Category: Media


In recent weeks the newspaper media sections have all carried articles proclaiming that “television is back”. These have been prompted by a report from OFCOM, the UK communications regulator on The Communications Market. The report states that audience figures for television are strong and that it has a dominant position in the UK’s media landscape.

You could conclude that far from being “back”, it seems it never went away.

The report also talks about the phenomenon of “meshing” – watching television whilst talking about it on Facebook. This is also on the rise and I wrote about it previously here; It is an interesting example of how ‘new’ media is attracting people to (rather than away from) ‘old’ media. In doing so, ‘old’ media is strengthening, not declining.

Who’d have thought it, eh?

The chart below is the one people should study and inwardly digest. From this you get a feel for just how strong television is and for what most of the public always knew: On demand services and the internet feature in their lives but television is still the primary media. The alternatives don’t represent a replacement to or a migration from it. Note that television viewing is going up..

Figures

Radio – a medium people have been writing off for 40 years – is also strong and its reach stays pretty much the same year-on-year.

There has long been an unstated, received wisdom in media circles that traditional television and radio are on their way out at the hands of the Internet and the on demand services that have stemmed from it. Few people state this belief openly; it is a subtlety conveyed ambient thing. A drip feeding.

And it is of course nonsense. There is not the tiniest fragment of evidence for television and radio’s demise.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, I’ve written previously on these pages about the inability of the technology industry (or part of the technology industry at any rate) to come to terms with the notion of more than one way of doing something. It is at its most comfortable with wholesale replacement. New versions. Clear demarcation between old and new. This is perpetuated by various ‘experts’, ‘visionaries’ and assorted ‘blue sky thinkers’ – most of whom have no idea about what is really going on.

The public clearly think otherwise and people on the bus home would give you greater insight. It is a pity they are not consulted more often.

London radio station LBC celebrates its 30th birthday later this year. It has, by all accounts, been a turbulent history and radio historians amongst you will recall that the ‘LBC’ of today doesn’t really have any connection with the original station. In quirk of regulatory fate, the station lost its broadcasting licence in the early 90s to be replaced with a new service run by, if memory serves, Reuters. This service headed swiftly towards disaster and eventually changed its format and name back to LBC to avoid total oblivion. It was rare for the regulators to not renew a radio station’s licence and it is ironic they did this to one of the better ones.

Nowadays, in our wonderful deregulated radio ‘market’, commercial stations are free to do pretty much whatever they want in the mistaken belief that removing regulation unleashes a tidal wave of otherwise pent-up creativity. What it really leads to of course is a culture where little or nothing of any ambition and passion is attempted and certainly nothing that costs money. Yet good radio needn’t be expensive to do – Its not digging coal out of the ground or landing a man on Mars. It’s sad that the whole thing is so corporatised and much of the fun seems to have gone out of it. It’s all taken way too seriously.

But radio is still an amazing medium. In my option, if ballet is the highest form of dance, radio is still the highest form of electronic communication. You don’t need the Internet, television, twitter, on demand media or anything else if you can open a microphone, talk and make a compelling and interesting programme. That’s the greatest gift to have.

Bizarrely I said all of this at a party last year to someone who turned out to be very senior in the BBC World Service. He almost exploded with agreement and enthusiasm – as if he had spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get the same message across to people. Better still, he bought me a drink.

Happy birthday LBC and in the words of “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen – “You had your time, you had the power, You’ve yet to have your finest hour”

The technology industry, or at least a fair chunk of the technology industry, doesn’t like the notion of more than one way of doing something. It is at its most comfortable with clear cut migrations of the ilk of VHS tape to DVD. “You now have this, so you won’t want that any more” is the thinking. New supersedes old. And it’s not just that new supersedes old, but that this happens in its entirety. Things move forward along predictable lines based on wholesale replacement.

So the report i recently stumbled across here, about IP-TV (connected TV) as well as this article about NetFlix releasing new content online ahead of television are both interesting on a number of fronts. Not for the first time, the implications in both is that television is about to be shaken to its very foundations.

With the number of reports and amount of research, speculation, conjecture and general cerebral cortex being dedicated to this topic over the years, I am amazed that television has any foundations left. Yet television is still in a very strong position and shows no signs of being overtaken by IP, Cloud or other Internet-based TV options of the sort these reports describe.

And let’s be clear. The reason this isn’t happening is much the same reason radio didn’t disappear a decade or more ago.

