Wednesday, 10 October 2012

TV's future - have I got it all wrong?

I sat in the audience at a Deloitte TV event last night, listening to another well judged analysis of data that showed how sustainable broadcast TV is against substitutes. On several occasions the facilitator – Ray Snoddy, for those who know him – invited the panel and the audience to explain why this analysis was incorrect. And as usual, no one could come up with anything.

But I came away worried. Over my career I’ve been part of several attempts to disrupt scheduled network TV and come up on the losing side. Thankfully the hundreds of millions of dollars that supported that failure weren’t my own. So I’m long converted to the sustainability of TV, which retains its characteristics as entertainer, social enabler and mass market brand builder.

Converts are always more zealous.

Did newspaper executives in the early 2000’s also look at their data sets and come to the same conclusions about their own indefatigability? Slow grow assured, iterative substitution a distant threat. Yet the web browser and the PC have grievously wounded the newspaper industry. They aren’t as portable or as curated as the broadsheet – they aren’t a natural substitute at all – but behaviours have changed because they offer more information for less. I don’t need to read out of date news and gossip at the kitchen table or on the commute. I’ll read it in the office in between emails.

Can the behaviours that make TV so sustainable change just as much? Could there be a cliff. After tonight I’ve started to wonder. TV is sustainable so long as the attention span of the audience is sufficient that they’ll sit through a 30 minute show or a 1 hour special or a 2 hour movie. Or a night in front of the box. Attention spans are falling, I think. The true threats to TV are not the pirates and the freeloaders, they’re the short of attention.

I wonder how many people now fall into the category? Are so obsessed with checking the web for news about the things that interest them, or playing a game obsessively for a while before becoming bored and moving onto the latest cheap thrill. Millennials may well love TV, but is it only for 5 minutes at a time. Could the huge production budgets and high concept formats that form such a barrier to entry to digital companies become follies?

The rise of TV was catalysed by the success of film. Movies were expensive to make and occupied excessive time in collocating with the screen and sitting through 2 hours of entertainment. It was good now and again, but TV was more attractive more of the time. A cheap thrill. If the population develops mass ADD, then will we look for even cheaper, more superficial, shorter lifespan entertainment?

In the most developed markets smartphone penetration is heading towards 50%; tablet penetration is nearing 20%; Google are hell bent on putting screens on our faces. Could distributed screens be TV’s Waterloo? Their web browser. A different experience that if you look at the world iteratively are no threat, but might well capture the zeitgeist. I worry.

I’d rather be wrong than reticent.

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