Ever since the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) closed its doors in early January the gadget press has been nearly unanimous in identifying 3DTV as television’s “next big thing.” But lost in all the hype surrounding 3D is a potentially far more exciting development: the inclusion of web widgets into television sets’ operating systems. Widgets are the mini-apps that bring weather forecasts to our computer desktops and display real-time news headlines and stock tickers on blogs. With the introduction of web-connected television sets with built-in widgets, the same functionality comes to television, so that instead of changing the channel during an insufferably slow segment of an American Idol elimination show, you’ll instead be able to hit a button on your remote to bring up your Gmail inbox or to play a quick game of Lexulous. In other words, you’ll do what a growing number of viewers already do on laptops, only without having to shift your attention away from your television set to do so.
Compared to 3D, widgets promise to have a much more immediate and meaningful impact on television’s programming, audiences, and economics. For while few current programs would benefit from presentation in 3D – in fact, more than a few would actually suffer, many shows will become vastly more appealing when overlaid with dynamic web content. I first realized this when I started watching television with some of my colleagues at other universities and colleges. Mind you, I wasn’t actually in the same room with them at the time. In fact, technically speaking I’ve never “met” a number of these people. Rather, when I say that I’ve been “watching television with my colleagues,” what I really mean is that I’ve been following – and responding to – their Twitter updates as we watch television on our own.
Each night between 8 and 11 pm EST, Twitter lights up with television-related chatter, making my TweetDeck “All Friends” column look like a meeting of the SCMS TV Studies Special Interest Group. These nightly discussions have brought media studies professors and students into closer contact with some of the nation’s smartest television critics, including The Onion’s Todd VanDerWerff and the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, as well as the thousands of fans who provide running commentary on their own viewing via Twitter. Throughout the night links are exchanged and retweeted, plot twists are dissected, evictions are second guessed, and past and present NBC executives are excoriated, all in 140-character bursts. By the time the 11 pm local news has begun, tomorrow’s columns or blog posts (or next year’s SCMS panels) have already started to take shape.
It makes sense that Twitter widgets, along with other social networking apps, promise to be major selling points for the new web-connected televisions, in so far as television, along with celebrity death rumors, already seems to be Twitter’s main topic of discussion. The launch of these widgets is also in keeping with ongoing efforts by television networks to incorporate real-time text-based viewer feedback into their own programming. The advantage of Twitter widgets over past programming gimmicks is that widgets enable us, the viewers, to select the feeds that will be overlaid on our screens, as opposed to leaving it to the network to make these selections for us. So while we still can’t use digital technologies to customize the television programs we watch, we can at least use them to chose who we watch with. The outcome, I would wager, is no less satisfying.
Having pretty much given up on “live” (that is, not time-shifted) television when I first got a TiVo in 2004, I now find myself motivated to tune in on schedule by the prospect of participating in these nightly Twitter sessions. Even more surprising, on a couple of occasions I’ve actually turned on my set to check out a program that I thought I had absolutely no interest in to see what’s making “Vienna” or “Merle” or some other meaningless-to-me term grow larger in the TwitScoop tag cloud. Mark Andrejevic has argued that within the contemporary media mix television programs are but “the raw material to which value is added” by the individuals who analyze, debate, and ridicule them online. The new web-connected, widget-equipped sets acknowledge as much, affording what are ostensibly secondary forms of televisual discourse a place of prominence on the television screen. By doing so, these new technologies make a compelling case for the old argument that television’s real attraction is not its programs, but the discussions they inspire.