Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

The future of TV

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday December 06 2010

When it comes to the merging of internet and television, is it a case of one screen good, two screens bad? Kate Bulkley reports on a recent webcast debate

At a time when internet content is about to be readily available on traditional television screens in the nation's living rooms, just how TV will look in the future is by turns exciting and daunting but for the moment not altogether clear.

Certainly, both new opportunities and difficult transitions will have to be faced by the traditional purveyors of television, led by the TV broadcasters, as well as the new kids on the block such as Google and Facebook, as they try to re-make TV to be more interactive and, well, more like the internet is today.

But exactly how this new TV ecosystem will look and behave and, importantly, how it will be paid for, are all up for grabs, according to a panel of experts speaking at the Guardian's The Future of TV discussion in association with Red Bee Media.

"This is a very complex environment into which we are going, and it has a lot of competitive uncertainties to it," said Kip Meek, chairman of YouView, the consortium of the UK's four big broadcasters (the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Five), two leading ISPs (BT and Talk Talk) and the national infrastructure provider Arqiva. YouView plans to offer selected broadband services, including video on demand, to TVs starting in June.

Meek told the audience at the Guardian's London headquarters, and those tuning in via live webcast, that he sees the planned YouView set top boxes as "an enabling device" for people who want a bit more than a traditional free TV offer, similar to that which is available on Freeview today. The key to the new future, he said, is offering people small steps towards an integrated TV and internet service future.

The challenges of moving from two screens (a PC plus a TV) to one screen (just a TV with all that the internet can offer) are posing major questions as: media companies try to decide how to monetise this new-look television; internet giants like Facebook and Google bring their power to bear on content and programme search and discovery; and as the traditional rules of TV for broadcasters and advertisers are under pressure to change.

For Mark Read, the CEO of WPP Digital, the changes cannot happen fast enough. "Today 92% of UK homes with televisions are digital and we've given people more channel choice, yet TV is still not really interactive," he says. "It's still a mass medium; advertising is still not really measurable and targeted so none of the benefits that we see in the internet have yet been applied to TV. Even some of the new models like YouView aren't putting targeted advertising on the broadcast stream, despite the fact that we all know from the internet that a targeted ad is more relevant."

Read questioned the advantage of an all-in TV service with full-on web connectivity; he is not certain that people will want Twitter or Facebook on their TVs, suggesting that there will be an "irritation factor" if there is more than one viewer watching the big screen TV in the living room. In fact, he thinks the "two-screen solution" where a viewer watches telly on one screen and interacts on his PC or tablet device may be the right answer for many people. But he does see that lessons learned on the web can bring advantages to monetising TV in the future. He wants the targeting of internet advertising to somehow fuse with the emotional connection that viewers have with the most popular TV shows.

According to Christian Hernandez, director of partnerships for Facebook, the big opportunity for broadcasters is to learn how to leverage the communities that exist outside of TV to their advantage.

Hernandez said that social networking will overhaul many of TV's traditional methods of reaching audiences. The way viewers find programmes will also change fundamentally, with the preferences you set and your friends' recommendations from social networks replacing the electronic programme guide.

Today Facebook is already helping broadcasters to create a "chatter environment" during a live show and to "keep the buzz going" between big entertainment shows like X Factor when they are off air, added Hernandez. He predicted that "social type advertising" around TV content could be the future. For instance, Channel 4 has a Facebook page devoted to the TV game show Million Pound Drop where some 500,000 plays of the game happen during the live TV show. "Take that forward where you are playing on Facebook on your iPad or on YouView and you are part of a community on the internet and on TV." There are commercial opportunities there that advertisers can support, said Hernandez.

Bill Patrizio, CEO of Red Bee Media, a provider of creative, delivery and access solutions for content creators and broadcasters in the UK, was not alone in identifying the capacity of the UK's broadband infrastructure, and how content is prioritised on ISPs, as potentially the biggest hurdles to making the web-connected TV future possible.

All of the panelists agreed that the market, not the government, should come up with ways to pay for upgrading the UK's broadband infrastructure. "There is a lot of investment that needs to go into this to make sure the pipes are robust enough to handle this new, rich, interactive experience on the connected interactive boxes and TVs," said Patrizio. "Unless the plumbing is adequate consumers are not going to have the quality experience they've come to love on broadcast TV."

Patrizio also pointed out that the new TV world has to be built on an "ecosystem of partners", not the traditional vertical integration of a broadcaster trying to control everything from content creation to advertising to distribution. "It's going to require collaboration between telcos, broadcasters and others," he said.

Clearly one of the keys to the future of television is designing programming, content and services that continue to attract and engage audiences, and this will increasingly include application developers and big brands as well as traditional broadcasters and independent producers. Hernandez cited energy drinks company Red Bull as a brand that creates hours and hours of programming for both TV and websites and is one of the biggest brands on Facebook, with some 10 million followers. "Facebook is a technology platform for creativity," said Hernandez.

Certainly the technology changes are offering more ways to reach audiences, but "good content" will continue to be the key differentiator, added Patrizio. "People want content first and foremost and the best approach is to abandon all the legacy ways of creating and delivering programming because all these rules are being rewritten," he said. "The viewers want a technically slick user interface but great content is what they want first."

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