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Monday, February 06, 2006

Content on demand and the demand for content.

When Karl Marx suggested that religion was the opiate of the masses, he couldn't have possibly anticipated the effect of television. One needs only look at the massive viewing figures accorded to Celebrity Big Brother (over 7 million watched the final eviction night) to realise that Western Society is more hooked on TV then it is on spiritual matters.

However, Big Brother - that televisual leviathan that was unleashed in September 1999 by the Dutch television producer
Endemol - is much more then just a television programme. Through its innovative use of digital television, the Internet and mobile communications, it continues to subtly point the way towards the future of entertainment. Its converged structure - influenced by Negroponte's dictum of media and technology convergence - attempts to offer the viewer a personalised, always on experience if they so wish.

Technologies - such as SMS texting, email, red button interactivity on the television and premium phones lines - as well as providing a way to vote (and for the producers to generate extra revenue) also has had the unexpected effect of creating connected communities around these television events. In the first series in the UK, producers witnessed the phenomenon whereby hundreds of thousands of viewers began texting message updates to friends telling them what has happened in "the house". The producers and broadcasters quickly cottoned on to this fact and began providing text updates on a subscription basis. Now, as the technology in our pockets evolves, they are providing video clips to 3G phones. The next step is subscription television services on the phone via
DVB-H. In the not too distant future, the television will always be on.

But who wants always on TV? Surely, it's a ludicrous notion. Well, in order to understand the future, we need to learn from the past. As one veteran television editor pointed out to me, radio once held the pride of place that television now holds. He recalled for me vividly how he and his family used to sit around the radio listening to Irish dancing as a child in the 1950s. When television came they didn't have to imagine anymore and radio, rather then being supplanted, simply became aural wallpaper. It became the music and chat in the background that would accompany the days chores. The same fate, I would argue, will happen to analogue television (or certainly traditional broadcast television). As we all increasingly purchase more and more plasma and LCD screens, the protruding face of the television set will melt into the wall and become visual wallpaper - a moving kaleidoscope of images that at times catchs the eye - but more often then not will used for a variety of purposes - video calls, gaming, ambient visuals etc.

And when we do choose to watch television, rather then it being the gogglebox where hours are lost surfing through endless channels to find something to watch, we will be able to access what we want on demand. Primetime will not be scheduled by the broadcaster - that inefficient middle-man pandering to the common denominator - but rather the middleman will be the sophisticated computer processors lurking at the back of our set top box negotiating for the content through a broadband connection on behalf of its master. At times you'll pay a premium for the content, at times it will be plucked from the broadcast stream - downloaded and saved to be viewed at your leisure.

The great opportunity this holds for content providers is that the traditional broadcasters are slowly losing their monopoly over the audience and by extension, advertisers. By traditional, read those broadcasters who choose not to innovate. Advertisers will follow the audience and if a content provider can connect them to an audience - with or without a broadcaster, they'll pay a premium to be involved.

If traditional broadcasters don't get that this is the way that broadcasting is going (or content delivery, as it should be more accurately be defined as) then they should sit up and take notice of a few things that have happened over the past month or so.

Firstly, is the recent news that Steve Jobs has now become the highest shareholder in the
Disney Corporation on the back of the sale of his hugely successful animation company Pixar to the Mouse. Why should that be something broadcasters should take note of? Well, such a deal is being viewed by many as the true incarnation of the long-awaited media and technological convergence that so many have been predicting for so long.

Here we have a man who has single-handedly revolutionised the music business with his iPod Music Player (14 million sold in the fourth quarter of 2005 alone) now becoming the main shareholder in the most recognised entertainment conglomerate in the world. If he can do for television and film what he did for music, then a big shakeup is on the way. Digital distribution will become de riguer for all forms of media entertainment. Think Apple iTunes plugged into the back catalogue of Disney and ABC. That is where the iPod video is heading.Secondly, another impact of the iPod has been the phenomenon of Podcasting which is currently shaking up the analogue radio business. Podcasting, as we discussed in previous issues, makes available audio content online that can be downloaded to an MP3 player or PC and listened to at leisure.
Guardian Unlimited, the online edition of The Guardian Newspaper, launched a Podcast show hosted by Ricky Gervais, creator of the hugely successful The Office sit-com. Since it has become available, the show has been downloaded over 2 million times.

It has not been lost on many in the media that the three individuals who took part in the show - Gervais, his writing partner Stephen Merchant and colleague Karl Pilkington - previously had started out together on XFM radio, where Pilkington was their producer. In effect, their transition to podcasting illustrates the potential fate of analogue radio, and by extension, traditional television. In an On-demand world, the talent will rise to the fore and they increasingly have more options available to them to get to their audience. Again, advertisers will follow.

Thirdly, in a specifically Irish context, was a small but significant research workshop conducted by Irish Internet company,
Arekibo Communications on behalf of the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan. The initial purpose of the workshop was to user-test and analyse the design, functionality, content and layout of a new website for the Ombudsman. However, what became apparent during the research was the fact that the web has begun to overtake TV in terms of a preferred activity. "Our feedback suggests that parents today are far more likely to find their teenage children at home in front of a computer screen than a TV," commented Emily Logan, Ombudsman for Children. "This information shows that teenagers much prefer the Internet to TV because it gives them greater freedom, choice and is more interactive."

So, for the sake of clarity, let's add all these points up together: 1) A technologist now sits on the board of one of the biggest media companies in the world. 2) A television comedian has successfully by-passed the traditional broadcast channels and reached a large audience through digital distribution. 3) A local internet company have drawn attention to a phenomenon (that is happening on a global scale) whereby tomorrow's audience i.e. today's teenagers are more interested in on demand information and entertainment then traditional television. Would anyone like to smell some coffee?...

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posted by Neil Leyden @ 6:27 p.m. 1 comments