Biggest Risk of Google TV: Dumbing Down All of Television
The following article appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter on newsstands now. Subscribers can click here to read the issue.
Hordes of people will head to Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 6 dreaming of Google TV, so they can watch their favorite show, surf the Web, tap into social media or play apps — all at the same time. But if you’re in the industry, you might think twice before joining that mob.
Of all the reviews about Google TV — and most have been on the negative side — none has seriously addressed what is, for quality television producers, the all-too-real killer app: the “dual view” feature (the future’s picture-in-picture) that allows all that multitasking.
Streaming media has become part of everyday life, and Apple TV, Roku and Boxee are ahead of Google in that arena. But Google TV — currently available only inside a special Sony TV set or with Logitech’s set-top-box version but with sets from Samsung, Vizio and Toshiba in the offing — is wildly different.
This is Google, the ultimate go-big-or-go-home company. Whereas Apple has called its foray into connecting with TV sets “a hobby,” Google has gone way beyond tinkering — which probably is why News Corp., CBS, ABC, Viacom, Hulu and others have blocked Google TV from accessing the content.
But their primary fear — loss of revenue opportunities — might not be the biggest worry. What Google TV is set to do is dumb down all of television. Insert any joke here, but it goes beyond a debate about stupid sitcoms and tawdry reality shows.
The dual-view feature combines what a lot of people are already doing — surfing the Web or texting while watching TV — but makes it a whole lot easier. It might be the tipping point toward the death of subtlety and dense, intelligent television.
According to a study Nielsen did for Yahoo, three of four Americans use the Internet while watching TV. The percentage of users who multitask, on the phone or online, has increased every year, up 35 percent from 2009 to 2010. Are they missing nuances a writer might put in? Sure. But a compelling show can drag them back to the TV. Sometimes you can’t look away, whether it’s a Don Draper drunk-fest or zombies taking over on The Walking Dead.
But what if you didn’t have to look away? Now you’ve got issues. Content issues.
Here’s what the Google TV features tout: “There’s more on TV than television.” It promotes Web browsing, checking fantasy scores, using Twitter, etc. — while you’re watching television. A new update for Google’s dual view adds the ability to resize and move the TV window. Nevermind that this kind of ADD enabling would have ruined The Wire; now you can take all the glorious shots of Discovery’s Life and National Geographic’s Great Migrations and shrink them to a tiny block in the bottom corner of your set while you watch a cat play piano on YouTube.
And don’t think feature films won’t be affected. With so much streaming these days, someone using Netflix on Google TV is going to miss important chunks of your acclaimed masterpiece. And then they’re going to tweet that it was totally overrated.
The enemy of great TV is distraction. It might not matter if someone is texting during American Idol or some predictable sitcom, but how many times will the rapid-fire jokes of 30 Rock be completely missed? This can be dismissed as fabulously old-fashioned thinking, but how long before the networks start sending notes to showrunners saying a joke is too complicated or a scene too long?
We used to blog. Now we tweet. Only parents text in full sentences. But there was a time when people just sat and watched television. Not all of it required full attention, but a lot of the best shows these days certainly do. So what happens when your script doesn’t get picked up because it’s too smart? Cut the nuance — leave some room for people to check their e-mail.
Right now, tech critics are calling Google TV a misstep. But it’s clear that more television manufacturers are willing to get into the game, betting that software updates fix the bugs and more networks and cable channels will cede the use of their content.
No offense to Boxee or Roku — there probably wouldn’t be a chill in the air if it was only their products evolving slowly in a niche — but this is Google, so the potential for massive influence is there. And watch out if Apple starts paying more attention to its hobby.
Nobody in the television industry with any brains or power really believed that the computer was going to crush television. Content is still king — and people like Leslie Moonves aren’t going to let that walk out the door.
But maybe the damage won’t come from a computer screen — a couple of family members crammed into the home office to watch clips of Jon Stewart. Maybe it will come from the TV itself, with everybody lounging comfortably on the couch, completely missing Stewart’s brilliant takedown of some ignorant politician because they’re watching a 9-year-old do her version of “Whip My Hair” on ice skates.
Maybe you should pay attention to the buzz out of CES to measure how much damage is coming to the industry. On the other hand, maybe you’re an early adopter who already has Google TV. The revolution could be televised, but you might miss it while changing your Facebook status.