Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The death of linear television? More like downsizing that complete annihilation.

As part of my general clear out (our blue recycle bin was overflowing this morning when the bin men (bless them) came around to collect it), I’ve been deleting podcasts from iTunes and listening through backlogs of ones I’m still interested in hearing.

The Media Guardian podcast provides a weekly insight into what’s tickling London’s media luvvies, and in particular the Guardian’s Media team. I’ve got through the September editions, and am nearing the end of the October batch now. It’s been fun to look back at events and hear their take on them.

Every week Emily Bell talks about “the death of linear television”. (If she’s got a Google alert set for “death-of-linear-television +Emily-Bell” then Emily may well be reading this post! Hi.) And if Emily’s not in their podcast studio, someone else normally mentions it on her behalf.

So what is she talking about? And should you care?

Better start with some definitions. Linear television means scheduled TV. The sort where you look up Ceefax or the TV pages in the local paper to see what’s on. You control which channel you hop onto, but have no control over what the broadcaster has scheduled to transmit at that time. In the mists of time (ie, about five years ago), this was all we had and we lived with it.

Tune in at 7.30pm to see Coronation Street on ITV - should I be loyal to our friends at Ormeau Road and say UTV? - or you’ve missed it. Over the years it has been responsible for those water-cooler moments where everyone in the playground or work (is there a difference?) talks about what they saw the night before: Den beating up Angie in Eastenders, Blackadder, Cracker, Big Brother (the early series), football matches.

With the advent of Tivo, SkyPlus, BT Vision, and other PVRs (Personal Video Recorders), viewers who invest in these boxes can record shows they are interested in and then watch them back at their convenience. (And in Tivo’s case, it will also record stuff that it thinks you’ll be interested in with some success.)

And with additional kit like Slingbox, you can watch your PVR by streaming its contents to wherever you are in the world over the internet. So you could sit in your hotel bedroom with your laptop running on the hotel wifi (or plugged into the dressing table’s network port) and watch whatever SkyPlus has been recording for you at home.

Alternatively, you could go downstairs and have a nice meal and talk to real people or read a book. You might want to do that now as this post is probably only about half over!

So is Emily right? Is linear television dead? Well, as Director of Digital Content/Development on the Guardian’s board, and editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited (their website), she’s certainly qualified to have a strong opinion!

The ad industry is worried that we’ll start watching everything as recordings on PVRs and we’ll skip through the ads and not watch them. (You can even programme one of the buttons on the Tivo remote control to skip forward 30 seconds. Hit it six times and you’ll get through most irritating ad breaks and get right back to the action.)

It’s exactly what I do. The only live TV I’ve seen in the last month has been CBeebies. And that’s because its schedule makes sense. The Bedtime Hour kicks in every night at 6pm. Guaranteed to show a relaxing Blue Cow story about quarter past six. No need to record it. Just watch it when necessary. Even better, get daughter up to the bath without having to resort to switching on the goggle box with its anaesthetic qualities.

But everything else is been pre-recorded. So I’m bad news for advertisers.

So should you care? Well if this post goes on much longer, it’ll be Christmas before it finishes. Some friends—who also travel crazy amounts—just watch what their video at home has recorded onto Long Play and Extended Longer Play videos. So they come back at the weekends to a compilation of the latest science fiction on Sky One and a few other choice snippets from terrestrial channels. No ads for them.

So advertisers will be looking for other ways to get your eyeballs in the direction of their products.

Now where this trend falls down is with soaps and sport. If you want your nightly fix of Corrie (uppers) or Eastenders (downers), you need to carve out space in your life to make it possible. Most likely you’ll make time at the point where it’s broadcast. And if there’s an ad break in the middle, you can make a quick phone call or a cup of tea before rushing back to the second part. You’re unlikely to record it and then watch it later while Newsnight is on. I bet there’s very little PVRing of soaps.

Now if live sport is on, people seem to make the time to watch it. There’s currency in knowing what the score is at the end of the match. And if you don’t know and are waiting until later, someone you talk to in the interim will tell you, and spoil your delayed viewing. So I suspect most big sporting events will continue to attract live audiences. Though minority sports like sailing and horsy stuff are quite capable of going on-demand as there’s less immediate discussion amongst

To me, it seems likely that within the next two years television production will start to focus on two areas:

Expensive

  • Big live events that will get lots of production (and advertiser) money thrown at them to be must-see live programmes. So expect more Big Brother, more sporting events that you neither knew existed now knew you needed to watch. Lots of High Definition (HD).
  • A small number of big international drama series like Lost that are so high profile that the next day’s papers will be writing about the storyline and you’ll have to see it live. (Though I managed to stay half a series behind in Lost 2 without reading about the plot.) And these shows will be so lucrative that they’ll be quickly snapped up by Sky who need something other than Premiership football to attract subscribers to their expensive product.
  • Pay-per-view films that will be released in the cinema, on DVD and on pay-per-view channels simultaneously. You can choose where you want to watch them. (Though if they’re made for the cinema, I recommend you go to your local cinema and see it there. No matter how big your TV screen, and how impressive your digital surround, a good seat in a cinema with a huge screen makes such a difference.)
  • Shows with Ant and Dec that defy categorisation. No reason why anyone should watch Saturday Night Takeaway. But people do. In their millions. No reason for this to stop.

Cheap

  • Lots of (throwaway) shows whose makers will only expect to attract an audience of less than half a million people. So lower production values, no HD, cheap sets, cheap story lines. But still a way for talented writers, actors and technical folk to make their mark and be noticed amongst the swamp of mediocrity.
  • Shows based on user generated content. A bit like You've Been Framed only worse and more of them. It'll be called You've Been Youtubed.
  • The kind of shows that can be watched on demand at any time. Niche programming. Lots of science fiction that can be dubbed and sold around the world.

Am I right? Who knows, time will tell. But if it's an accurate vision, the contents of the box in the corner will be very different.

Essay over and out (for now).

1 comment:

John Self said...

I must be old-fashioned. I love the notion of appointment TV, something you have to sit down and watch at a specific time, all the better to enjoy the watercooler moments the next day when everyone (well, everyone who matters, hem hem) is talking about it. Emily Bell is no doubt right, but it will be a terrible loss.