anthony talks about a behavior shift he noticed after 9/11. Across all forms of media, he has seen an increasing desire to customize and personalize content. Of course, this has become much easier with the rise of consumer-friendly products like the iPod, smartphones, and PVRs, along with services such as satellite radio and digital TV. Add to that the exploding world of social networking and digital media, and the days of simply sitting in front of the TV set are long gone. Increasingly, the entertainment experience is about multitasking, with each TV viewer typically engaged in some form of interactive communication with other devices.
 
While this behavior may make us all ADD, Anthony sees it differently, with the overall experience leading to a “deeper level of engagement.”  I’m a bit too old school to really buy that but, for the Internet generation, this is the norm and their behaviors have already been adapted to make all this somehow work. Keep in mind, I’m only talking about serial multitasking here – watching TV, running a handful of IM sessions, checking email, watching YouTube (News - Alert) videos, chatting on the phone, and downloading new music. If you’re really good, you might even be talking to your friends and family, who are actually in the room with you watching TV.
 
This leads to very atomized experiences, where each person has a highly personalized mix of communications modes. We may each be optimizing what works best this way, but that is not where Anthony is going — and nobody has yet come up with a business model to exploit this new behavior. Anthony sees more opportunity with an experience that ties all these modes together with a common thread. He has a name for it – cross-platform storytelling – and that’s where things get much more interesting.
 
The deeper level of engagement he refers to occurs when you can use all these modes at once to experience the same content. Instead of having all these discrete activities going on while watching TV, they’re integrated with the program you’re watching. He cited a few examples, some of which are happening today, while others are still being developed. To illustrate, during – or after – an episode of CSI, fans can go to a special Web site that provides more background on the story, the characters, etc. From there they can go to microsites built around specific characters and interact with them in a virtual setting. More advanced ideas would have specific clues to the crime embedded in the TV show, but you need to go to the Web site to explore them further.
 
As you can imagine, there are a multitude of possibilities here and, shifting gears a bit, he presented another vision of how this cross-platform storytelling concept would apply to books. He calls this the “digi-novel,” where you begin by reading a chapter and, if you choose, you can explore the characters further by visiting a special Web site. Once finished, return to the book and continue on to read the next chapter. Clearly, this is a more immersive experience, and the content is presented across multiple modes – platforms – but in a highly integrated manner.
 
So, what does this mean for service providers? Everything Anthony described for the world of television applies equally well to IP communications. Let’s not forget the obvious:  IPTV (News - Alert) will soon be a cornerstone for any service provider serving the consumer market. The iPhone proved that a mobile device has far more utility than being just a phone, and subscribers are quick to adopt products and services that allow them to customize their communications experiences.  This has huge implications, not just for what services to offer and what prices to charge, but also for new approaches to advertising that address a cross-platform experience.
 
Anthony’s vision for using multiple platforms to create a richer experience applies to all modes of communicating, and he believes that single platforms like TV, newspapers, magazines, CDs, DVDs, etc. are doomed. Their business models are becoming obsolete because subscribers engage with media differently today.
 
His model for CSI and his other ventures has a lot to offer for service providers. The message for me is that if carriers try to reinvent themselves with telco-centric models, they will fail. The future is about content and creating engaging experiences that leverage multiple modes of communicating. This may be asking a lot from service providers, but even if they just take small steps along the way, they will be ensuring their future. Anthony may not know that much about telecom, but it’s hard to argue with CSI’s success, and I have no doubt he’s on the right side of the curve for where service providers need to be.

Jon Arnold, Principal at J Arnold & Associates, writes the Service Provider Views column for TMCnet. To read more of Jon’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Erik Linask



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