Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Tech firms must play by the rules

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast January 17, 2018

It’s time the likes of Google and Facebook took responsibility for their content, says Kate Bulkley

The annual CES in Las Vegas is where the best upcoming consumer tech is on display – from self-driving cars and voice-controlled, well, just about everything, to smart mirrors that analyse your face and offer advice on the best moisturiser.

This year’s CES showcased new big-screen tech, including a 65-inch, 4K ‘Big Format Gaming Display’ from Nvidia and 4K projectors with built-in voice activation from Optoma. And there were new VR headsets from the likes of HTC Vive and Lenovo.

But what a difference a year can make: in 2017, Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa was ubiquitous; this year, Google was everywhere – from banners on the monorail metro to ‘Hey Google’ stickers on seemingly every smart device booth on the floor.

Those willing to brave the long lines could try their luck at casino-style Google gumball machines to potentially win a Google Home mini-speaker or a Google… well, you get the picture.

Navigation and discovery were tackled at a conference session that acknowledged broadcasters are grappling with growing viewer frustration.

There may be lots to watch out there, but finding what you want is as much of a hassle as it was 26 years ago when Bruce Springsteen sang of 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).

Fox Networks Group president Brian Sullivan said that while it is a long-standing issue, more work needs to be done because the power and reach of YouTube, Facebook and Netflix has moved the goalposts.

YouTube says that 70% of users’ viewing time is now driven by recommendation – powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence. Most viewing of YouTube and Facebook happens because the next video is rolled up automatically after the last.

“This content is attracting TV-like audiences and big advertising money. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’d say it’s a duck”

And then there is binge viewing. In the UK, Freesat data reveals that BBC iPlayer viewing share slipped in 2017 – at least in the 200,000 Freesat homes – while Netflix’s share grew.

The BBC’s catch-up service continues to reach a broader audience in the UK, but the all-important ‘dwell time’ prize was won by Netflix.

This is worrying for traditional broadcasters and accounts for link-ups like Disney’s proposed takeover of the bulk of 21st Century Fox and its push into over-the-top, on-demand services.

Like many of us, broadcasters are also fed up with the lack of responsibility the web companies have been taking for the content on their platforms. One of Google’s pushbacks is that it doesn’t commission like a broadcaster, so it shouldn’t be regulated like one.

Really? Maybe we should change the definition of commissioning: others may upload content, but YouTube can decide if it stays on the platform or not. This content is attracting TV-like audiences and big advertising money.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’d say it’s a duck.

Another thorny issue is the potential ill effects of screen time and social media, especially on younger people. Just before CES opened, activist investor Jana Partners and one of the biggest US pension funds, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, threw down the gauntlet to Apple to come up with ways for parents to restrict children’s access to their screens.

Smartphone addiction isn’t only Apple’s problem, but these two shareholders control circa $2bn (£1.45bn) of its stock between them and have some sway. They want Apple to take a leading role in “paying attention to the health and development of the next generation” because it is both “good business and the right thing to do”.

The idea that new tech is always a good thing got a bit of a thrashing, and not before time. How we define ‘broadcasting’ and its standards are ongoing issues for 2018. What’s needed is the big tech firms to take responsibility and do the right thing, not just what’s most profitable.

Broadcasters have had to do this forever; it’s time for the tech guys to grow up and play by the rules.

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