The Free Communications Group and the Death of Broadcasting


“Broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters”. So said Tony Benn, Member of Parliament, to constituents in 1968. That same year, the Free Communications Group (FCG) was founded to demand “democratic control of all media”.

BT Tower Paolo Margari http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image%253ABT_tower_in_central_london.jpg

Lets skip the next forty years’ analysis of broadcasting motives and actions that so preoccupied these politicians, broadcasters and journalists. In 2008, convergence has emerged as a force of nature, irrevocably changing “broadcasting” globally, and the FCG might just be smiling if it still existed.

I put “broadcasting” in quote marks because I decided, as chair, to start last Thursday’s Convergence Conversation, titled “Is broadcasting dead or merely taking a break?“, by seeking to define broadcasting.  Not as trivial a task as it sounds, rather a critical task if the 65 conversationists who attended the event hosted by BT Media at BT Tower were going to reach a conclusion.

The meaning of broadcast

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “broadcast” as “transmit by radio or television”, and “tell to many people”. And for American English speakers Merriam-Webster offers “to make widely known” and “to transmit or make public by means of radio or television”.

So the same word applies to both the technology employed and the end result; the “radio or television” transmission, and the one-to-many communication achieved. I guess this attribution of dual meaning is to be expected given that “radio or television” technology was the only way to communicate one-to-many for almost the entire twentieth century. This technology consisted RF transmission from the 1920s and cable from the 1940s.

The broadcast industry supply chain

This isn’t an academic paper, so we can simplify the (commercial) broadcast industry supply chain as one that aggregates audiences with content that informs, entertains and educates so that they can also be hit with adverts. The advertising revenue should cover all costs with a bit left over; the profit. So the chain goes something like:

1. Produce or commission great content
2. Estimate how many people will watch it
3. Sell ads to go alongside the content
4. Transmit the content and ads
5. Grow the audience and repeat

The disruption of the broadcast industry

Convergence has wrought huge change on the broadcasting industry.

Traditional broadcasting technologies are no longer the sole means of achieving one-to-many communication, and they struggle with any form of many-to-many communication. Mobile and Internet protocol based technologies are the new contenders.

The broadcasters’ revenues pivot almost entirely on marketing directors’ willingness to pay to advertise on TV and radio.  Yet new technology allows viewers to skip broadcast ads and has created competing new opportunities (eg, the Web and mobile) for marketers to reach out to their target audience. In other words, new channels are purported to offer comparatively more effective and more measurable marketing outreach, so there is fierce competition for the marketing budget that has underpinned the broadcasting industry to date.

Will broadcasters survive?

As for all dynamic systems, the answer to this question hinges on the relative rate of change of the core characteristics and parameters in the mix. To reduce it to the simplest form:

If the rate at which advertising spend is diverted away from traditional commercial broadcasting exceeds the rate at which traditional broadcasters can adapt and capture some of the new kinds of marketing spend, they’re dead (or require some serious bridging capital).

The adaptation required can be considered to fall into two camps. Firstly, there’s the “OMG! We better get monetising the new channels quickly!”; and secondly, there’s the “What can we do the new channels can’t do, and how can we leverage this differentiation?”

The first of these, getting into the new channels quickly, is exemplified by traditional broadcasters’ uptake of new technology and media.  The award winning bbc.co.uk and iPlayer.  Time Warner’s award winning cnn.com.  BSkyB’s Sky+ box.

And Jon Mobbs, BT Media Head of Strategy, clearly articulated at our event when traditional broadcasting wins hands down. No other technology is as efficient at reaching hundreds of thousands of people as traditional broadcasting. No other technology is as adept at covering live events. And none of the new technologies can yet warrant the same quality of service.

Fragmentation

It appears very unlikely now that any broadcaster from the twentieth century can thrive unevolved. Moreover, no one organisation can own the entire supply chain. They may offer services throughout the supply chain, but the chain fragments, shifts platform, shifts place and gets mashed-up.

In my recent ebook, “The Social Web Analytics eBook 2008“, I refer to a future we labelled in 2005 myChannel

The user (aka the recipient of news and information, the listener, the viewer, the inter-actor) has been empowered to set the schedule. It’s what they want, when they want it and how they want it. Video on demand. Personal video recorders (PVR). Newsfeeds (RSS). Alerts. Lifestreaming. Podcasts. Web radio. Mobile TV.

To all intents and purposes, we’re just a short hop away from everyone having their own customised channel, a channel tailored uniquely from your own subscriptions, your friends’ subscriptions and recommendations, and automated “if you like that, you’ll like this” discovery.

Given that broadcasters’ revenues lay in the hands of marketing directors, it’s worth understanding what myChannel means to them:

Considerably more fragmentation of the target audience of communications campaigns
Less precise timing of delivery
Increased opportunity to provide niche information
Less certainty of how each recipient is receiving the information
Greater opportunity for innovation in inviting and securing interaction
The need for new mechanisms for gauging campaign success.

The broadcaster as brand

Attempting now to leap swiftly from analysis to synthesis, it appears there may be an ever increasing emphasis on broadcasters’ abilities to transmute into lifestyle brands.

They need to pick their fight (the parts of the supply chain they wish to excel at) and their audience (who’s going to buy into their brand). Both the supply chain and the audience are too diverse and too complex for a broadcaster to try to be all things to all people, and too noisy not to aspire to reaping the benefits of lifestyle branding.

What tech?

And, if this isn’t sitting on the fence, the right broadcasting technology will simply be defined as the right one at the right time.

Live Earth concert = traditional broadcasting tech. Live Earth’s ongoing SOS campaign = Web and mobile.

First airing of Lost = traditional broadcasting tech. Subsequent episode sales and associated community engagement = traditional, Web and mobile.

Democratisation

According to the Free Communications Group, “newspaper, television and radio should be under the control of all people who produce them.”

Whilst this point of view was asserted in the 1960s to eradicate Government politicking of the BBC, the assertion repeated in 2008 takes on new meaning and fresh energy. The viewer has always been able to vote with the off button, or by switching channels. Now they can engage in programming, vote for winners of talent shows, develop and vote for plot ideas, and even create and publish their own content.

In conclusion, broadcasters must be adaptable and nimble. They must develop compelling content and services, create enticing opportunties for engagement, and adopt the right channels at the right time. No small task, but as the next Desperate Housewives or X-Factor won’t be user-generated content (a small matter of budget), there’s plenty of opportunity for today’s broadcasters to thrive tomorrow.

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Sources

History of British Broadcasting, Asa Briggs, Oxford University Press, 1995, p787, ISBN:019215964X

http://www.bennites.com

The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, review of Des Freedom’s book “Labour & Television Policy
http://www.cpbf.org.uk/body.php?subject=gov&id=584

News from nowhere? A review of Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom–Volume Five: Competition 1955-1974“, Issue 68 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1995

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadcast

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cable_television

Photograph by Paolo Margari.

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