Everything Changes, Everything Stays The Same

Sept 2011 - New NW BW Head & Shoulders (thumbnail)The TV industry seems particularly prey to myths and misconceptions. Some of them are accidental and some deliberate.    For instance, there are huge global, new-media entities whose core business models are predicated on broadcast TV dying, so the new media industry has spent the last ten years calling the death of TV.   We have become familiar with the standard misconceptions they peddle:  ‘the 1950s audience is dead’, … ‘no-one watches live TV anymore’ ..or more invidious, given its attack on the funding model, ‘everyone hates TV advertising’.

These are annoying for TV insiders but it is often hard to escape the perception that the industry has been complicit in its own misery. This is because of the number of times these inaccuracies are actually peddled by senior TV and agency execs, who fail to look past the misconceptions and see the facts.  Typically, they look at the behaviour of their own families and extrapolate them onto the whole TV audience. This leads to the classic ‘my kids don’t watch TV anymore’ statement from TV execs at conferences, as though a relatively wealthy, gadget rich, time-poor, London-based media elite and their kids have anything to tell us about the national audience. There were two pieces of research released this year that challenged this position.

The first, called ‘TV In Demand’, was undertaken by the TV advertising trade body Thinkbox and was part of their ‘Screen Life’ series of projects. It was primarily targeted at people in the industry who have been complicit in peddling these misconceptions, and it set out to investigate the current context of TV viewing.  Based on a huge amount of in-home and ethnographic work, it explained why the UK continues to watch live TV 90% of the time, even in VOD and PVR using homes that don’t need to.  It showed that the live, linear TV experience satisfies human emotional needs that on demand viewing alone can’t.   This is a very old fashioned, but crucially important fact that we need the TV industry to re-learn. The report went on to break these needs into 6 neat categories and to show how the live, linear experience mapped onto each of them.  The report didn’t reject VOD and PVR but was able to show them offering a support role in context of a broad and growing video consumption mix. It showed the total pie getting bigger, with new forms of viewing making up a large part of the new growth, but not necessarily eating into the old viewing patterns.

While merrily debunking some of the most pernicious myths about TV, we were pleased to see that it flagged up that even among the heavy VOD viewers in the research sample, 60% typically checked what was on the live TV schedule first before considering other options. This insight leads neatly into the second, ground breaking piece of work we saw presented this year, this time by Margo Swadley of BBC Marketing & Audiences.

The BBC research looked at, among other things, two of the pernicious myths that we get particularly exercised about at Decipher:  that ‘channel brands no longer matter’ (see our previous blog ‘2013 Is Make Or Break Year For Channel Brand’) and that ‘the television Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) is a failed idea’.

The BBC research was a very detailed bit of behavioural economic analysis and its findings supported those of the Thinkbox piece*.  It showed that a majority of TV all journeys started by checking what was on live channels – even amongst the cutting edge groups (the young, the tech savvy, and those with Smart televisions).   The aspect of the research that got us excited was that it also showed that even consumers who claim not to care about channels and channel brands actually use them unconsciously to make their most significant viewing decisions.  Once again, this is insight that we need the TV industry to re-learn:  channels and channel brands matter hugely and are central to the television (as opposed to ‘video’) experience.  We have been concerned for a while that the TV industry has spent too much time focusing on its OTT ‘player’ brands at the expense of their linear channels and channel brands.  This made sense in 2007, when the prevailing mood was towards the web.  Now, its time to move the focus back.

The BBC work also looked at the much maligned linear EPG.   Once again, it has been common for new media types to discuss the EPG as a failure of ‘old TV’.  This has lead to large number of unsuccessful attempts at ‘redefining the TV interface’.   However, the BBC research showed that the linear schedule and its graphical presentation via an EPG was understood and valued by consumers, and is the most important interface in the TV lexicon. (By the way – this BBC research was presented a week after Tony Hall had declared that iPlayer was the future gateway into BBC content, which must have been awkward).

These two bits of research have a huge implication on where and how the TV industry focuses its innovation activity, and they reflect a shift that is already manifest in technology developments.  From 2007 onwards, all major innovations were about creating new kinds of video experience on the assumption that ‘old’ TV would die. We are now moving into an era of innovation that was unforeseen by either the TV industry or the new media industry.  It is an era in which technology supports and enhances the core business model of linear broadcast TV, rather than seeking to replace it.  There are four examples of this that we have been excited about this year.

The first innovation is the backwards EPG (currently only on YouView, Freesat and Virgin Tivo in the UK, Foxtel in Australia and strangely nowhere else around the world).  Being able to click through to catch-up from a channel line up makes the EPG, and the linear channels its shows, the gateway into the wider world of TV.  This is a crucial repositioning of catch-up from being an alternative to TV, to being a support functionality of a broadcast channel.

The second innovation is the arrival of IP streamed channels into set top boxes and EPGs – using the web to reduce distribution costs for linear, rather than just for VOD.  We have seen ConnectTV, VU TV and then BT Sport all join the small number of IP channels that were previously only on the TalkTalk platform.  IP delivered linear is going to be one of the big stories for 2014.

The third innovation was BSkyB’s AdSmart, which heralds the beginning of convergence between web ad-tech and old TV ad-tech that is going to be interesting to watch.  Crucially, it brings the kind of targeting and dynamic insertion we have only seen in web delivered VOD, onto linear broadcast channels for the first time.  Broadcast advertising is getting in on the innovation trend.

Finally, a crucial innovation that has been barely commented on by the industry (apart from by us and the BBC Red Button team).  It is the BBC’s Connected Red Button content (currently only available on BBC channels on Virgin Tivo).  It’s the first time that a broadcast channel and true web-delivered content have been integrated into a single linear output (apologies to the MHEG-IC enthusiasts – but limited MHEG templates aren’t the future).

Quite simply, connected red button is a first step in redefining the broadcast channel for the 21st century. It is innovation centred on the live, linear channel and is perfect example of what the BBC SHOULD be doing for the British TV industry, rather than messing around with music apps, and iPlayer personalisation.

Excitingly for 2014 we can look forward to more of the same, with innovations like ‘start again’ (the next generation of the backwards EPG), and streamed channels over home networks just being finalised.

All of the above mentioned innovations are examples of this new broadcast-centric  era in TV tech development.  If we take the messages from the two research reports we highlighted, it is where consumers want and expect innovation to be focused.    Together they deliver a classic bit of cognitive dissonance  – showing that it is possible to look to a future for broadcast TV in which the web changes everything, but everything stays the same – linear TV at the heart of a revolution

The difficult problem with all these examples is that they are a very rare cases of broadcasters and TV platforms working together to deliver innovation.    So much of the innovation activity of the last few years has been both parties using tech to get round each other or cut each other out of the consumer mix.  This has to stop for 2014 and a new accommodation has to reached.

Broadcasters and TV platforms have to accept the symbiosis in their relationship and work towards their mutual benefit.  If they don’t, then the people peddling the myths might end up being right.

Nigel Walley


* BTW – I saw both of these pieces of work, presented and debated at the ASI Television Symposium in Venice this year.

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