Vaudeville to Lost – On the Web


vaudeville_small.jpgADOTAS — I’m going to talk about the web by talking about television.

Not because of the similarities and differences that have been chronicled, debated, fought over and bloodied ad nauseam. But because I subscribe to the notion that history repeats itself. And I believe we’re seeing it repeat itself in a way that affects, and will continue to affect, the creative things we do for the web.

When television sets first started showing up in a significant number of American homes, the programming they played was already relatively familiar to the audience. Here was this radio with pictures that represented a newfangled way to treat everyone’s living room as if it were a theatre seat.

Because of bulky camera equipment, huge lights, and limited mobile ability, content for early television needed to be something that could be produced from, essentially, a single vantage point. Hence, producers went with what they knew had already worked well in other media: News, from radio — and from the stage,Vaudeville.

Vaudeville became the TV variety show, a perfect style of content for the then-new medium. It offered a little something for everyone — because everyone, of course, was watching the same show. Which wasn’t all that different from the live version of Vaudeville, where everyone sat in the same playhouse, and expected a little variety for their ticket price. Variety TV wasn’t the same as Vaudeville, but it was close enough that the producers could produce it well right from the start. The audience accepted it easily, because it was familiar, yet, different.

It didn’t take too much time, though, for TV producers to realize that television was much more than just a window to a single playhouse. Different types of people wanted to watch different types of entertainment, at different times of day. And the spectrum allowed for that, and for multiple channels of programming, broadcasting simultaneously. As production techniques became more and more sophisticated and mobile, so did the content on television. Soon, the content there was no longer an adaptation of the playhouse follies that had come before. It was content that was truly of the medium, for the medium.

Fast forward your DVR today, and you’ve got Lost, robotic cameras in live sports, and a host of TV-native innovations that take the creative structure of content not only beyond the box, but far, far beyond what anyone, probably, in those early days of the medium could ever dream. Where will it go from here? No way to know, because technology isn’t showing any signs of stagnating, and technology always opens doors for creativity. Once we’re truly familiar with all the potential of a medium, and all the ways users use a medium, we innovate, creatively, making things that are native, rather than adaptations.

The web, in that respect, is no different than TV.

I don’t need to go all the way back to websites made with frames to make this point. I can jump back a couple of years, (or even jump sideways to now, with some marketers) and talk about brand sites.

It wasn’t long ago that a brand site was, by default almost, a tour de force of entertainment prowess, with the sole intention of collecting users and never, ever, letting them go without a fight. It was a TV show with the ability to click on stuff, designed around the principle that entertainment lures viewers, and gives you an opportunity to slip in a product message somewhere along the way. Which is a pretty good principle, when you’re talking about traditional media.

On the web, though, we’ve now learned that things are different. While people certainly do use the web when they’re looking for entertainment, the operative part of that phrase isn’t “entertainment.” It’s, actually, “looking for.” The web is an active, rather than passive, experience — even if the active part is merely a search for something to watch, however passively. Users control their own paths — and not just within your site. Users seek what they want to seek, find what they want to find, and use the whole web, all at once, to do it.

Which is why you’re seeing more and more brand sites that are built, not as islands in the web, but as textures, aggregators, and supplements to other information that can be found elsewhere on the web. We’re seeing brand sites that link, literally and figuratively, to other brand efforts, and related efforts, in social gathering places. We’re seeing a combination of entertainment, narrative, information, connection, and sometimes, retail, built into what, not long ago, was conceived as a simple, singular, entertainment-driven brand experience. Brand sites now are more eclectic – to reflect the eclectic motivations of any group of users. Entertainment still has a critical role. It’s just not the only thing that has a role now.

We’re moving from our own version of Vaudeville — linear, entertainment-first; an adaptation of proven traditional forms — to something more web-native. More of the medium, rather than simply in the medium.

Social media has been a key catalyst that has ignited brands’ realization that people gather on the web to do things other than listen to brands talk about themselves. Once, it was a spoken truth, frequently ignored. Now it’s a given. And while social media has been a catalyst, and while elements of the social web are now an integral part of almost every effective brand effort, the technology driving creative innovation isn’t about to stop at Twitter. Where’s it going from here? No way to know. But it won’t be backward.

— Express your opinion, comment below.


  1. Fascinating comparison! Distilling the analogy is an eye opening observation.

    It’s a cliche that technology is moving so rapidly that you need to constantly shift your thinking, but your article is illustrative of the medium’s impact disconnected from the specifics of the Internet as a technology.

    Because the Internet is so directly connected with a wave of all other kinds of innovations, it’s not just limited as a parallel example. Television shaped our habits, but not so directly and rapidly the way that we function and carry out tasks.

    A more appropriate analogy might be if the phone, television and car were all invented at the same time, used the same technologies and evolved in years, not decades.


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