Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

It's TV, but not as we know it

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast March 17, 2016

Our definition has to change to fit the audience, says Kate Bulkley

I’m starting to have a problem with how to use the word ‘television’. Sound crazy? Then what exactly is television in 2016?

Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings has predicted the death of TV; others say it’s in the rudest of health. Some people avoid paying the licence fee by watching TV on a laptop (though a licence will soon be required for that too), while many kids rush off to their bedrooms with a tablet to trawl through myriad video suppliers including Facebook and, increasingly, Snapchat.

The Sky Q set-top box includes a spot on the EPG dedicated to online video material. Selections from Red Bull TV and Funny or Die are now options on your telly, but they’re not TV as we used to understand it.

This week, the Royal Television Society’s (RTS) conference, Beyond YouTube: What are the New Online Channels and Are They the Future of TV?, grappled with definitions of ‘content’. The younger the viewer, the less able (or bothered) they are to distinguish between a traditionally made, fully commissioned, high-budget show or a 15-second clip on Snapchat. If it makes them laugh, they’re happy.

We’ve seen this coming, but boy, is it now coming fast. Disney-owned Maker Studio’s biggest star is vlogger PewDiePie, who rose to YouTube fame by filming himself playing video games. He has about 400 million views per month. But now, some of his 42 million YouTube followers (who all originally signed up for free) can get his latest video releases if they subscribe to YouTube Red, Google’s new paid-for online video service. At $9.99 (£7) a month, it sounds a lot like a subscription VoD such as Netflix, or even a bundled subscription to a pay-TV service like Virgin Media. That’s taking it really close to what most of us call television.

Then there’s Elisabeth Murdoch’s latest venture, Vertical Networks, which is making content for soon-to-be-launched channels on Snapchat’s Discover service. I understand she’s raised $200m (£140m) to set this up. That’s serious money.

So are Disney, Murdoch and Liberty Global (which bought into Copa90, the online football channel) all investing in television? Yes and no. For the most part, online video has a different tone and the likes of PewDiePie interact with their audiences in a completely different way from traditional TV talent.

Online video quality is improving every day – the cats-on-skateboards era is over. Authentic, compelling, highly individualistic programming is reaching teenagers and twentysomethings. Will they make the leap and subscribe, as YouTube Red hopes? It may seem a big leap at the moment, but who would bet against Google?

Young people’s definition of television is ‘video on a screen’. To a six-year-old, playing a Fifa game is no different to watching a live football match or Copa90 online, says James Kirkham, chief strategy officer at Copa90 owner Bigballs Media. If they can’t, or don’t want to, distinguish between TV, online, catch-up or VoD, shouldn’t we adjust our minds to fi t the audience?

Maybe one day soon the RTS will have to change its name to the RCS – the Royal Content Society – and we’ll be able to find all this video in a magazine called Content Times. Stranger things have happened.

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