In fact if we look back, it turns out that radio is a medium people have been writing off for 50 years. It survived “you won’t need it any more because we now have television – you know, with pictures” in the 50s and 60s, and “you won’t need it any more because of compilation tapes and Walkmans in the 70s and 80s, and “you won’t need it any more because of downloads” in the 90s and 00s. The latest onslaught – the ability to download or stream podcasts, music when you want and programmes when you want hasn’t made much difference to radio’s popularity. The last research I saw on listening habits suggested something like 90% of the UK population listen to radio at some point during the week. Pretty impressive considering I was reading articles 5 or 6 years ago by assorted ‘experts’ and ‘visionaries’ predicting that all of this would kill it off once and for all.

Downloading stuff in no way replaces the immediacy, ‘newness’ and (if it is done well) unpredictability of radio. A collection of downloads does not a radio station make. No matter how big your music collection, no matter how many gigabytes of ‘stuff’ you have, much of the time you will be quite happy with the radio providing a schedule of something that someone has compiled in the hope you might like it.

Often you won’t, but often you will.

And pretty much the same philosophy applies to television. The ability to download or seek out what you supposedly might “want” when you want doesn’t undermine the fact that people will often be quite happy with viewing a channel or maybe a series of channels without having to spend time making selections – exactly the same as they do with radio. That is not to say that they will not also use on demand services, But this will be at different times and is based on occasion, mood and and a whole range of subjective reasons that – thank heavens – the market research folks will never be able to fully categorise, pin down and document for administrative convenience. The issue isn’t that different people adopt different technologies. Nor is it about ‘migration’ from one thing to another or ‘replacement’ of what is supposedly ‘old’. The issue that people can’t come to terms with is that the same people may use all of what is available. Just at different times.

“Both” is good. Unfortunately it doesn’t make for a very lively PowerPoint presentation.

There are various reports in the press that HMV are having poor pre-Christmas sales, and this perhaps means that my prediction of them not being with us for much longer will come true.

I for one will feel sad about this: I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life in various branches of HMV and a good proportion of my CD and DVD collection is from there. I still think the shared experience of a physical shop is important. Their demise is therefore significant.

It is fashionable nowadays to not be emotional about such things. One must write it off as an agnostic “one of those things”; others lapse into phrases and clichés such as “flawed business models” as if they have any idea of what is really going on.

Bizarrely, I found myself saying all of this at a work event recently where I ended up sitting next to someone who turned to be a board member of my company. After all, what better way to break the ice than to talk about the future of digital media?

It is worth reminding ourselves that the drift away from CD – a key element of HMV’s woes – is in no way similar to what caused people to adopt it in the first place. People switched to CD originally from other formats (vinyl, cassette) because of ease of use. Not, as many ‘experts’ had predicted, because of durability and sound quality. In any event, claims of durability and sound quality turned to be highly contentious and still are.

By contrast, people switched away from CD – generally to MP3 – because they realised they could download them for free. Once word got round that this was possible, why buy a CD when you can get it for nothing from some eastern European web site? So the motivation for MP3 in no way mirrored a technical choice or decision making process in the way that the past – Vinyl versus CD, VHS versus DVD, Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD or even more dramatically, analogue versus digital, did.

Obviously not all MP3 downloads are illegal, but I would still say that for people to claim MP3 has revolutionised music is rather like saying shoplifting has revolutionised high street fashion retail, or train fare evasion has made the country more mobile. The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. And not necessarily entirely for the good.

Quite where that leaves people trying to make it all pay, and more serious still, for those creators trying to do something new whilst paying the bills and putting food on the table?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

But we were out of time. And coffee.

I’ve written previously on these pages about the prolonged ‘future of television’ debate which has been simmering away on the back burner of the technology industry for years. The debate centres around two main arguments:

Firstly, so the argument goes, the advent of on-demand Internet and cable based services renders the traditional ‘channel’ and ‘schedule’ obsolete. Why passively sit in front of a TV or listen to a radio dispensing a schedule when you can seek out exactly what you want, when you want it? In other words, If on demand services are available, why would you want anything else?

Secondly, young people (whatever that means – that let’s take it to mean people of school age) are turning their back on traditional media. The Internet must hold the answers, since this is where they frequent.

Yet TV and radio audiences are still strong, and despite all the online and on demand services people still seem to value them and give them high approval ratings. It wasn’t too long ago I frequently read articles predicting how podcasts and on demand music services would kill off radio. But radio listening seems to be going up. In television, it is certainly true that audiences aren’t what they were: The days of shows getting 20 million-odd viewers on a Saturday night are over, but the point is those days were over long before the Internet – and certainly long before any on-demand services enabling you to watch TV content.

As for young people drifting away from traditional media, well, the argument seems to be that because they are not consuming television and radio today, they never will. This is a pretty weird idea because people’s views, opinions and attitudes change over time. How do we know they won’t ever come back later in life? Some people seem to think that by observing young people today, they are in some way predicting the future: that those behaviours will continue forever.

