Is The VOD Industy Lying To Us Or To Themselves

By Nigel Walley

Martin Johnson, the England rugby coach stood in front of the cameras after the England Scotland game at the weekend and said that he saw improvement in the England team.  Like most of the English sporting audience, who had just watched a dire display of turgid rugby, I gulped in shock  and stared at the screen feeling very uncomfortable.

My discomfort came from the fact that Martin Johnson should be able to do no wrong in my eyes.  He is someone I revere, and for whom I desire success in a very difficult job.  But he was talking rubbish.  What I couldn’t work out was whether he knew he was but was fronting up, or whether he actually believed the stuff he was saying.  It is discomforting when people I like, and want to succeed, spout stuff that is not believable. Particularly if I am not sure that they believe it either.  I am beginning to feel this way about a whole host of new media initiatives that are currently underway.

We are in the midst of a significant wave of big consumer technology and service punts at the moment. If you look at the level of commercial activity around PC VOD, TV VOD, HD TV and even 3D TV, the volume of launches planned for 2010 and 2011 feels like the height of the boom, apart from the small inconvenient backdrop of a global recession.  As part of this frenetic activity, all sorts of people who I really like, and want to succeed, are quoting numbers at me which make me feel uncomfortable.  The numbers in the business cases being expounded, were they to come true, represent significant changes in consumer behaviour, mass adoption of a host of new things, and general consumer enthusiasm for things which, if truth be told, there has been little indication of demand.  And once again, I can’t work out if the people involved believe the numbers either.

Consumer demand is a tricky thing to understand.    There are times when we, we are told, that we ignore the consumer at our peril. The customer is king. But almost by definition, our industry has always worked on the principle of ‘if we build it they will come’.  None of the great things that the internet has spawned were based on meeting an explicit demand, so why should I worry now.

Also, at the heart of many of these launches are good old competitive fights for market supremacy.  PC VOD is a case in point.  It is quite clear that there won’t be sufficient consumer demand for all the new PC VOD players to succeed, but the consumer will benefit from the competition.  As consumers, do we now care what happened to Netscape, or AltaVista?

For new media, these existential issues are nothing new.  But for the TV market, this is probably the craziest phase we have ever seen.  This week we have seen the announcements that some of the major electronics brands are ready to launch the new generation of Flatscreen TVs.  These things have 3D capability, IPTV capability, DLNA home networking capability and, almost as an afterthought, the new HD chips in their Freeview receivers.  Everyone seems to want to get into the market before the World Cup and the launch of Sky’s 3D channel.

Ignoring the cyclical problems caused by the recession, which will naturally dampen consumer demand, this explosion in TV technology is predicated on a level of consumer willingness to spend over the next two years, which would be hopeful in the good years.

The new media industry has always accepted this craziness as a cost of doing business.  But lets not forget that, alongside all the success stories, there have been a long series of high profile, venture capital sapping, failures along the way.  I liked the people at Boo all those years ago, but didn’t believe their numbers.

This blog is the original, unexpurgated version of an article that appeared in New Media Age in April 2010.

Nigel Walley

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