Going live to going online, television is not what we knew

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Tomorrow Kevin Spacey will bring a touch of Oscar-winning glamour to the Edinburgh International Television Festival by delivering this year’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture. He will speak about changes sweeping across the industry.

The choice of Spacey as keynote speaker is significant. Rapid developments in technology and new consumer behaviour have complex and far-reaching implications for the whole television industry and Spacey, as star of the Netflix remake of House of Cards, has been one of the first major stars to embrace the potential of these changes in his own career.

The number of internet-enabled devices, including connected televisions and set-top boxes, games consoles, smartphones, laptops and tablets, has shot up. These devices, along with catch-up, on-demand and extra online content, are revolutionising the established model of television. The image of a family sitting around a set in their living room watching broadcast television is quickly becoming outdated.

This transformation is the focus of intense interest and even confusion in the industry. Multiple and sometimes conflicting reports of the changing state of television and predictions for the future appear all the time.

Broader horizons

One major area of change is in the way we receive television. Sandvine reported last year that Netflix now accounts for 30% of internet traffic in America and numbers of Netflix subscribers are rivalling those of cable network HBO. Such developments have prompted fears about “cord cutting” - the possibility that people will cancel their pay-TV services and move online for all their entertainment.

Despite this, the latest Digital TV Research report forecasted that on-demand services like Netflix will still represent less than 3% of total television revenues in 2018.

Meanwhile, other research from GfK into the habits of online video subscribers indicated a very wide variety of viewing and noted that episodic or “niche” viewing was becoming a trend. Users seemed more likely to watch the kind of programmes or films they might otherwise rent on DVD rather than content that they might see broadcast on traditional television networks. To compete, on-demand needs to become more like broadcast television. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, has said his goal is to “become HBO faster than they can become us”.

Netflix has already had some success in this regard, receiving nine Emmy nominations for its remake of House of Cards, a series that was broadcast exclusively online and on-demand. However, Netflix and other online services are coy about how many people actually watch, even though they certainly collect detailed information about this. BARB will begin reporting online viewing for major UK broadcasters by the end of the year.

Square eyes squared

Another concern associated with the new television landscape is that the mass audience is becoming a thing of the past. There is more content than ever and that content can be watched wherever, whenever. This shift is fuelled by the rising availability of connected devices that can be used to watch television. Ofcom’s recent Communications Market Report revealed that the average UK household has more than three internet-enabled devices (totting it up, my household has eight).

These devices can be used not only to watch programmes but also to multi-task in front of the television, becoming a source of distraction from viewing. Much of what we do with our devices while the television is on is unrelated to what’s onscreen: email, browsing, and even watching other content. Household members may sit in the living room together, but they are no longer engaging with the same things as a group in the way that families used to watch programmes together.

But Ofcom also reported that a quarter of people in its survey use devices to do something connected to television while they’re watching. So-called “media meshing” might involve searching for additional information about what they are seeing on screen or using a tie-in app (though these are still rare).

Tweet, watch, tweet

But the most talked-about media meshing activity must surely be social media use. As the industry gathers in Edinburgh this week, this phenomenon and how to react to it will undoubtedly be the subject of much discussion.

TV Licensing has highlighted the influence of online social interactions, which it dubs “chatterboxing”. It’s a practice that is most widespread among those aged under 35 and most commonly involves talking about a programme on websites such as Twitter or Facebook.

Broadcasters have cottoned on to the phenomenon already and have started to take steps to react, such as displaying tweets from viewers on screen during a broadcast and attempting to interact with viewers through social networking sites.

But they could be doing more. Where many other types of media use might be seen to be taking viewers away, chatterboxing can actually serve to reinforce more traditional television viewing habits. It can reinforce the desire to watch programmes live in order to avoid spoilers and a good buzz also serves to recommend programmes. Viewers may no longer be watching television with the family they live with, but they are viewing together as an online family.

BSkyB appears to have worked this out and last year invested in Zeebox, an app to promote the benefits of media meshing by integrating social media and content, offering synchronisation even with recorded shows, personalised recommendations and virtual rooms for fan communities.

Old habits remain

Despite these changes, Ofcom’s report also stressed continuity, even nostalgia, in the nation’s viewing habits. It pointed out that 90% of viewing in 2012 was broadcast television, and that sports and other live events are still watched in the living room on screens that are getting larger.

Interestingly though, YouGov research shows that 60% of content watched on portable devices is also live (news and sport) and can’t be comfortably time-shifted. It seems that we will consume unmissable content on the biggest screen available at the time. And it could be argued that we have a more intimate relationship with the small screens that we carry around with us, even in some cases into the bathroom.

The actions of consumers - our choice of devices, subscriptions, apps, and social media - will have decisive impact on the future shape of television. The television viewer has traditionally been characterised as a couch-potato. Now it seems our actions will dictate the opportunities for innovation and creativity that Spacey is speaking about in Edinburgh.

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