For some bizarre reason I seem to get accosted by various people (some of them friends, some of them not) about my views on On-demand media/TV services. On demand isn’t new of course – for those with a sense of history, it is actually a 70s idea, re-heated as a result of (in theory) the technology infrastructure being available which it wasn’t then.   Things got closer nigh-on 20 years ago with the launch of cable: We were promised a brave new world, where you could have telephone services, TV, on demand TV, and applications such a home shopping and more piped into your home via one piece of wire.  It’s important to remember that this was the pre-internet era: but nonetheless I was really excited by it – it was clearly the way forward and would change the world.

The problem is no-one else seemed enthusiastic and it didn’t.  Cable was, and, and is, sadly, just not firing people up for some reason. Even I have never been able to bring myself to subscribe to it. I wouldn’t say it’s dead in the water as some commentators have suggested, but with 1m cable subscribers (compared to 9m or so for Sky) its interesting to try to work out why it has been a turn-off. Is it the whole idea, or is there something else behind it – perhaps the lousy reputation for reliability and customer service.

Any hoo. My views on on-demand are much the same as they have always been:  It will appeal to some people and not others and as such it doesn’t represent a ‘revolution’ – just a different option available to people that they can go with or not as they see fit. It’s complementary – thats all.  In my view this idea actually applies to most technology, especially in entertainment and the media.  It makes perfect sense, but often seems at odds with the so-called ‘experts’, ‘futurists’, and people with the ‘vision’. These people tend to talk about ‘revolutions’, and by this they usually mean ‘the wholesale replacement of any alternative ways of doing something’. This enevitably drifts dangerously into a fantasy world: technology rarely brings about this kind of dramatic change. The world isn’t a series of replacements – tried buying a stereo system with no cassette deck?  It’s actually more difficult than you think.

So where does this leave television?  On demand is undoubtedly with us – the BBCs iPlayer has set the benchmark, and there are many other on-demand services either via the web, your broadband provider, or alternatives such as Homechoice.  I was told recently by someone that ‘the iPlayer is the new television’.  Well, whatever. If that’s what you want to believe then fine, but many people – probably the silent majority would disagree.  I think Television is the new Television, and far from being dead and buried it’s still pretty strong with probably a bigger future ahead than many people think.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t need to change.   For one thing, there is probably a need for fewer channels.  There is little point in having hundreds of channels on your Sky line-up that mostly show repeats.  These channels should be replaced with on-demand services:  If you want to watch ‘Last of the summer wine’ (heaven forbid) it makes perfect sense to have it available on demand rather than on a channel.   The channels should be reserved for the newer material, live events, and so on.  (In fact, a return to the situation we used to have…. And isn’t the ‘on demand’ stuff just repeats?  that we’re supposed to be against anyway..?).

Traditionally, there are always two ways of consuming entertainment: You either go out and buy it which gives you the ability to watch or listen when you want, or you entrust yourself to some kind of playlist or schedule. The playlist or schedule works on the assumption that those putting it together have some kind of vague notion about what you might want to watch or listen to. When you do, you get a mix of things you know and things you don’t, and by serendipity discover something you actually like but never knew about. This is of course the basis of radio, and it’s worth pointing out that despite LastFM, iTunes, Limewire and all the other ways of getting hold of music, radio is as strong as it’s ever been.  TV is in a slightly different position, but not a massively different one – it’s also based on a playlist of sorts:  And this is actually quite a good thing – unless you just want to watch what you know or have watched before.

So back to TV..  Well the days of shows getting 25 million viewers in the UK are over, but – as I had to remind someone recently – those days were over long before the internet.  The so called ‘visionaries’ will (if you let them) latch on to audience figures and try to convince you we are living in some kind of Arthur C Clarke style revolution.  Well this is nonsense:  The big events – the Olympics, A decent Wimbledon final, England games (when they feel like playing) all get perfectly reasonable viewing figures. Trinny and Suzzannah didn’t.  Go figure.

It’s the content – stupid….

And that is where it begins and ends, frankly.  And rightly so.  It’s worth reminding ourselves that whatever technology we engaged with, we don’t let it drive or overshadow the creativity.  YouTube has been a phenomenon – certainly a profitable one – but we have to remind ourselves that they aren’t creating or funding any new content. Once could argue their position is not necessarily a good thing – especially when they are diverting revenue from companies that do.  (On the other hand, you could equally argue that they are helping people discover (or rediscover) programmes they later buy, and this free advertising is actually good for the industry and resulting in revenue to go back into content).  Well perhaps.  Perhaps this is much  like the way the internet has actually resulted in a growth of book sales, and not caused a terminal decline, as the so-called experts predicted. 

Someone once said to me something along the lines of ‘beware people who say they have a vision – it usually means they are abusing something’….

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