Saturday, 29 September 2012

RTS notes #1 - Anne Sweeney, ABC

I was lucky enough to attend this year’s Royal Television Society Conference at the Barbican. Over the next few posts I’ll share my notes on 3 of the sessions from the conference. First, ABC President Anne Sweeney on digital and the future of TV networks.

For a long time there was only one screen and distribution channel, now there are as many as 17 discrete channels to the consumer. The TV industry now has to evolve to enable the consumer to customise their consumption experience to fit into their world.

The change is scary – hence the repetition of Caliban’s missive from The Tempest – but all the noises and flashes of light won’t harm you if you do four things.

First, innovate. Understand what consumer problem you’re attempting to solve and what the audience therefore wants. The transistor was a great invention but it only became an innovation when it begat the radio. Likewise the iPod/ Phone/ Pad are all great inventions but they can’t be truly regarded as innovations until they change our culture. A bold and somewhat controversial view.

Fundamentally network TV has a 20th Century business that is at least a decade removed from relevance. It retains great content but lacks innovative delivery. Add that and you have opportunity. Convergence doesn’t matter if you have no content. So use innovative platforms and technologies like the iPad, like HD and surround sound to tell amazing stories. Story telling is in the innovation that makes sense of those inventions.

Second, get the right distribution channel. Tablets and smartphones are revolutionising consumption, just as the transistor radio revolutionised media in the 1950s. ABC forecast 835m tablet users worldwide by 2016; 1.2b smartphone users. These are disruptive consumption platforms – an iPad user consumers 60% more TV than a PC user. The ABC app on iPad has been downloaded 6.5m times and achieved 135m views. [In my book this is pretty unimpressive, and Anne was realistic enough to note that this is an irrelevance next to iPlayer use in the UK and still less relevant versus broadcast TV] It is, in any case, the 6th most downloaded app ever.

The UK is a nation of ‘appy families. 75% of tablet owners share them with their kids; 50% consider apps to be a positive part of family life. They aren’t as selfish as people [myself included] believe. Disney exploit this by developing application content that is central to family lives – kids’ heroes are their parents and siblings, so include them in the narrative. The research that enables broadcasters to understand that is the third success factor in digital.

Fourthly, be prepared to fail. [This one – as many of you will know – is close to my heart] Failure empowers innovation. Disney’s initial response to Nickelodeon was to launch dozens of pilot shows designed by committee to a formula. They all failed and Disney became a machine for mediocrity when they should have been focused on quality over quantity.

[This is a key message. A single distinctive creative voice that can inspire a business and an audience is more powerful than dozens of committees and stifling voices of group think.]

When they focussed on quality they produced Phineus and Ferb, a truly original show watched by 50% of UK kids and one that generated 100’s of millions of dollars in merchandise.

In apps, their failure to monetise the iPad initially stemmed from a lack of use of the functions of the device. TV on the iPad is just TV. It’s entertaining but you won’t pay serious money for it. In Mickey Mouse’s Road Rally they’ve created a format that is episodic and high concept, yet contains interactive elements. [In my experience lots of kids – and adults – shout at the TV. This makes something happen!]

In this way the TV network can be reconstructed to contain content and distribution innovation engines for all kinds of channels. [I made that last bit up, as Anne’s speech slightly tailed off and her answers to the questions were a little bland].

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