Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Future of TV Programming

It might come as a shock to the US readers, but here in the UK we have only experienced multiple TV channels in recent years.  By multiple TV channels, I mean more than three.

In fact, when I was a young 'un we only had two TV channels, and they were both in Black and White. Plus a lot of grey, as I recall.  And to show I possess a phenomenal memory, I even recall the names of these two channels - BBC and ITV.  Mock if you will, you try recalling all the channel names from your youth when you're in your mid fifties.

Shortly after, sometime around the time of the moonshot, we got colour TV (not us at home, the UK - colour TV didn't appear in my life until the mid Seventies).  We also got our third TV Channel, BBC 2.  Fast forward until I'd been in the RAF for five years, just after the Falklands War finished, and Britain celebrated with its fourth TV channel, using our customary imaginative style naming it Channel 4.  It wasn't until just before the end of the Century that we got our fifth, and final, analogue TV channel - Channel 5.  In comparison the US had accumulated more than five TV channels two years before John Logie Baird invented the TV.

Of course some in the UK had realised that two, three, four or even five channels were insufficient for them and had discovered cable TV for a few selected locations and Sky TV for the rest of the country.  Satellite dishes sprung up like a rash of mushrooms on the vertical surfaces on British houses.

Now we've gone digital and we've all got seemingly inexhaustible amounts of channels that I can't begin to enumerate let alone remember.  We've got a lot of choice and a variety of quality.  We can record on our DVR machines and, of course, Sky were in that game pretty early on too.  The listings magazines are getting thicker and are starting to resemble telephone directories of old.

But I don't think the journey is over, I think we are still travelling.  Despite the seemingly thousands of TV channels, multiple cable and satellite options, terrestrial broadcasts and the newcomers, on-demand TV via the internet, most programming is still based on fixed timeslots.  Sure, most programmes and films are broadcast multiple times, with new channels such as ITV3+1 - which is ITV4, surely? - popping up to broadcast the same content as the parent channel only an hour later.

The game-changers, though not mature enough to challenge the current paradigm yet, are the Lovefilm and Netflix packages.  Add to these the likes of the BBC iPlayer which makes programmes available world-wide over the internet for up to seven days after the first broadcast and you're losing the old standards rapidly.

The glue still holding the old guard together is the advertising revenue for the commercial TV stations and the BBC TV licence - a permit to watch any broadcast programming in the UK that funds an organisation that then makes it available for the rest of the world to watch for free.  Considering that TV ownership is pretty much universal in this country and that the TV license fee is mandatory for any household that has a TV, regardless of which channels you watch or even whether you watch TV at all, it's technically another tax, just one directed at providing entertainment, news reportage and sports coverage for the masses.

But advertising isn't paying, and the commercial stations are floundering around for other ways to raise money.  Phone-in competitions can't support a thousand TV channels forever and DVR has wiped out the effectiveness of advertising since it allows the viewer to fast forward through the adverts anyway.  The populace is tiring of the involuntary tax on viewing via the license fee and the BBC is under a lot of pressure to justify its continuance.  Giving away the programming we're compelled to pay for to the world for free rankles a lot of fee payers.  It is argued we get  some of the best television in the world, but for around £180 a year each, perhaps that's not unreasonable.

Of course, those on Sky are paying up to £90 a month for their extended programming, and that's on top of the license fee, so perhaps those of us who have shunned Sky and its rivals such as Virgin Media can't complain.  Most don't pay that much and it's become a bit of a game for many Sky customers to argue down the fee each year, sometimes by juggling with the package, sometimes by threatening to walk away.  Lovefilm and Netflix are making some inroads into the deal but their packages are not comprehensive enough and often too dated to compete fully.  And I doubt if either company produce any original programming, which the terrestrial and extra terrestrial programmers do.

My vision is that we can buy a package - perhaps it would be credits to  be applied to  any programmes we accessed - maybe the credits could be applied to any provider.  Drop the advertising and the license fees and apply a free economy and we might be seeing a new future.  Lovefile and Netflix could be part of that, so could the BBC as both a producer and prime broadcaster.  Instead of programmes being broadcast at specific times, they could be released for viewing from specific times.  From that point on they could be accessed, just as the on-demand media is now.  New programmes and films could attract a premium credit, so the early adopters and those with more disposable income could view them first.  The rest of us - well we could wait a few days, maybe, attracting a lower credit price.  Once a programme becomes less of a novelty and more of a commodity, then perhaps there could be a market for various providers to compete to provide it.  Hmm, market forces in programming.

Smart TVs would need to get a whole lot smarter, broadband much broader.  Importantly, everyone has to be prepared to take control of their own individual programming.  There would be no national barriers, no missed opportunities.  It probably won't pan out like this, not exactly.  Predicting paradigm shifts is tricky at the best of times, looking at changes in long established technologies almost impossible to second guess.  Ultimately the only losers would be the listing magazines - there would be a market to announce the new programming to be released but I suspect smarter ways than flicking through a weekly magazine would develop pretty quickly, and I suspect those new-fangled tablet computers could play a part in that.

And our children won't have to worry about remembering a myriad of TV Channels when they are in their mid-fifties.  Just their favourite programming database.


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