Festival time again and the television industry gathers in Edinburgh to track where it is going in what are deemed to be troubled times, writes our correspondent at the conference. It is business as usual, or has something new happened? Is broadcasting a luxury cruise liner heading for the rocks? Are new media the life raft?
Just when you thought you had grasped the notion of the long tail, someone puts up a picture of an elephant on the screen and talks about “the long nose”.
However, rather than puzzle about the long nose of technical innovation, you could have gone to see the “masterclasses” on offer from Ant and Dec, Ross Kemp, or Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear. He entertained the audience with a witty caricature of BBC management in the form of Ed Pol, Head of the Programme Prevention Dept, the man responsible for, amongst other things, ladder training. For the more discerning, the soap opera aspect of the festival included a dinner time raised voices row between James Murdoch and Robert Peston. Entertainment, comedy and television politics all producing some heat but was any light shed?
James Murdoch began his McTaggart lecture by attacking “analogue attitudes in a digital age”. Fair comment and many of his audience might have been with him until he compared free market media such as Sky with Darwinism and the regulated public and private sector of the BBC and ITV with Creationism. Murdoch called for “radical reorientation of the regulatory regime,” describing the United Kingdom as the “Adams family of world media,” his predictable ritual BBC bashing clearly echoing his father’s MacTaggart lecture twenty years before, except that Sky is not a minnow any more.
Robert Peston delivered the Richard Dunne lecture at machine gun pace, calling for a new form of “total journalism” combining television, radio, print, online and audience response blogs. This “seamless digital news market” makes existing cross media ownership rules obsolete. Why not allow ITN and the Daily Telegraph to merge, asked Peston. He declared an unregulated, digital news market to be essential to democracy. Keen-eyed observers might have asked: “Didn’t James Murdoch say the same thing the evening before and come on the sharp end of Peston’s tongue for so doing?”
Ashely Highfield, with a background both in broadband and at the BBC and now with Microsoft, began the Futureview address with a film from 1960 predicting what the 1990s would look like. The GPO Telephones film unit did actually get some things right, supporting his point that we can often see the future of technology. It can be seen with binoculars, said Highfield, because of the “long nose” — the ten year window from conception to the mass market arrival of technologies.
What parts of the future have arrived then? He told us that online catch up television already has a larger audience share than channel Five and that there are now more PCs than TVs in the UK. Google’s advertising revenue now equals that of broadcast television and online video is quickly becoming economic for advertisers. He suggested that television is now where print was in 2003 and has no choice but to embrace “internet thinking” and re-invent itself by 2012. Television he said, must become social and take advantage of the opportunities offered by targeted advertising.
At a separate session devoted to monetization, Peter Bazalgette advised his former television colleagues to “go with the flow” and search for lots of digital pence rather than disappearing analogue dollars. We have to embrace the consumer, engage the medium and move from making product to providing service. While knowledge and insight were clearly on display, it was still hard at times to get beyond such platitudes.
Last year’s session on video on demand heard that Kangaroo will have a 40% share in five years. This year we were reminded of its sad demise. Last year the Sunday morning faithful heard there was no need for channels in the VOD world. This year things have moved on a bit and the brave new world has viewing figures. There were numbers and graphs to show that channel brands were still important in the maturing on demand world. Perhaps the disjunction between the old world and the new is not as great as some would imagine. Both need each other more than they might think.
The message from Edinburgh: use the long nose to sniff out the future, embrace the audience, commission for the long tail. Sounds like a cuddly aardvark.
Professor Brent MacGregor is Vice Principal of the Edinburgh College of Art and is a former BBC producer.