Beyond Television

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POSTED: December 5, 2006

In the 1930s there was one dominant entertainment medium in American homes: the radio. (Two if you count newspapers, magazines and comics; which we won’t.) Familes gathered around the radio every evening to listen to popular radio shows which included many thirty minutes dramas, soap operas and comedy shows.

Then television entered American homes and radio began to slide into what looked to be a terminal decline. It saved itself by reinventing itself as a mobile medium. In the 1950s, then, families gathered around the television set, often looking at televised versions of the same shows they had been listening to on the radio. Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, Buck Rogers are some examples of this.

Radio no longer commanded the attention of the majority of people in the same way. Instead people listened in cars, or in the garden or on picnics. They listened to increasingly small chunks, and thus the disc jockey led music stations came to dominate radio. Unlike Buck Rogers they provided listening that anybody could dip in and out of. People switched the television on at a certain time, so as not to miss a program, but they listened to whatever was on the radio when they happened to be in the car.

In the early twenty first century digital radio in Britain is being regarded as an expensive failure. Consumers have remained unconvinced about the additional features that it offers and it has aroused little real interest. In England, according to a recent Ofcom survey only 6% claim that they are considering getting it, and half of those who have access to digital radio do not even realise that they have.

The kind of mobile radio that has existed for fifty years is under growing threat from Walkmans, iPods and similar devices. Downloading music, and the ability of ipods and similar devices to randomise playback by shuffling tracks according to user-defined criteria, give users the option of using their own devices as players or as personal radio stations (“radio” being defined here as a means of listening to an unpredictable selection of audio material from within a broadly predictable range).

The only obvious unique selling proposition that radio has left is its ability to broadcast information and entertainment as it happens. This is sometimes claimed as it salvaton, and the basis of its next incarnation. However it raises the question of how much radio actually benefits from being live. Is there a sufficient amount to make it worth my while taking a radio rather than an ipod if I make a train journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi? In other words is “live” a sufficient attraction to make me decide to listen to 12 hours of what broadcasting professionals have scheduled for me, rather than the 30 gigabystes of music, comedy, recorded drama and podcasts that I have selected for myself?

Yesterday British Telecom announced that they were investing £100 million in a new service to be called BT Vision. According to yesterday’s Guardian, BT is

promising to shake up the broadcasting industry by offering a mixture of top-flight football, movies, music, classic TV shows and other on-demand services without a monthly subscription.

Once, it was enough for the telecoms behemoth to try to persuade customers that “it’s good to talk”. But now, with traditional revenues eroded by the ubiquity of mobile phones and rival carriers, it hopes to persuade customers to watch, bet, download and interact too.

It announced its arrival by vowing to take on BSkyB, the biggest pay TV company in Britain with more than 8 million subscribers, in its heartland of movies and sport. BT will give away a free set-top box, dubbed the “V-box”, to customers who sign up to its basic broadband package costing £17.99 a month, targeting viewers who want greater choice but are not prepared to pay a monthly TV subscription.

It hopes to shake up the pay TV industry in the same way as “pay as you go” phones boosted the mobile market.

BT hopes to attract up to 3 million subscribers by allowing them to catch up with programmes they have recently missed and access classic shows on demand. Next year, it will add other “next generation” services such as video calling during programmes, betting during football matches and interactive console-style games. Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT Retail, said research showed that almost three-quarters of the 60m TV sets in the UK were not connected to a pay TV service: “That shows a lot of customers want multichannel TV but don’t want to have to pay £30, £40 or £50 a month.”

The box will allow customers to watch Freeview channels and easily record up to 80 hours of programmes on an inbuilt hard disk, but will also allow them to access a range of on-demand services from movies to music videos and Premiership football via their broadband connection.

This has been misleadingly described in some reports as “BT’s new television service”. It would be more accurate to say that this represents BT’s calculated bet that, like radio, television is in terminal decline. BT owns no television stations, and its plans neither call for it to buy or create any. Its plans, in fact, do not call for “broadcasting” in any way at all, and certainly not over the airwaves.

Broadcasting has almost always been a three layered activity: an institution with a state-sanctioned licence (BBC, YLE, WSOYSamama) that owns one or more stations (BBC1, YLE2, SubTV) which, in turn, broadcast a more or less continuous stream of programmes. The institution has usually bundled the programmes inside the station and then given the station a public identity. (In Finland in recent years both SubTV and the late MoonTV ran very visible poster campaigns for the station itself, trying to brand it with a recognisable identity.)

SubTV teletext program guide

BT has joined those players (which include Apple’s iStore, Motorola, and Nolia among others) who are betting that digital artefacts (which may or may not be “programmes” in a traditional sense) can be unbundled and sold to consumers separately – without the need for any kind of intermediate schedule or station.

Where does so-called mobile television fit into this?

An article in today’s The Register quotes at length from a new report by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm, who suggest that the mobile telephone will be at the heart of the personal digital world. This suggests that there are a lot of hurdles to overcome but implies that, broadly speaking, mobile phone manufacturers and networks will need to adopt the same kind of strategy that Apple and BT are pursuing.

The assumptions of this report are highly contentious because it is not at all clear what is meant by “a mobile phone”. Apple is expected to launch an ipod in January that will also act as a phone. Reports suggest that it will not be a hone that plays music, but rather an ipod that also sends and receives phone calls. Like an ipod it will apparently rely on a home pc for downloading, sorting and cataloguing audio and video, and will act as a player only.

This is a subtle but fundamental difference and it remains to be seen which model consumers will prefer: whether they will regard phone calls as something that their ipod does on the side, or whetherthey will regard phoning as the central activity and playing audio and video as a fringe activity.

In my opinion the irony of the situation is that, on the one hand, Telia had better hope that Apple are right and Nokia are wrong. Only if consumers see entertainment as the equipment’s central function will a market develop for downloading digital artefacts to hearand view on the move. On the other hand, if Apple are right then nobody will be downloading anything using G3 anyway, and so the real winners will be those companies who have both mobile and broadband services – because it is broadband that Apple and BT are betting heavily on as the single digital delivery system for home and mobile players.

Which won’t be called mobile television unless we simply want to confuse ourselves.