Sunday, June 23, 2013

Make Good Programmes - But don't Calm Down

I am currently looking at the Next Steps for Broadcast Media, as I prepare a keynote for the Futures Agency, a guild of diverse and fascinating futurists lead by Gerd Leonhard. My experience in broadcast media tells me it takes about 5-6 years to totally transform a traditional broadcaster. For it usually means fundamentally changing the way everyone works and think. 

More often that not, broadcasters leave the decisions to change far too late, by which time politicians have a nasty habit of wealding red pens in the absence of clear leadership within broadcast ranks. As Armando Iannucci said in his brilliant Annual TV lecture at BAFTA last year (full transcript), the BBC, when challenged, has a habit of "turning itself into a local police station". I will always remember Acting DG Mark Byford apologizing "unreservedly", after Greg Dyke misjudged the political impact of Andrew Gilligan's Radio 4 Interview. It is amazing to think that the interview in question went out on May 29th 2003, over 10 years ago

Cross Platform Custard 

Senior Broadcast management also have a tendency to talk about the media they run into a sort of lumpy custard of cross-platform terms. No wonder it ends in tears. Infact, the future scenarios for the distribution of topical factual rolling-news content are very different to fiction and factual documentaries for TV. And radio consistently loses out. Especially international radio which has all but vanished from the political radar in most countries.

So I hate it when conferences, usually organised by those outside the media industry,  lump factual features for radio with their colleagues in music-based radio networks. They couldn't be more different. 

Live Versus On- Demand - welcome to a different universe.

I'm seeing that broadcast is still important when it comes to live news, weather, sports and special events (including live music events). But I'm seeing that apps on tablets are doing a much better job of delivering epic collections - whether it is Game of Thrones drama, documentaries or even coverage of conferences where I am interested in in-depth edited coverage. I don't want to wait around to experience things live. I want to view or listen to the curation efforts of experienced reporters. They save me time, and bring me a much clearer focus. 

When it comes to certain topics, like technology, the smaller Internet broadcasters like This Week in Tech are doing a much better job than network TV in drilling deep into areas that interest me. Admitted you have to know where to hunt to find it, but the coverage of gaming conferences like G3 or the Google I/O are much better on these niche networks than you'll ever find on networks like the BBC. And the commercial TV networks like CNN are simply hopeless in this area (CNN's TV ratings for their features look a lot worse than many vodcasts.).  

So What's Next?

There seem to be various schools of thought. I'm with Armando with his conclusions that we need to emulate what HBO amd Netflix are doing. Commissioning great programmes and taking risks. I'm also with media futurist Robert Tercek and Gerd Leonhard who recorded a fascinating half-hour exchange in London this past week. 

I drew these ten conclusions from their conversation: 
  1. Embrace a Spirit of Radical Openness. Companies that succeed will be open as much as possible. Access is the new buzzword. Attention is the new economy.
  2. Audiences want to be recognised and influence. Tight control doesn’t work. People want to access at times that suit them, not the broadcasters. Those that persist in wasting funds to push channel concepts and appointment TV are just radiating the fact that they don’t understand their audience. 
  3. The future is Digital by default. YouTube has become the memory of analogue channels. If digital doesn’t lead, then your great content is un-findable. And if the public has already paid for that content through taxation or a license fee, they are getting increasingly annoyed that they can’t access it easily. They are incensed when broadcasters like ARD explain how they are restricting access to content they have paid for!
  4. Sports is the next industry to be disrupted. And its already having a knock-on effect to the media. Look at how ESPN is shifting it’s strategyIt used to be that football stadia were in partnership with broadcasters. Now they are pitted against each other. In the US, the Major League Baseball app is one of the most popular – and the most expensive (99 dollars a year!) The league is less dependent on TV and (especially) radio to get the big numbers. 
  5. Content that can go direct, will. Everyone with content can go directly to the consumer. Look at Nike, Virgin Galactic, Dove or Red Bull. And if you don’t do it, someone else will.
  6. Some performing artists have withdrawn their talent from specific platforms because they think the time or the compensation model isn’t right. Since the emerging platforms interact with audiences at a far greater level, everyone is still figuring out how to build value. But you can see that those who don’t participate in this learning experience will be forgotten by those who do. And those who participate are working out ways to make money.
  7. Production companes can interface directly with the public, gaining very powerful leverage over broadcast/cable companies. Look at Game of Thrones, the epic fantasy drama created for HBO by David Benioff and D B Weiss. Not only one of the series with the biggest production budget (70,000 US dollars a second), it is also believed to be one of the world’s most pirated shows. HBO is just training people to understand how bittorrent works. It’s just a shame that period drama can’t make use of non-spot advertising! Filmed in a Belfast studio and on location elsewhere in Northern Ireland, Malta, Croatia, Iceland, and Morocco, it premiered on HBO in the United States on April 17, 2011. But I digress.
  8. Social networks are becoming the next broadcasters. They are certainly fulfilling an archive function that most broadcasters never considered. Especially speech radio woke up far too late to the fact that a catalogue of your best work is handy to prove to both the public and politicians that you're doing more than live streaming great programmes in the ether and, effectively, destroying the content as it is broadcast.
  9. Move mobile to the centre of the business. People check their phones anything up to 150 times a day. Rapidly becoming the first screen not the second screen. Mark Zuckerberg is already talking about 3 billion on Facebook. Even though that final figure is unlikely, he is half way there. Social networks are the next broadcasters. They are already the de-factor curators of broadcast content. The best and most watched content on YouTube has been produced to professional standards - low budget productions can easily look like a million dollars.
  10. Big data is becoming major driver of media. Media companies have so-far missed the opportunity to exploit their metadata. Cable companies have not managed to understand how to interpret their usage data with the result that Amazon-like recommendations don’t work. Electronic Programme Guides still smack of long lists of stuff rather than a browseable back catalogue.
The video concludes with remarks by Gerd following a speech at the end of last month to public service broadcasters. He called on broadcasters to realise that they need to find new ways for audiences to access and interact with their content. They make good stuff, but curate it in ways that people under 30 don't know how to access it. And when they don't access it, they don't see the reason to pay for it.

Finally, I was somewhat taken aback by a presentation at the same EBU Summit. Given by Ben Hammersley, it seemed to me to be advising the totally the wrong path to take. Ben told his audience to calm down. If they make good programmes it will all be OK. Because no-one has a clue what 2020 is going to be like, what's the point in trying to plan? Ben's talk fails because he doesn't give the creatives in the audience practical advice on what to do next. Just suggestions on what doesn't work. So Armando Iannucci wins hands down. (and why is the audio so awful. Thought the EBU were supposed to be the champions of broadcast quality audio and loudness

As others have pointed out, it is precisely this lack of decisive leadership that has gotten public broadcasting into such a mess in Europe. And that makes me furious at the missed opportunities - and the wasted mountains of money producing programmes that no-one can find. Calm down indeed! 

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