Is 2013 a Make or Break Year for Broadcast Brands?

2012 has been a strange, and potentially damaging, year for channel brands in the TV industry. More than any previous year, we have heard the phrase ‘viewers don’t care about channel brands’. This phrase has cropped up when discussing VOD on pay TV platforms, when talking about new OTT providers, or when discussing production companies selling programmes direct to consumers.  Large parts of the TV industry seem to think that the least important brand in this strange new world, is the channel brand that originated a programme.

The background to this seeming anti-channel sentiment is a content distribution landscape that has become very complicated. Consumers have more and more ways of finding a programme, but rarely are they finding them presented under the masthead of the channel that originally acquired or commissioned, scheduled and marketed them.   At worst the channel references are being expunged from the programme listing on VOD menus like Virgin Tivo, at best programmes are presented under an umbrella broadcast brand or a ‘player’ brand– so ‘BBC iPlayer’ not ‘BBC3 Catch- Up’  and ‘4OD’ not ‘E4 Catch Up’.  Its not surprise that half the time, a consumer can’t remember which channel a programme came from.

We address questions on channel branding every year in our quarterly Future Media research. This year, for the first time ever, no consumer (out of nine separate focus groups), was able to distinguish the difference between C4, E4 or More4. They had a very patchy understanding of ITV 2, 3 or 4; and only a small group could articulate clearly the difference between BBC 2, 3 or 4.  When we did the same research 5 years ago, most groups nailed this distinction.

Why is this happening? Why, of all the groups operating in the TV market, are the ‘channel’ brand teams least able to fight their corner?  Is it that on-demand technology renders a channel brand created for the linear market redundant, of is it some form of broader institutional failure?  As part of our Future Media work, we have identified seven challenges that are affecting channel brands, and we offer them up for discussion:

Crisis of Confidence – It would appear that the TV industry is only now extricating itself from a crisis of confidence that has afflicted it since the start of the ‘digital’ age. In the face of aggressive new media forecasting that ‘broadcast is dead’ no-one has seemed willing to defend the central role of broadcast channels in the consumption mix over the last decade.  Most senior management in the industry have behaved as though broadcasters were merely managing decline. The XFactor final in 2010 audience seemed to be the turning point for this – with its live audience of 19M and a huge social media following.  Suddenly, and belatedly, live TV with a social media wrap-around, was sexy again.

Scheduling Promiscuity – Channels thrive when they have a clear editorial position and ownership over their own assets. However, consumers have got used to seeing programmes appear on different channels, at different times, for different reasons.  According to our consumers this undermined the clarity of the editorial positions of channels. A complicating factor within this is having those programmes appear within web players without being presented clearly under a channel banner, which only serves to further break the link.

The Umbrella Brand – most broadcasters have four brand plays on the table at any one time – the main umbrella brand, the individual channel brands, programme brands and, the new kid on the block, the player brand.  This is a lot to balance and in the last few years it would appear that the player brands have raised their profile at the expense of the channel brand.  At the same time, some broadcasters have retired to their core brand.  BBC people tell us all the time that ‘as long as brand attribution flows back to the BBC, then we don’t care how people find a programme’.  We aren’t sure that the people at BBC3 agree with that sentiment when the iPlayer team, or even the Virgin Tivo team, are claiming the credit for programmes they have commissioned, scheduled and marketed?  Our concern is that most of the time, the BBC3 people aren’t even aware it is happening.

Complicit ‘Player’ Teams –  It has sometimes seemed that the ‘player’ teams have been complicit in the demise of their parent channel brands. In 2008, it was clear we were in for a period of turbulence when Antony Rose, still head of iPlayer at the time, declared channels to be dead at a conference – a strange view from a senior manager in the BBC. Since that time we have had four years of web player design that actively diminished the clarity of individual channels at the expense of the player brands.  In our recent Future Media research, all the focus groups had a clear sense of the role and propositions of the main broadcaster players brands – more so than the original channels they are meant to serve.

Set Top Box Blindness – What has become clear in 2012 is a wilful ignorance among senior broadcast management, of the distribution and presentation issues contained within the set top box world. For a decade, there has been a failure of senior management within broadcast to accept TV set top boxes, particularly from pay platforms, as their core distribution vehicle, and to define clear terms for the presentation of content. They are like toffs of old, not wanting to sully their hands with commercial issues.  This has meant, at worst, broadcast management have tried to pretend that BSkyB and Virgin would go away if ignored.  At best, they have abdicated responsibility for the way their content is displayed in set top boxes to the ‘future media’ teams. Unfortunately these teams have had a vested interest in boosting their VOD brands over the broadcast brands.   For example, within Virgin, the BBC3 brand disappears the minute you move away from broadcast, to be replaced either by a Virgin logo or by an iPlayer brand.

Aggressive Platforms – The main pay TV platforms have had a vested interest in offering VOD in a disaggregated manner to boost their own platform brands.  The design of their EPGs has followed suit and has sometimes seemed like a direct assault on the concept of a channel brand. The treatment of channel brands in most set top boxes is extremely poor.  In Virgin Tivo it is scandalous – one IP lawyer described Virgin’s habit of putting its own logo next to programme titles as a clear case of ‘passing off’.   The platforms seem unwilling to allow channel brands the room to create a channel proposition within the set top boxes and broadcast channels seem unable to organise themselves to demand better treatment.

Organisational Failure –  When most of the channel brands that are under threat sit within bigger broadcast organisations, it can sometimes be hard to find a person responsible for a channel’s holistic performance.  There is very rarely a clear channel boss, with responsibility for content, distribution AND branding – with the last two of these roles very often taken on at a ‘group’ level. It is not uncommon to find a channel boss, who has no idea how their content is presented in a particular pay platform.   For channels to thrive they need someone who can take a view over all these issues and, most importantly, fight a brand’s corner in the face of interference from 3rd parties with  a vested interest.

Whilst a large part of this debate centres on the presentation of programmes via different on-screen services, it is clear that channel brands have been under attack from various directions as this new landscape develops.  However what is also clear is that broadcast as a distribution technique, has maintained its central role in the distribution mix.  More importantly, it would appear that technology trends are now moving to support channel propositions. Innovations such as the backwards EPG, that link catch up to the originating channel, are crucial breakthroughs.  The BBC’s new IP-based red button service links a viewer from broadcast into a contextually relevant selection of a channel’s catch up content.  Branding and labelling has to now follow suit as, for example, it still jars to jump from broadcast BBC1 into an iPlayer branded video stream.

In 2013 the TV industry has to decide whether it cares enough about channel brands to fight for them.  Broadcast channels should be the editorial powerhouse of the TV industry.  We want strong, individual channel brands that represent clearly identifiable editorial voices.  Distribution and presentation policy around interactivity, catch-up and library VOD should flow from that.

When we hear the phrase ‘consumers don’t care about channel brands’ we always respond ‘consumers care about what we tell them to care about’.  However, its what we care about as an industry that matters.  We believe that channels and their brands matter.

Nigel Walley   @nwalley

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