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A big time for small screens

Digital devices have revolutionised more than just our viewing habits in the past few years

These days, does "watching TV" have the same meaning it did a decade or even a few years ago? Does it still describe an audience sitting passively in front of their sets? People are still "watching TV", but there has been a technological revolution in how and where we do so. This year could be dubbed the Year of Small Screens, when a trend that started a few years ago swelled thanks to greater Internet access, affordable digital devices, the ready availability of apps, and rapidly changing lifestyles.

As so often, it was teenagers who pioneered the trend, watching foreign TV series, music videos and reality shows on YouTube. But it quickly spread among adults, who are now using laptops and tablets to catch up with their favourite soap operas. The common sight of vendors glued to shows on their tablets and smartphones underlines this paradigm shift in viewing. "Watching TV" is no longer an activity confined to your living room.

The abundance of mobile TV apps has accelerated this mass addiction to small screens. Among the pioneers were the apps provided by local and international media outlets. Headline-making news like the Arab Spring uprising, super-typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and Thailand's anti-government protests is being delivered on the go to the army of small-screen viewers. On the entertainment side, 2013 saw remarkable success for "Hormones the Series", which attracted a huge YouTube following for each modestly priced episode. Likewise, football fans watched live English Premier League matches on their smartphones by subscribing to AIS's app.

The growing shift to small screens will certainly have a big impact in years to come. This lifestyle "revolution" is forcing a business rethink by everyone from device makers to content providers and advertisers. Manufacturers will have to improve products to accommodate new customer needs. Programme producers must take into account that fewer viewers group together in front of TV sets, spending more time instead on their own with a small screen. Content providers must adapt to a changing audience and its new behaviour. This also necessitates a fundamental change in how we measure ratings, on which the advertising industry depends. Content providers for the digital TV channels due to launch next year will have to keep pace with the small-screen phenomenon, while their arrivals will certainly intensify competition in the TV industry.

Business will have also take note of the increasing influence of digital "word of mouth" in viewing habits. Ericsson research found that 28 per cent of 100,000 respondents in 40 countries watched video clips recommended by their friends several times a week. This trend is creating an impact on wider social issues. Students can now "carry schools" around with them. When you can get a history lesson just by tapping your phone, the potential for knowledge expands exponentially. The arrival of the small screen also empowers the elderly, the sick and those whose lifestyles don't chime with fixed TV schedules.

The rapid technological advance has freed people to do and learn things at their own pace. Now we are the ones who control our viewing lives, dictating what we watch and when.

When humans are empowered by such tools, creativity always follows. Expect an explosion of ingenuity in 2014.


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