So I don’t accept these two arguments.

The big question is, why does all this perpetuate?

Part of the reason comes from the fact there is a portion of the technology industry that can’t come to terms with the idea of more than one way of doing something: There is something in the DNA that is focused on technology always bringing about total migration, replacement, and a single solution.

And to be fair it did. At one time. In the 1950s and 1960s say, technology would bring about wholesale replacement of football pitch sized offices of people processing billing or payroll. These were clear migrational changes and they were beyond dispute. But our modern world is different. The way people consume media and entertainment is fragmented. As a result the technologies delivering it are fragmented. People are quite happy with having alternatives, even if this involves including the tried and tested and the ‘traditional’. Having a microwave in your kitchen does not mean a conventional oven is no longer needed. Blu-Ray disks don’t mean the end of cinema. And ‘on demand’ internet services don’t mean the end of the schedule. Far from it.

Like most people, I’m happy with a bit of both please.

It’s ironic isn’t it.

Newspaper journalist criticises a major corporation (NBC over their coverage of the Olympics) and their Twitter account is suspended.

Meanwhile other Twitter users can fall victim to abuse and bullying to levels where the police need to get involved, and nothing is done.

There is a freedom of speech issue here. Possibly. But freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to abuse and bully people.

What to do about it? Well, I could probably fill you an hour of discussion about it. Suffice to say that social networking sites need to wake up and realise they are no longer back-bedroom cottage industries but multi-million pound enterprises with influence and power. And with influence and power comes responsibility. And with responsibility comes some form of ‘policing’ and custodianship of what goes on.

….the World Wide Web, since you ask.

Well soon anyway.

By my reckoning, the web is coming up to it’s 18th birthday. I daresay people will challenge the dates, but as far as I am concerned, it all started in 1994 when one of my university lecturers handed us all copies of an article from The Guardian newspaper. It explained all about this new fangled addition to the Internet that would enable pages of information to be created and distributed.

The reason I mention this isn’t just because I was wondering whether anyone will be doing a collection, organising a card, or maybe baking a cake (though doesn’t seem much to ask for, all things considered). What I was thinking about was just how much of an impact the web has had, and I thought I would get in before the self-appointed ‘experts’ start wading in.

About a year after the Guardian article, I was writing web sites commercially. This was a pioneering time, and exciting, rewarding and frustrating all at the same time. The ‘frustrating’ part was because the tools and technologies were so limited and it was very time consuming to do – by today’s standards – some fairly basic things.

In 1994, the web was mostly seen as a publishing medium. Interactivity was limited and confined to fairly basic facilities like message boards, feedback forms and the like. ‘Getting a company on the web’ tended to start with people asking to have their company brochures and promo materials converted into a web version. and that was it.

Not everyone shared the vision of the World Wide Web – if ‘vision’ is what it was. One of the directors of the company I was working for at the time said on several occasions that he wasn’t sold on the web, and wasn’t sure we should be dedicating time to it. Not, perhaps, the best decision he ever made. But myself and my manager and anyone else we could rope in, got on with it anyway. I started working on more and more web sites, I visited Telehouse Docklands to help installing the first hardware, I enlisted a university friend to help select and configure routers and bridges and to get involved with more of the hardware stuff I didn’t know about. I did a series of presentations and training sessions to educate the senior staff of a major London department store group of the benefits and potential of the web and Internet generally. I assisted with the launch of a chain of Internet cafes. I attended the annual conference of one of the UK teaching unions and organised and ran a series of sessions demonstrating the web and show it might be used in the learning sector. Interestingly, whilst I encountered many web-sceptical companies then and later, the teachers got it straight away: They could see how the world was moving and embraced it instantly.

And that is just what I can remember off the top of my head. All in about 9 months. Not bad if I say so myself.

Today, much of the web is almost unrecognisable from what what happening in 1994 but some things have stayed the same. In particular the pioneering spirit hasn’t been totally knocked out of us. Not yet at any rate.

But not everything the Web has brought about has been good. The ability to exchange and share almost anything quickly and easily – a miracle in so many ways – causes a problem when applied to properties other people own and are trying to make money from. This isn’t about enriching megastars already living in castles and driving gold plated BMWs. It is about a new recording artist trying to make a living, impossible if their latest music appears for free on file sharing web sites. Does this mean that over time people will stop making music as they can’t survive by doing it? Newspaper sales continue to decline but web based equivalents don’t generate enough money to pay for the journalism and reporting, yet we need journalism and reporting to tell us what is happening. Comment and opinion can be interesting, but as we know, talk is cheap. Information on the other hand (the journalism and reporting itself) is expensive. Will this eventually disappear? Even online shopping, the aspect of the web that has perhaps touched the greatest number of people young and old – seems to be having a negative effect on high streets and traditional shops. Book sales aren’t declining as some of the ‘experts’ predicted they would as a result of the web, but they are certainly not being bought in shops in the volumes they were. Will high streets – which perform a social function as much as anything – continue to decline and become irrelevant? Or even disappear?

