Last weekend I was at Edinburgh TV festival. In previous years it’s been a bit of naval gazing affair – opulent parties where commissioners congratulate each other, screenings of forthcoming ‘hits’, the odd celebrity wheeled out by his or her paymasters. This year wasn’t a massive departure from that except for the addition of those pesky internet people encroaching on the party – infact I’m told by the organisers that they’ve seen the biggest growth in attendees from outside the broadcaster/indie sector. This year there were sessions on IPTV, mobile apps, data crunching, and not least the addition of YouTube as a headline sponsor and Google chairman Eric Schmidt giving the McTaggart lecture. For me the interesting session wasn’t Dr Schmidt but the session on how convergence is impacting the business of television for broadcaster/publishers.
One big theme was the debate about how broadcasters have taken their eye off the ball and seen lots of valuable interaction around their content take place on third party platforms like Facebook and YouTube. David Abrahams talked a lot about how Channel 4 is thinking hard about the extent to which they work with successful social services like Facebook to ‘join the dots’ between their programmes and other forms of interaction, and how their solution will (in part) be their own proprietary registration system. At the moment Channel 4 have all kinds of inert databases around different shows and genres, so they’re working hard to join these up and create a backend system to help them mine more valuable data from their audience, and thus prove their worth to advertisers with the kind of analytics social networks can offer.
Of course the big question for me is what do the audience get in return? David Abrahams talks about personalisation and some exclusive content, but is that really enough?
For me the most exciting places on the web are the communities where you can express your identity, connect and share – and yet every broadcaster is obsessed with moderation and the integrity of the channel brand- too scared to give their audience free-reign to comment, or self-moderate. The broadcasters have imposed such strict standards on their services that apart from great on-demand content everything around it is generally sparse and dull. Fru Hazlitt from ITV talked about the future of TV being around not only live TV but keeping engagement running between live shows – but how many of us are actually reading about X Factor on ITV.com when rivals like MailOnline have juicier content, infused with personality, allowing people to add their comments, and even allowing people to vote on the comments on those message boards? The Ofcom regulatory mindset has crept into the broadcasters’ online offerings, and so they’re not realising their full potential. Sure they do ok, but imagine the potential.
David Abrahams talks about Channel 4 as this big trusted brand that people will see as a safe place to share their information, but I still think people are more engaged with shows than channels – and so real fans will ultimately engage with that show in the place that gives them the most freedom to express themselves. There’s always a balance of carrot and stick – but ‘personalisation’ and ‘extra content’ feels like a given in a world where consumers have such high expectations. Even though Channel 4 give their content away for free on 4oD (ad supported) this is still something the audience has come to expect after a decade of publishers giving away their content for free online. How ITV think they’ll make any meaningful revenues from charging for content online is beyond me.
So yes – broadcasters are right that they need to become the place where show interactions happen. Yes – this is how they’ll defend their revenues from online rivals who can offer deep audience insight. But the question remains – what’s the carrot for the audience? For me going down an AOL.com/Yahoo route of expensive editorial teams producing copy and exclusive videos is not the answer – it’s removing the filters and allowing people who are passionate about programmes to truly express themselves, to connect with fans, and to use this insight to deliver them richer and more personalised experiences. It requires a big culture change in the channels’ brand and editorial teams, but ultimately this is the only way I can see broadcasters really becoming multiplatform destinations in their own right.