two solitudes: Alan Sawyer's views on the media industry

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Press: Televolution: No longer just sitting there

No more lapping up what the networks dish out; now we cherry-pick our TV fare

The National Post
Barbara Shecter

Each time he gets ready for one of his frequent trips to various parts of the world Peter Lowes, a New York-based consultant for Deloitte & Touche LLP, downloads his favourite TV shows from his computer to his iPod.

"If you are travelling the whole time like I do, the video iPod becomes 'TV to go' and a great way to stay up to date on shows, as well as be entertained on long flights," says Mr. Lowes, a 15-year veteran of the tech business who was recently passing through Toronto en route to Edmonton.

Only a decade ago, Mr. Lowes, like the rest of us, made appointments with his television set. We'd be sure to be home on, say, Thursday nights to catch the latest instalment of Friends or ER. If we had to be out, we would make the effort to set the VCR. Taping offered us the advantage of being able to watch when we wanted -- and to fast-forward through commercials.

Still, it was largely a passive experience, one that gave us little control over what we watched.

But personal video recorders and video-on-demand subscription services offered by cable companies have now given us -- the viewers -- more control than ever before over what and how we watch television programs.

Indeed, in just the past six months, more dramatic shifts have taken place as major media players, from ABC to Google Inc., have unveiled deals that allow viewers, such as Mr. Lowes, to watch their favourite shows on their iPods and mobile phones.

"You can even set it up to automatically download the newest episode in a series every time you synch the iPod with your PC [computer]," gushes Mr. Lowes, an outsourcing specialist who travels frequently to London and Sydney, as well as throughout North America.

The shift is sending ripples across the television industry, causing broadcasters to re-think the way they produce and schedule shows, advertisers to seek out ways to keep up with and communicate with a mobile customer, and cable companies to ensure they stay part of the equation by getting programs to the viewer.

"The magnitude of change we saw over 50 years in the traditional TV space will be repeated or exceeded in the next five years," says Alan Sawyer, a Toronto-based senior strategy consultant in the media and entertainment practice of IBM Business Consulting Services.

"And everyone, the content creators, networks, affiliates, distributors, regulators, advertisers -- and the consumer -- will be affected in a big way."

In a report published in January called The End of TV as We Know It, consultants at IBM predict a radically different terrain within six years, as traditional "appointment" TV audiences, who sit in their living rooms waiting for what the networks have programmed, are overtaken by those who will set their own TV-watching agendas.

As a result, the report concludes, the way we watch TV now will shrink as a habit and a revenue-generator for networks and cable operators.

Rather than receiving shows for free, viewers are now paying for the privilege of watching when and how they want. The price for downloading a show: $1.99 for a recent episodes and, in a some cases, advance screenings for $2.99. Many purchases are believed to be impulse buys, made by someone waiting in a line or riding on a subway.

"We've gone beyond, 'Are people going to watch on a small screen," says Bernie Gershon, senior vice-president and general manager of the ABC News Digital Media Group in New York.

"It's moved to 'What are they going to watch and how long are they going to watch? Is it going to be clips or are they going to watch a movie?'"

The concept may sound strange to someone who just purchased a giant flat-screen television for their living room, but the recent flurry of deals involving all three major U.S. networks suggest a major transition is under way.

"In the house, [people] want a big screen. [But] when they are on a train or walking about, they want a cellphone," says Mike Lee, vice-president of strategy and development at Rogers Communications Inc.

Why is this happening now? TV executives say improved technology is providing a better picture, and nearly ubiquitous gadgets such as cellphones and iPods are creating demand for programming they are eager to meet.

Andrew Zolli, who runs consultancy Z Partners in New York, says the proliferation of tiny screens on cellphones and iPods in purses and pockets has made content producers the kings they were expected to be in the late 1990s.

"There are more screens out there than there is content to fill them, so there is a mad scramble. The content producers are going to become the darlings again. This is where people thought the AOL/Time Warner deal was going to go," Mr. Zolli says.

Still, he says, the quality of viewing on the small screens can't rival the big-screen experience of the home entertainment theatres.

"It's just above suck-a-tude -- this is not 'gather the family around, we're all going to watch the iPod'," Mr. Zolli says of the quality of shows such as The Office and Lost that he downloads from Apple's iTunes. "That's just not going to happen."

Still, Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, says he is in the download game because the network doesn't want to miss out on "new or different audiences" that might be drawn in to watch Survivor and CSI on TV through iPod viewing or through Google's vast reach.

At the same time, if episodes are made available on the network's own Web site, loyal viewers may pay to watch a missed episode at their convenience, he says.

The vast experimentation that is taking place south of the border has brought longstanding issues to the fore in Canada, such as how advertisers will reach target consumers in a world in which potentially commercial-free shows are available on demand.

"You're not just dealing with the traditional 30-second spot anymore," says Cynthia Fleming, Toronto-based executive vice-president of media planner Carat Canada.

Advertisers have begun to experiment with product placement and sponsored shows, but their efforts are made more difficult by the multiple forms on-demand viewing is taking. "There's not a [new] standard that's out there," says Ms. Fleming.

The shift from the couch potato to a more mobile, on-demand viewer has also raised new issues, such as how cable TV operators and even the traditional networks themselves fit into a business model in which shows can be sold directly to the viewer through whichever device they choose?

The IBM report says tech-savvy consumers who demand to watch what they want, when they want, at individually tailored prices, "will challenge long-standing business models to lead the industry to ... an end to the traditional broadcast schedules and release windows."

The loss of the traditional "prime time" schedule in the evening could have major implications for Canada's broadcasters, which make much of their money by selling Canadian advertising that is inserted into U.S. shows when they air at the same time in Canada.

There could also be implications for cable companies, which could potentially be left out of distributing broadcasts entirely.

While Canada isn't as advanced as the United States in video experimentation through computers and iPods, "we certainly expect that to unfold in Canada," says Jennifer Bell, a spokeswoman for Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., the Toronto-based producer and specialty-TV broadcaster.

Big private broadcasters such as CTV and Global will "face the challenge of selling American programming to Canadians when every indication is that their hold on audiences will diminish as they lose the advantages of carriage and spectrum scarcity," says Jeff Leiper, Ottawa-based director of Canadian market strategies at telecommunications consultant Yankee Group.

"Who are Canadians going to turn to for Desperate Housewives? A behemoth like Apple or Google, or a broadcaster like CTV in a world where CTV's raison d'etre is rapidly diminishing?"

Not everyone is convinced we are technologically prepared to leap into this new world.

Craig Moffett, a vice-president and senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC in New York, told a U.S. Senate commerce committee this month the telecommunications infrastructure is "woefully" unprepared for widespread delivery of video over the Internet.

Mr. Moffett said it takes more bandwidth to download a half-hour sitcom than to receive 200 e-mails a day for a year. "Downloading a single high-definition movie consumes more bandwidth than does the downloading of 35,000 Web pages," he told the committee.

Mr. Moffatt said that telecommunications networks aren't prepared for such downloads to become commonplace.

© National Post 2006


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