Web-TV convergence is already here, just not the way we expected

New data from Nielsen shows consumers are multitasking on their own terms

Remember WebTV? It was supposed to combine the web and television experiences into a media consumption firehose. Or something like that.

Web 2.0 Expo San FranciscoWebTV didn’t work out, but that hasn’t kept other companies from pursuing similar dreams of web-television utopia. Yahoo is building TV-based widgets. TiVo is banking on search across media types. Boxee wants to entwine browsing and viewing. Even Google is getting in on the act.

But new data from Nielsen suggests they’re all headed in the wrong direction. The convergence between television and web has already happened, but it’s not occurring in a standalone box:

In the last quarter of 2009, simultaneous use of the Internet while watching TV reached three and a half hours a month, up 35% from the previous quarter. Nearly 60% of TV viewers now use the Internet once a month while also watching TV.

There’s a couple things I find notable about this:

1. Manufacturers of televisions and set-top boxes are only now catching on to the inherent disconnect between television’s lean-back experience and the web’s lean-forward positioning. If you’ve ever entered a password through a TV remote, you know how clunky this can be. Yet, input is just the beginning of the problem. The web is a pull environment, so by default we’re more engaged. Television, beyond the guide grid, is a push environment. I believe a big reason why web and TV haven’t yet converged in a broadly adopted super device is because it’s uncomfortable — physically and mentally — to rock between push and pull. It’s a heck of a lot easier to prop a notebook on your lap while the TV plays in the background.

2. The Nielsen post includes another notable conclusion:

The research shows that Americans watch network programs online when they miss an episode or when a TV is not available. Online video is used essentially like DVR and not typically a replacement for watching TV.

This is yet another example why “killer” technologies are ridiculous. Consumers are filling in their consumption with online video, not replacing it. That’s a huge departure from the web killing cable or killing broadcast or killing … whatever.

3. Extending on that: It matters if content is consumed, not how it’s consumed. All kinds of effort has gone into bridging the web and TV worlds through brute force. Yet, the most successful cross-media efforts are the ones that let consumers interact through the tools they already use. What makes more sense: integrating Twitter into a television’s hardware or helping users tweet during a show?

(Via Mashable.)

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  • federico anzolini

    Good point. Same stuff is happening with people sending sms during radio shows.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Federico: That’s a *really* good example, and it’s been going on for years. I don’t even notice anymore when a DJ reads texts or emails on-air. It’s just part of the fabric of the conversation now.

  • Peter Meyers

    “the inherent disconnect between television’s lean-back experience and the web’s lean-forward positioning”. Bingo! You nailed it, Mac. We watch TV at home with our laptops & iPhones…and, starting, next week, with our iPads.

  • Craig

    WRT the comment in the report about online video used as a “DVR”, I think what consumers really want is to control when they watch content. I’ve used online sources (hulu.com, abc.com, etc.) to watch content I “missed” because I didn’t want to watch The Office (for instance) at 9pm on a Thursday. That just didn’t work for me, but 10pm Saturday night was a perfect time. Again, I think the key is that consumers want to consume when they want to consume, not when the networks want me to consume. Also, online content provides a means to stop, restart, etc. Basically, web-based content is pushing the “DVR” into the cloud.

  • Michael Holloway

    I am sure that the combination of radio and the Internet can create a very interesting user experience. I’ve been trying to enable Twitter conversations around @tvo content and CBC radio shows.

    Several years ago CBC Radio One’s science magazine “Quirks and Quarks” longtailed their website so you can listen to the broadcast, and at the same time dig deeper through the links provided. It results in a rich, unique experience.

    This weekend Quirks and Quarks did a show that toured health care in Second Life and the particular content happened to take the experience to a new level.

    Because the content was ‘reporting in a virtual reality’, digging deeper became entering that space – it felt like transporting to another world – with a host at ground control guiding you on.

    You can re-live the experience through podcast here:

  • Piet van Oostrum

    I always use internet while watching TV. Actually I am watching TV while typing this comment.

  • Sloe Moe

    This is why 3D TVs won’t take off. Who wants to take off their 3D glasses everytime they look down at their laptop/netbook/iPad?

  • Matt Merriam

    I’ve been watching and wondering about all this for a while. I like your synopsis. I think the more curious question is whether there isn’t a total convergence of the hardware platforms and since a phone CPU could replace your PC. My DVR has a fat hard-drive and I seriously rely on it, never really liking Hulu and Boxee once I found a few limitations.

    My grander theory is that Microsoft starts making bluray set top boxes integrated with X-box and sells Office as a feature — something like that is coming.

