Future of TV: Don’t switch off the goggle box just yet

WHEN the definitive history of television is finally written, perhaps the date of Feb 1, 2013, will be marked as a significant milestone.

Future of TV: Don’t switch off the goggle box just yet

It was on that day that online subscription service Netflix released its House of Cards series.

All 13 episodes of a big budget show, now available online, having never aired on a traditional channel, and able to be streamed when and how you want. Take it handy with one a week or binge out on a six-episode marathon.

And as Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood took his place in the pantheon next to Gaybo, Nidge, and Benji Riordan, numerous commentators heralded the dawning of a new age. It may have been slightly self-serving, but House of Cards writer Beau Willimon drew plenty of agreeing nods when he declared: “Streaming is the future. TV will not be TV in five years from now — everyone will be streaming.”

Whether this prediction is correct remains to be seen, but there’s no disputing how the digital age has brought a rapidly changing world for those who consume television, as well as those who create and distribute it.

Alongside Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, and a myriad of other sites where video content is available, there is an increasing range of devices that threaten that humble box in the living room. Laptops, iPads, smartphones, and PlayStations are among the obvious other players in the game, while plans for smartwatches are just one other strand in an ever evolving sector. No wonder the Government is looking at a new broadcast charge to replace the old TV licence fee.

On-demand programming and personal video recorders (PVRs) such as the services offered by Sky and UPC have also allowed us to bypass the schedule and flick through the ads. All of this is great news for the consumer, but it represents a double whammy for channels already reeling from plummeting advertising revenues.

Yet another new competitor for traditional channels is Guy At Work. It seems that every company of more than four people has a man with a suss on alegal torrent sources such as The Pirate Bay. You want the first eight episodes of the final season of Breaking Bad, though they won’t be officially released on DVD until June? No bother.

But don’t write off traditional television just yet. According to figures from TAM/Nielsen, the average adult in Ireland is watching two minutes more of live television per day than they did in 2008. Furthermore, 97% of Irish adults watch content on an actual TV set every day.

Dermot Horan, director of broadcast and acquisitions at RTÉ, is heartened by such statistics. “Actual television consumption hasn’t suffered an iota as a result of having more devices available,” says Horan. “People said nobody would read books when the movies came out, and when TV came along they said nobody would go to the cinema. If you have the right content, people will continue to watch.”

And for all this talk of interaction, choice and empowering the viewer, many of us are still content to be passive slaves to the schedule as we flop on the couch.

Horan points to RTÉ’s use of its YouTube channels and social media to complement live broadcasts, while research has also shown a lot of us are using a second screen — often a smartphone or tablet — when in front the TV. This other device is often being used for Twitter or something else that’s related to the programme we’re watching.

TV3 is currently working on an app to take advantage of this. “We believe this is a huge opportunity for broadcasters to develop second-screen solutions,” says Stephen Grant, TV3’s director of online.

The appeal of the shared experience of live TV also has traditional broadcasters confident they’ll be around for quite a while yet. You can’t be part of that ‘watercooler’ chat if you haven’t seen the previous night’s Love/Hate or The Late Late Show.

Aisling McCabe, director of strategic platforms and partnerships at RTÉ, also points to some of the other interesting findings on the way the RTÉ Player is used. “We know on the iPad version of the player, people watch drama. On the iPhone, it’d be comedy; while on the UPC version it’s soaps.”

The age of the box-set has also left a legacy, even if the DVD is already looking decidedly old-fashioned. Sitting down to several episodes of a TV show rather than watching a movie is probably a phenomenon that emerged in the past decade through the popularity of series such as The Sopranos and The Wire. House of Cards and Netflix can take advantage of this, but Mad Men is an example of how live audiences for high-profile, quality imported drama can be difficult to come by for traditional networks.

As viewers gets more power, many have also grown less tolerant of long ad breaks. Channels have had to adapt to our penchant for using our recorders to flick through the advertisements. For example, viewers of Revenge on RTÉ Two may have noticed the shorter breaks — at just 30 seconds, many people are more likely to sit through them rather than fast forward. More shows are also being sponsored, and the sponsorship plug at the end of the ad break is often the signal for punters to stop fast-forwarding, thus ensuring it’s still an effective means of promoting a particular brand.

And this ability to adapt to the new era isn’t just important so people who work in TV channels can keep their jobs. Despite the moans from the gallery about ‘nothing on the telly’, there are actually more decent shows on offer than ever before. Throw in the choice of devices and online outlets and it’s clear that we really are spoilt for choice. For this richness to continue, there has to be a viable business model. Or, as this fragmented era might require, several viable business models.

Programme makers, device designers, and traditional channels need to adopt the approach of Frank Underwood in House of Cards — “someone who’ll throw a saddle on a gift horse rather than look it in the mouth”. And us viewers will hopefully reap the benefits along the way.

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