Online video game Fortnite's live performances and Netflix's new ventures indicate that younger audiences' expectations of content are changing: They don't want to just watch, they want to experience—to participate.
Live events have always been a huge deal in the TV world. Some would say they are one of the last key advantages that broadcast TV has over the digital world. Viewers, especially younger ones, may be cutting cords and spending most of their content consumption hours on social media and streaming services, but when the Super Bowl is on, it's a different story... That's when everyone's back in front of the TV screen. Even then, though, mobile devices are still in hand as second screens.
But, recently, it seems that even the live TV event might slowly be slipping away from TV's grasp. Just a few months ago, on Fortnite, a huge digital live event took place far, far away from the land of the small screen. It was watched live by over 10 million people (then 39 million on YouTube), and still many of us probably never heard a thing about it.
In the hit video game, DJ Marshmello, a popular electronic music producer, held a live performance at the game's Pleasant Park, attended by millions of players. One person mentioned in the YouTube comments section, "This was better than the Super Bowl halftime show." The comparison was inevitable, even though 10 million viewers is not the 98 million that Super Bowl LIII got. But just wait until Fortnite gets a live show by Maroon 5 or Beyoncé.
Fortnite is not just drawing a big audience. It's drawing the audience that TV is losing rapidly: the younger viewers who will never tune in to the Academy Awards—another one of traditional broadcasting's last staples—but will spend hours on Instagram stories about avocados every single day. Their attention is limited, and they do not want to spend it in passive viewing. They were born with an iPhone on their hand, into a world that allows you to swipe, click, flip, engage and interact with your content, and they expect no less from live events.
When you watch a performance in a video game, it's—at least until VR headsets are found in every household—the closest thing to being there. The interactive, immersive elements of video games make it an entirely different experience than sitting on your couch watching something happen to other people without your taking any part in it.
Netflix has already understood this concept. Its recent foray into interactivity—the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch, which allowed viewers to choose their own adventure and decide where the plot goes—got lots of attention from subscribers, as well as dozens of articles dissecting every different ending and twist. But Bandersnatch was just the beginning. Netflix had previously announced its intentions to double-down on interactive content. A Bear Grylls show in which viewers make plot decisions was next, and Stranger Things might follow.
And now, YouTube is getting into interactive content to compete with Netflix.
Why do they find interactive content so appealing, even though it is much harder to produce with all of its different possible scenarios? There are many reasons, but first and foremost is that audiences are responding in droves to interactive content. Beyond that, the data learned about users through the choices they make is rich with insights, including natural opportunities for introducing branded content that users can interact with.
But at the root of Netflix's gamble on interactivity lies an understanding of what audiences expect their TV to be. Its initial disruption was in the way televised content is aired, distributed, and monetized. Now the company is taking part in the important realization that in the era of content overload and low attention spans, passive content just won't cut it anymore. In fact, in a recent earnings report, the company stated that it views Fortnite a bigger competitor for their users' time and attention than Hulu or HBO.
As our lives become more and more digital, having avatar versions of ourselves attend live performances, dancing and drinking a beer on our behalf is, it seems, the logical next step. That is exactly what interactivity allows—thus making an online broadcast the closest thing to a real life experience. That is the level of immersion required to fight the million and a half distractions taking our audience's focus away, whether on TV or on a mobile device.
The war for attention and the need to stand out forces the biggest content players out there to catch up, and find ways to offer this interactivity to their audiences. Brands and marketers looking to increase the level of engagement from their audience can take a page from Netflix's book.
The concept of a live televised event was once a way for broadcast networks to draw the big crowds, get us all watching one show at the same time and talking about it at the office the day after. In today's TV landscape, with its content abundance, it seems no two people are watching the same show anymore. We are all chasing our own endless "must watch" list, and fighting off spoilers for shows we will likely never get to. In a post-Games-of-Throne world, the major television events that everyone tunes in to watch might well become a rarity.
What will be the next way to grab mass audiences' precious time and attention that are so valuable to the marketing and advertising industry?
My best advice: put down that remote, and look for it on Fortnite.