Creating Third-Screen Content? TV Should Not be Your Template

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Early radio programmers looked to vaudeville for their inspiration. The first TV shows were little more than radio programs with pictures. So there's little surprise that the early take on "third-screen" programming is that it will consist of repurposed TV dramas and sitcoms. It won't.

I hate to be the one to break it to the networks, their sponsors and the agencies that sit between them, but shrunk-down housewives and jolly green mini-mes ain't the answer. Mobile, small-screen content is going to consist of an entirely new type of video programming that's not yet out there, and new forms of advertising that don't exist at this point, either.

Don't get me wrong; the networks are smart to offer their sitcoms and dramas to be downloaded and viewed on digital devices. It shows respect for viewers who want to interact with content on their own terms, and opens a new revenue stream. But if that's all they have to offer, they won't remain the dominant content providers for long.

Advertisers, too, may have breathed a sigh of relief when the leading broadcasters began cutting deals with the likes of Verizon Wireless, Yahoo and Apple. "I get it now," some surely said. "People will watch TV over the Internet or on their iPods and cellphones. I can just stick my 30-second spot over there and I've mastered the new media."

It's not going to be that simple. Forward-thinking companies already recognize that. It's the reason Yahoo has hundreds of people at work in its Santa Monica offices developing new types of programming designed specifically for Internet consumption.

The number of folks who will watch hour-long dramas during their commute to work may be impressive, but there won't be enough of them to make the third screen a viable stand-alone medium. Instead, as digital devices come into their own we will see new types of programs of different lengths and formats that play to the strengths of the platforms. The newly unveiled CBS-Pontiac series of minute-long cliffhangers is a nifty idea, but it would have been cooler to announce them as downloadable mini-films than as TV vignettes designed to entice viewers to sample the network's lineup. Was the goal to create a new form of content for its own sake or to develop a device to protect the old model?

Of course it won't just be TV networks creating this programming, or traditional agencies creating the ads. It becomes increasingly clear that Internet-delivered TV ultimately will spell the end of networks as we know them. (You won't tell me what to watch on Thursday nights; I'll tell you what I'm choosing to watch from all the content available.) Content will come from big studios but also small independent ones, and even from viewers themselves.

Too many creative types have hidden behind the myth, or arrogant assumption, that it all comes down to the quality of the storytelling, which (in theory) gives professional content creators the advantage. But on the Internet, the communities that crop up around and take ownership of ideas may be more important than the content itself. And there will be new ways to tell stories, ways that a sitcom writer may not be able to master.

Advertising creatives could have an edge here; perhaps people who create 30-second films will be better prepared for this new world than those who create three-hour movies. But first they have to accept that the third screen is truly a new medium and that users interact with their cellphones and computers differently than they do with their TVs.

Radio wasn't vaudeville. TV wasn't radio. A cellphone isn't a TV. We know what the answer isn't. Let's figure out what it is.

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