Of course none of this is scientific fact. A degree of copying of content has always happened, newspaper sales may well be declining simply because people are less interested in the world around them, and high street decline might be due to out of town superstores. But the Web is undoubtedly playing a significant part. It is fashionable (and a very easy option) to just dismiss all of this as ‘one of those things’, ‘progress’, ‘inevitable’ or even, bizarrely, ‘a good thing’ but I’m not so sure.

Conclusions

There is something in history or philosophy which states to the effect that the most important advances and developments are the ones people never requested. They somehow come about anyway. I have to say I don’t really agree with this – after all, putting a man on the moon didn’t just happen, it happened because of the concerted efforts of a large number of people coupled with the political will in the first place. But in the case of the World Wide Web, there might perhaps be something in it. It did come about without any real request, and crept in unnoticed on the back of enthusiasm and willpower as much as anything. Nowadays when IT projects seem to have have less and less money subjected to greater and greater scrutiny and evaluation (and people often seem oblivious to the fact that the scrutiny and evaluation itself costs money that could otherwise be spent building something), it is a refreshing and heartening story that the Web even came about at all.

Happy Birthday.

I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read, presentations I’ve attended, and assorted ramblings I’ve listened to that have stated – in various different ways – that ‘Television is dead’.

I just read yet another, by the writer Bill Thompson. In part of this article he makes the claim that the TV licence in the UK (used to fund the BBC) ‘is a real problem because it ties income to a technology that is now being ‘replaced”.

He doesn’t directly state what it is being replaced with, but does mention broadband. We are presumably being told it’s more of the ‘Broadband is killing TV’ argument.

Articles like this are fairly typical of the sort of wild prediction we’re getting from certain quarters, and needless to say I think it is nonsense of the highest order. There are various aspects to the story that the so-called ‘visionaries’ and ‘experts’ seem to ignore but need to be reminded of:

1) TV viewing has increased in recent years;
2) Recent research by OFCOM suggests that consumers are spending nearly 4 hours a day watching TV;
3) Sales of Digital TV enabled equipment are going up. According to another set of OFCOM figures, sales reached around 3.4 million units in Q1 2010, up by 8% on Q1 2009.

None of this looks to me like television is in terminal decline. On the contrary: it looks in pretty rude health to me.

Some even more facinating research has been recently conducted by an organisation called Thinkbox. This is a trade body representing the commercial television industry in the UK.  Their findings regarding the impact of ‘on demand’ and ‘catch-up’ services are interesting and not what many (especially of the ilk of Mr Thompson) would expect. It indicates that people are using ‘on-demand’ services (ITV Player, SKY Player and the like) to catch-up on series they would otherwise have missed and abandoned altogether. But it is what happens after they have caught-up that is particularly interesting: What seems to be happening is that having caught-up, people are then continuing to follow the series by going back to the normal TV channel again.  Another related aspect is that social media, where you might also be following the show – perhaps even at the same time as you’re watching it – requires you to be watching at the same time as everyone else. The most convenient way of doing this is via conventional television.

These two findings point to a world where broadband, on-demand, and social-media, far from causing television’s demise are actually resulting in a deepening of people’s relationship with it.  I don’t remember any of the ‘experts’ and ‘visionaries’ predicting anything like this…

A further aspect is that new, ‘digital brands’ that have been founded solely on the web with no physical, high street presence are actually turning to television to establish themselves.  Two of the biggest spending brands on ITV – GoCompare and CompareTheMarket, are internet only. Yet it is interesting that they are turning to traditional media to establish themselves, and indeed it is via television that people are getting to hear about them.

So what are we to make of it?  Well firstly, I doubt you will hear much of any of this from the so-called ‘experts’ and ‘visionaries’ and other self-selecting commentators. Yet these findings don’t surprise me in the slightest. I have worked in technology all my life, yet it is clear that people outside of the technology fraternity simply don’t get taken in by the ramblings of these people. The vast majority of the population are quite happy with their television viewing – ‘traditional’ as it may be – and don’t want it  ’replaced’ thank you very much.

It goes to show that if you want to know what is really going on, you better off avoiding the ramblings of the visionaries, and just asking people in the pub or on the bus. You’re likely to get much more of a sensible insight.