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MEMORY LANE: Did You See That?

Mon, 11/30/2009 - 7:15pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technologywriter, Denver, Colo.

The 1938 radio drama "War of the Worlds" didn't just scare the pajamas off of American audiences, it united them. For 60 minutes, family members sat together around radio consoles, listening in fascination and fear as the Orson Welles production conjured imagery of interplanetary invasion. House by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, "War of the Stewart SchleyWorlds" knitted together a community of listeners, bound by a single, communal event. Welles, cleverly, presented the first 40 minutes of the hour-long broadcast as a mock newscast. Without commercial interruption, as was the custom of the radio series "Mercury Theatre on the Air," the program convinced many listeners that a Martian invasion of a New Jersey town was in fact occurring.

Historians note that "War" spawned an instant ad hoc communications network of a sort, as listeners knocked on neighbors' doors (or, for those so endowed, made telephone calls) to seek explanation or to share the shocking news. Panicked listeners called radio stations, reaching out to the source of the bizarre report for confirmation. (Broadcaster Jack Paar of Cleveland radio station WGAR promised frantic callers that the world was not, in fact, coming to an end.) So many callers swamped the Manhattan police station that the department had to suspend normal law-enforcement duties, according to one published report. The New York Times' switchboard was overwhelmed by more than 1,000 calls.

The swirl of human connection surrounding "War" demonstrated that network-distributed content could provoke a sense of community. When word broke out that Martians were invading, the first thing people wanted to do was talk about it.

Some 70 years later, television is finally coming to grips with that powerful reality. After decades during which TV shows, newscasts, movies and sporting events were merely delivered to people's homes for viewing, some entrants now hope to profit by not just providing content, but by cultivating human expression around it.

This evocation of media community, like many compelling inventions of the digital age, was first invented by audiences themselves - particularly teenagers. Famous for multitasking, young people cobbled together real-time "communities" around television content by chatting with friends over mobile phones and computers while they watched shows like "South Park."

The media establishment, or at least parts of it, noticed. If people were expressing interest in sharing TV experiences - in real time, over jerry-rigged combinations of devices - it stood to reason that platforms enabling more convenient and alluring methods of sharing might catch on.

Microsoft Corp., among the early believers, began theorizing it could play to the new movement. The original version of its Xbox Live game platform came with an Ethernet port and a headset that allowed online gamers to play against each other - and crack jokes over an IP voice connection at the same time.

Now, Microsoft is taking the concept of community to television itself. Today, Xbox Live lets users connect with friends while they're watching TV, replete with animated avatars that represent the invitees on the screen. Watching television through Xbox Live while connected to the new "Party" feature is like going to the movies with seven friends - except nobody asks you to hush up during the big scene.

Other providers are in the community game, too. Verizon's FiOS TV is now outfitted with TV derivations of the social-networking platforms Facebook and Twitter, making it possible to know what your friends are watching, to join them in the program and to comment on it while you watch.

Building media communities requires letting people onto the stage. Rather than merely replying to content - voting for the best "American Idol" performer, for example - viewers interact with other people who are themselves interacting with the content. It changes the way people think about entertainment.

"We never talk about our games in terms of audience," said Marc Whitten, the general manager of Xbox Live, during November's Streaming Media Conference in San Jose, Calif. "There is not an audience for Halo. There is a community for Halo."

Whitten isn't trying to reinvent consumer behavior around media. He's simply tapping into a long-demonstrated desire to share experiences. To prove his point, he opened his remarks by referencing an historical example that demonstrates how people want to build conversation around media events. Evoking the parlance of the modern digital media movement, Whitten called the reference point "a watershed moment for cloud-based entertainment." He was referring, of course, to a seminal radio broadcast of 1938. The Martians, it turns out, are still influencing the state of media today.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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