For the last century or so video content, regardless of the medium, has been a linear experience for nearly everyone in nearly every video experience. You start watching at the beginning and you watch until the end. Even if it was possible to skip forward or back, this was usually a process that took time and effort.
Even with the advent of TiVo in the late 1990s, that didn’t really change. Sure, you’d skip the ads, and maybe some other parts of a show (intro segments, end wrap-ups, the sports coverage on the news), but for the most part you started at the beginning and you watched until the end.
It is still the case that the vast majority of video content is designed to be viewed this way and is probably viewed this way, but I think that is going to change in dramatic ways for the next generation because the reality is that now, for the first time, we feel a great deal of control over the playback of our video.
There is a scene in Inside Out where one of the characters is watching a memory, and she drags her finger back to rewind the memory, then drags her finger further back to rewind back even further.
When I am up late at night working on something, I will often watch Pitch Perfect because I really like the movie and I know it so well that I can treat it as background entertainment; I don’t need to pay close attention. But this is how I watch Pitch Perfect:
First, I skip to the end and watch both of the final performances. Then I skip back to near the start and watch the challenge event in the empty swimming pool. Then I skip forward to watch the awful Sockapella performance. Then I go back to almost the start of the movie and let it play through.. I may or may not skip the parts I already watched, and I may or may not skip back and watch something again.
What I do not do, unless someone else is watching with me, is watch the movie from start to finish.
It turns out I am not the only one doing this, a lot of young kids with iPads are doing the same thing with the TV shows and movies they watch to an extent that never happened with DVDs or VHS or even TiVo. And now that I think about it, there are other movies I do something similar with, skipping through to find specific parts instead of watching the movie from start to finish, although with other films I am skipping forward and not moving around.
I’m pretty sure that the generation of kids growing up now who’ve possibly never seen a optical disc are going to be consuming their video very differently than their parents did, and that is going to be a hugely disruptive force.
Imagine what a show might look like that was geared to that kind of watching? How could you do it? How do you keep the attention of someone who with the drag of a finger can move 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or 50 minutes with nearly no effort? It’s not simply an issue of keeping a viewer looking at your content instead of someone else’s, but of designing your content with the awareness that linear video consumption is no longer an assumption you can make.
I’m sure that we will se misguided doomed-to-failure attempts to enforce linear consumption, but there is no chance that is going to work, so this is something that the next generation of film makers and youtube stars are going to have to be thinking about. I’ll be interested to see what they do.