Gaming: The Fifth NetworkS

The very public, very messy late-night fight between Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and NBC didn't just offer interesting insight into the inner workings of network television, it reminded everyone that the TV isn't used only for watching shows anymore.

Video games, right behind bad programming and bad decisions, are television networks' biggest threat these days.

And the big three of gaming, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, aren't content to usurp the television with just video games, they're starting to replace the need for network television with their own form of programming.

It started with the ability to rent and purchase videos through the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 online networks. Next came Netflix and the ability for the rental service's customers to stream movies to the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and this spring, Nintendo's Wii.

And now, the video game console makers are all expanding their reach with interesting takes on what traditionally you'd find on a network channel.

Microsoft is currently testing a video game remake of television game show 1 vs. 100. The Xbox Live version is entirely populated by live players from around the country depicted by 3D avatars in a replica of the game show's set.

The game takes place over the course of a two-hour live episode hosted by comedian Chris Cashman and winners of the show take home Microsoft Points which can be used to purchase videos and games on the console.

Microsoft recently struck a deal with AT&T to get cable television through their console using Uverse's IPTV. Microsoft is also rumored to be in talks with Walk Disney in an attempt to land live sports coverage through ESPN for their console. Microsoft declined to comment for this article.

Sony's take on console television includes two video-game themed shows, Qore and Pulse, produced by an in-house production team and an upcoming reality show called The Tester.

In The Tester, 11 contestants will battle to land a job as a tester for Playstation games.

"It's highly entertaining – think Wipeout meets The Apprentice," said Susan Panico, senior director of Playstation Network. "We're slowly building up our stable of original content which will premiere on Playstation Network and then have a reverse syndication model where content can make it's way to the web, or even "traditional" TV."

"The goal for Playstation Network from day one was to present an entertainment network that brought emerging media experiences to the home via PS3 or on the go with PSP. From a content strategy standpoint, we always believed in a quality over quantity position which has allowed us to present exclusive content that has broken gaming conventions."

Nintendo's Wii is also home to quite a bit of exclusive video content through the console's Nintendo Channel, said Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America's executive vice president of sales and marketing.

The channel includes trailers, commercials and interviews with game developers and Nintendo executives.

But Dunaway doesn't think the console's impact on television watching is a deep as some say.

"People don't consume their television the same way they did 20 years ago," she said. "If your favorite TV show is on at 8 p.m. and you're playing a Wii game, you can keep playing and watch the show later on your DVR on your own timetable."

"I think (television and video games) will remain distinct, even though they both appear on TV screens. Different types of reading (books, magazines and newspapers) are all viewed differently from one another, for example. "

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation seems to back up Dunaway's take on the issue.

The study showed that children today spend an average of 7 hours, 38 minutes a day consuming "entertainment media" and that television remains at the top of the heap at 4 hours, 29 minutes a day. Video games take up just 1 hour, 13 minutes of a day, according to the study. That's an increase of 38 minutes a day over the past five years for television and only 24 minutes for video games.

The study doesn't address where television may be getting hit the hardest: Adults. A recent Nielsen study, shows that console gamers are most active during television's prime time. In other words, they're playing games, not watching TV.

Playstation's Panico thinks that's because video games are more interactive and engaging.

"When you look at Playstation 3 and all the different types of content you can get through Playstation Network, there is more choice via our gaming platform than a broadcast TV channel," she said.

"Back when Playstation launched in 1995, we legitimized gaming as a form of entertainment. It was no longer seen as the "geeky" thing to do. Athletes and movie stars were gaming and they had an affinity for Playstation since we introduced games with more sophistication. We made it a part of pop culture. Now, gaming has become a lifestyle for that audience and the interactivity and engagement have become their "first screen" with TV as a time filler."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.