Thursday, 20 January 2011

Why online giants will never gain control of our TVs

I groaned when I caught the sub-heading of an article in my Telegraph this morning: “Are television and the internet a marriage made in hi-tech heaven?”

I suddenly had a vision of those hundreds of hours I spent during the last decade reading articles and sitting through powerpoint presentations and conducting seminars at conferences and talking to clients about how geeks would one day rule the world of Television.
I can still see their earnest, bespectacled, pallid faces of the digital elect sweating with excitement at the prospect of gaining revenge on all those TV bullies who’d sneered at their puny little PC screens and weedy little narrowband connections. One day, by Golly!, they’d show Mr. Big Shot Broadcasting Executive and all his fancy friends just who they’d been dissing all those years.

And so the Nerderati came up with broadband connections and online video and video-enabled Smartphones and Web TV set-top boxes and Slingboxes and iPads and applications that let you watch whatever was on your PC screen on your TV set – Pow! Bam! Thunk! Take that Mrs. Glossy Supercilious Old-Hat TV Mogul! Not so smart now, huh? We’ve brainwashed your kids so they spend all their spare time in their bedrooms talking to their friends online and watching videos of cats ballroom dancing and rilly funny guys lighting their farts and stuff. And we’ve smeared your precious programmes all across the web so anyone can watch them for free. And we stole all your TV advertising and stuck it online. And we’ve moved all your communication and banking processes –practically your whole life – online. And we’ve made you put yourself on Facebook to show how trendy and in-touch and not-at-all-past-it you are. And you’ve had to sit through endless meetings with people like us talking incomprehensible bullshit and scaring the pants off you! 

Well, you non-billionaire has-been - who’s the Daddy now?

Well, the answer is, when it comes to that screen in the corner of the global living-room, the broadcaster is still the Daddy.

The most successful TV-related devices of the Noughties were the digital set-top box, the digital video recorder and the flat-screen TV – all made by traditional electronics manufacturers. The most successful service was digital TV itself, mostly controlled by Sky and, in the case of Freeview, the Government/BBC. (Loss-making Virgin Cable is basically an agglomeration of old Telecoms companies.) The most popular content was Old Skool TV programming made and owned by broadcasters. The most popular online TV programme services were owned and run by the big broadcasters – with the BBC iPlayer the outstanding product. And while online advertising outstripped TV spot advertising by the end of the decade, newspapers were the real losers, not TV. The most successful TV-related device is High Definition – again, nothing to do with the digerati.

There’s been a revolution in broadcasting – but, to be honest, the industry’s still in the hands of the organisations who ran it ten years’ ago. Geeks destroyed the record industry and have weakened the High Street, thanks to online shopping (and the corner-shop, due to declining newspaper sales) but TV companies – despite any number of crazy decisions during the past decade – are still in charge: why, even ITV shows signs of regaining its long-lost mojo!

Because, despite investing untold billions, Microsoft, Google, Apple and BT have failed to produce TV-related products and services compelling enough to disrupt mainstream TV. Watching video on phones and programming your PVR while you’re on a bus or being able to watch a programme which you recorded at home on a laptop in an airport in Bangkok sounds all cool and trendy - but nobody really cares! Because it doesn’t give these companies control of your TV screen Essentially, all their big ideas boil down to one thing: getting you to buy a set-top box which allows you to watch programmes served via the web on your home TV screen.  The most successful IPTV service to date has been  BT Vision, which was supposed to have netted between two and three million subscribers by now, but which has only managed 520,000 to date, despite relentless marketing by the biggest Telecoms company in the UK to its huge customer base. If this is a success, it’s an amazingly expensive one! 

The BBC-backed YouView set-top box which – yes, you guessed it already – will allow viewers to watch online programmes on their TVs, is now due to launch in 2012, after severe delays. Given the success of Freeview and iPlayer – and the BBC’s huge marketing muscle – this might prove more successful than the versions the non-broadcasting nerds have come up with. But, again, the success will belong to a broadcaster.

There are two main reasons for the failure of Silicon Valley’s finest to gain control of mainstream TV. First, there’s the myth that TV viewers want limitless choice. We don’t. By the time we hunker down in front of the box, we don’t want to expend too much effort looking for stuff to watch – if you have Sky, you already have several hundred channels to choose from, and a further 80 hours of programmes you chose to record on Sky Plus. You can be pretty damned sure there won’t be anything more exciting available on the web. 

Second, the sort of huge libraries of Video On Demand material that are going to be accessible online are never going to be that popular. Viewers see a programme delayed by a day or two on their digital video recorder as a contemporary offering, a benefit, something to look forward to: anything older than that, or anything you haven’t chosen to record for time-shifted viewing, lacks allure. That’s why Video on Demand services never really catch on. People think they’ll want to watch that series on the history of Etruscan pottery they somehow managed to miss when it was first shown (even though it was repeated six times on BBC4). But they never do. After a while, the sheer weight of available material becomes oppressive, a burden.

Computer folk have always imagined that we’re all gagging for online functionality and limitless choice on our TVs. A handful of super-geeks might – the rest of us are happy for the two devices to remain separate: all we really want are better PCs and better software and better TVs and, above all - better TV programmes. 

Just for once, why doesn’t everybody just stick to what they do best and stop trying to take over the world?


  1. I can’t answer for the US TV market, but the reason for IPTV’s relative lack of success in the UK must be a mixture of the strength of the three main digital offerings and the difficulty of understanding what IPTV would add to it. I can’t see why current digital viewers would feel the need for what BT Vision offers, especially as it comes from a source most phone customers aren’t that impressed with. If our digital TV was a lot worse I’m sure IPTV would have won a larger share of the market by now. On another point I’m not sure your portrayal of the “online giants” as a bunch of envious nerds is still accurate. They must have hired a lot of broadcasters by now, including the BBC’s very own former new media director Ashley Highfield, who must have been at Microsoft for a few years by now, and didn’t the BBC announce last week that Eric Huggers, Hghfield’s replacement was off to Intel?

    Finally can you really blame the Googles and Apples and Microsofts from trying to gatecrash the TV party? Yes, they probably all got it a bit wrong, imagining that TV viewers would love to have a You Tube experience on their TVs (horses for courses, as you say)but surely there’s nothing wrong with these very rich companies investing in research in new fields? I should have thought that someone from your end of the political spectrum would have applauded all this private sector endeavour. You’re not paying for it, it does no harm, and some universally beneficial technological advances might ensue.
    Sunday, January 23, 2011 - 12:54 AM

  2. Well, Ex-BBC, I agree that the strength of our digital TV platforms makes web via the TV a bit pointless – but the main point is that once you take away any sense of immediacy from the offering, the allure is lost. The iPlayer works because most programmes disappear after a week – if they just sat there forever (once a dream of the BBC’s) hardly anyone would bother. I had IPTV for several months about ten years ago – and it was dull!

    Nerds may no longer be 7-stone weaklings lusting after revenge – but they grew up with TV, whatever happened to them after puberty, and I reckon they still want to control that friend (perhaps their only friend when they were little) in the corner of the living room.

    No, I can’t blame these companies for spending their own money on R&D – especially not Apple, whose superb design and imagination tend to create a need for products no one realized they wanted – but I’d much prefer it if Microsoft concentrated all their energy on improving their crappy, bloated software rather than trying to capture a market they know sod all about: having suffered years of Windows, I really don’t want these people coming anywhere near my TV!
    Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - 08:08 PM