Happy Medium: Why the Web is Good for Television

New PBS documentary is set to premiere – on Facebook. It's the latest sign that the Internet might actually be good for television

We've all the seen the vintage pictures from circa 1950: folks clustered around the tiny, black-and-white screen of the first TV on the block.

Television, from the start, has been, in one form or another, a social experience. And even if we all eventually got a TV in just about every room in the house, negating the necessity to watch with others, shows provided next-day conversation fodder.

The Internet, supposedly, changed all that. But there are indications the Web, after taking a hit on the tube, might be actually be helping TV.

The latest evidence: PBS is showing a new documentary about the environmental movement on Facebook – eight days before broadcasting it on TV, The New York Times reported this week.

The idea is for TV to tap directly into the social aspect of the Internet. Facebook viewers will be able to discuss “Earth Days” in real time with the filmmakers and other virtual friends on April 11.

PBS is bringing some organization to what's already happening in social media, where TV is a hot topic.

Ratings for the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympic, the Oscars and other recent big events were up – and some TV executives believe buzz on Twitter and elsewhere on the Web helped the cause, The Times notes. Recent popular Twitter trending topics include the NCAA tournament, Justin Bieber and “American Idol” – all entertainment-driven conversations.

There's something of a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" effect happening where we’re all convinced we have something clever to say about what's unfolding on the screen. Though instead of being stranded on a planet with snarky robots, we're connected by the even more sci-fi-sounding wi-fi.

“Ten years ago, we laughed at Beavis and Butt-head watching bad heavy-metal videos. But clearly, they were on to something,” New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote this week.

PBS, of course, isn't putting corny old horror movies or bad music videos online. The network is smart enough to pick a topic of great appeal to its audience for the Facebook experiment.

Entertainment is still very much a social experience – we're just coming off a record box office year for movies – even if the forum of conversation is shifting. We don't have to be in the same room anymore to have a vibrant discussion about a show in progress.

Still, new technology could soon get folks gathering around the TV again – years from now, we could be looking at pictures of people, wearing funny glasses, crammed around the first 3-D set on the block.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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