    I posted this last year on the same subject: http://mattmerriam.com/2009/03/web-tv-convergence-what-is-it

  • mattheww

    I don’t think people watching Hulu on their laptops is what keeps TV execs up at night — it’s people watching Hulu on their TV’s.

    Yes, right now doing that is awkward. Suddenly it won’t be. In fact it will feel so much like good ol’ TV that people will flip open their laptops while they watch.

    None of that necessarily helps AMC.

  • MIchael Julson

    I think you are off base. The reason it hasn’t taken off in the past is the same issues that plagued mobile internet.

    1. Terrible UI’s. iPhone fixed that. Someone needs to make a browser that is meant to be used on a TV, with limited remote requirements. It needs to work with standard webpages, and maybe mobile, or maybe a different format specific for TV.

    2. Connectivity isn’t everywhere in your house, and not normally where the TV is. It also wasn’t fast enough for high quality video, either from your broadband, or even wifi. Now, high bandwidth is becoming available and wifi has been brought up to a more reasonable speed for video.

    3. WebTV was also plagued by companies trying to control the experience in a walled garden. (Cable Companies -> Carriers)

    All of these things are changing, pretty rapidly. One or two things could happen that would immediately make this market explode…

    Microsoft gets smart and deploys a specifically tailored IE on the xBox and opens the WinPho7 app store(once there is sizable number of apps there) to the xBox to allow all WinPho7 apps to be run on the xbox. Immediately, you have 25 million InternetTV’s.

    Apple allows iPhone/iPad apps to be run on AppleTV, using ipod touch/iphone/ipad as remote controller.

    Sony or Nintendo do similar things… (less likely or impactful)

    Boxee, XMBC, etal.. develop or embed amazingly good web browser for lean back web browsing, like reading a newspaper.

  • Don McArthur

    Ha! I’ve been watching PHB’s try to turn the computing experience into television for 20+ years. The vain hope is that they can recapture the glory days of an advertising revenue model they can understand. Sorry, not going to happen.

  • greenfigers

    Lean back internet has been a long time coming.

    I project my laptop onto the wall and then lean back on the sofa with my Android phone running Gmote – a fantastic little remote contol app which lets me stream video or play music on the laptop.

    Not sure about Apple’s iPad, but the form factor makes alot more sense than a laptop for a couch potato internet experience.

  • bowerbird

    down at the local sports bar, there are a bunch of guys
    who are always there, with their laptops up on the bar,
    using the web to augment the viewing experience, and
    — i’ve suspected many times — to place a few bets…


  • Urban

    Yep. But the problem lies not within the technology.
    Well, it is on one hand somehow understandable for the rigid broadcasters to stick to the proven business scenario of the one-time compliation of service and the bill (ads of course).
    It is, on the other hand disastrous that the new business stars if the Internet deliberately ignore the slight possibility of using their services away from their computers as their business revenue lies exactly in NOT watching the video but in surfing AWAY from it (by clicking the ad).
    To resume, ever since the invention of a remote control there is a certain level of interactivity within the TV service and its technologically easy to extend that kind of interaction towards the true service on demand experience.
    All we need is a provider with a clear business case.
    And of course we’ll still be using our laptops on the knees while being served.

  • Brandon Harvey

    I think you’re right about the basic disjunction between push and pull technologies — you are basically making McLuhan’s hot medium/ cool medium distinction. Browsing the web and watching a video stream are simply different flavors of human mental effort, and it’s hard to imagine combining them. I make a similar point here (http://blogs.accenture.com/technology_labs_blog/archive/2010/03/31/web-+-tv-why-is-this-hard.aspx).

    But you’ve got some interesting data here that needs to be thought about more. It could be that people doing completely separate stuff on their laptop while they keep an eye on the TV — doing their taxes, checking their email. But if they’re not — if they’re actually engaging in a layer of commentary, annotation, conversation ABOUT the TV stream — then that’s really interesting. And maybe that’s the key of combining a hot medium (TV) and a cool medium (the web). The video stream provides the grounding layer, the common reference point for a cultural conversation. People can passively receive this stream, or they can lean forward and begin to talk about it, even as it’s happening. The big screen is where “they” talk — the actors, the anchors — and the little screen in my lap is where I get to talk.

  • Shoeless

    “Online video is used essentially like DVR and not typically a replacement for watching TV.”

    My DVR is just exactly that: a replacement for watching TV. I only wish its integration with video sites was a little cleaner. All in time.

  • michael anthony

    believe it or not, webtv is still around. its called msntv, I had that sad service till a year ago. the only thing its good for is for e-mail, and surfing 50% of the internet.