With Monday's announcement that Amazon will be acquiring start-up Twitch for $980 million in cash, pretty much everyone over the age of 30 or 35 was left scratching their heads and feeling very, very old.
Twitch is best known for Twitch.TV, a video streaming service that features a million or so "broadcasters." There are variations in the format, but all the programming is essentially people watching someone else play a video game. It sounds a bit insane on the face of it, but it's also enormously popular. In the press release announcing the deal, Amazon touted that Twitch had 55 million visitors in July and streamed 15 billion minutes of ad-supported content.
If you spend any time on Twitch, you can see the attraction, even if you don't play many video games. It's the ultimate interactive experience and there is something very compelling about watching something that is micro-targeted to your exact interests.
So why isn't there a Twitch-like experience for TV?
At first glance, it seems like a natural. If thousands or tens of thousands of people are willing to follow along with the cast of a TV show as they live tweet during an episode, how many of them would rather have the experience of watching some of the cast watching the episode and talking about it as the episode unwinds? Think of it as a video equivalent of a DVD audio commentary track.
But the real value of this would be in allowing normal fans of the show to do their own takes on the episode. Sure, some of the broadcasts would be terrible. But like in any other creative medium, the best would find an audience. And it's likely to be the same audience that traditional television is finding it hard to retain.
On the face of it, the idea sounds compelling. But unlike video games, television has a complicated mix of content rights and union contracts that would make the idea difficult to pull off. Even if a studio the size of Sony or NBC Universal wanted to give the idea a try, it's not clear that owning the show gives them the rights to remix the episodes in this fashion.
The other objection from Hollywood is more emotional. For creators already worried about an audience with a short attention span, the thought of something that brings even more distractions is probably a bit of a nightmare.
But the truth is that this Twitch-like TV experience only strengthens the audience attachment to a TV show. Viewers are going to be most interested in broadcasts about shows that they find entertaining in the traditional television context. They're also most likely to view these shows after they've seen the episode, since that will give them the context they need to enjoy the Twitch TV experience. And this type of viewing appeals to the very people the networks are hoping to attract: young, smart and savvy.
Regardless of unlikely a "Twitch for TV" might be, the success of Twitch is a reminder that for all of the talk about innovation in television, things are moving a lot faster outside of Hollywood than they are inside the heart of traditional show business.