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In broadcasting, the future is not what it used to be

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 12:12 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

In 2005, most predictions suggested up to half of TV viewing would be time-shifted.  We thought user-generated-content would be well on its way to becoming a mainstream substitute for traditional media. 

Broadcasters, search companies, mobile phone companies, ISPs– all felt as if they were about to meet in a new converging middle.

Broadcasters were to be assaulted from all angles – the internet, tech start-ups; digital television and citizen journalists.

So far at least things haven’t turned out that way. Time shifting, user generated content and convergence remain fundamental trends, but none have developed along the lines the industry predicted.

Today asynchronous viewing accounts for as little as 10% of total TV viewing. It might grow to little more than 15% by 2016. These are highly significant shifts – but not the bloody revolution and the death of spot advertising many predicted. 

The obstinate fact almost no one foresaw is that television consumption as a whole has grown in this country and, at least for the present, continues to grow.

So was talk of a seismic shift wrong?  Well, gradualist change doesn’t feel quite right either. 

Another way in which our 2005 prediction fell short is in what it left out.  Smart phones and the world of the app store. The power of social media.  

In 2005 we wanted to launch a seven-day BBC catch-up service available on as many devices as possible.  But we didn’t know what those devices would be, and certainly not just how many people would watch the iPlayer not just in the home, but in bed, on a mobile smart phone or tablet. 

The dictum – that we tend to overestimate change over the next couple of years and underestimate it over the next ten – feels like good advice. Look at the behaviour of younger viewers – there’s reason to believe that we may see a period of evolution followed by revolution.

Different kinds of TV are advancing at different speeds. News and information is our advance party, because we expect it to be available in real time wherever, whenever and on whatever device is most convenient. 

Many new sources and modes of absorbing news are weakening the business models for newsgathering and the scheduling of traditional news bulletins just as they are with newspapers. It’s possible to counter these trends and it helps if, like the BBC, you already have a tradition of offering news across multiple platforms – but you have to work much harder.

In the UK we have maintained our reach and internationally have extended it because we generally do not rely on single platforms. Broadcasters can now only hope to have a significant impact with news if they are offering it on television, the web, radio and mobile. This is why in recent years we have launched BBC Arabic and Persian TV channels in addition to our radio and web services.  It is also why the BBC will never retreat from delivering news online.

But in entertainment, the principle reason why people turn to TV, it’s a very different story. Predictions of passive consumption giving way to active participation now look not just premature but wrong.  Instead, the main impact of the new technologies has been to extend choice. 

There continues to be rapid innovation in the passive TV experience. Far from atomising into a series of individuals watching different things in different rooms, family viewing is alive and well and event television, from X Factor to Doctor Who is as big or bigger as ever.

The evidence of the past five years is that television as a social glue remains very sticky indeed, particularly when it comes to big entertainment formats or national events.

But when time-shifting is easy and intuitive and available on the device you happen to have in front of you right now, people use it. 

In January, the BBC iPlayer hit a new all-time peak of 162 million programme requests, an average of more than six per household. The greatest growth is now on iPads, iPhones, other smart phones and games consoles.

BBC iPlayer worked from day one it was so behaviourally straightforward – no log in, no client to download, you just clicked on a picture of a TV programme and it played.

As an industry we have given too little attention to TV on mobile devices. I believe there’s a strong case for the UK’s broadcasters, mobile phone operators, Ofcom and Government to come together to develop a roadmap for mobile TV in this country. 

The remarkable persistence of linear TV consumption should not make us complacent.  We don’t yet know whether even younger people growing up in a completely digital world will follow the same pattern. Or, whether there will be a permanent shift downwards in consumption.

The BBC’s response to the first digital wave was to broaden the choice it offered on TV and radio by developing wider channel portfolios while also establishing a strong presence – centred on its long range historic strength in news – on the web and other digital devices. As a result, we have maintained our reach across audiences. Average consumption of the BBC is actually growing. Quality and approval measures have also increased over the past five years.

The challenge for us now is to concentrate on the quality, value and memorability of our content, not just in television but across our services. 

Science on BBC One with Bang Goes The Theory, last week’s Newsnight Special on Libya, the Proms which last year reached eighteen million people in the UK on BBC Television over the season. That’s our direction of travel.

For eighty years, we’ve been heavily involved in developing platforms and broadcast technologies.  We still need to do that – not least because we are the only big player prepared to share our innovations and technology with the industry at large.  But we never forget that platforms and devices are a means to an end – and the end is putting outstanding, worthwhile content in front of the public.

This is a summary of the speech I gave this morning at the FT Digital Media and Broadcasting Conference. Read the full transcript here. 

Mark Thompson is Director-General of the BBC


  • Comment number 1.

    Your statement BBC iPlayer worked from day one it was so behaviourally straightforward – no log in, no client to download, you just clicked on a picture of a TV programme and it played. Was true then but sadly less so now

  • Comment number 2.

    As someone who worked on the edges of broadcast television (never for / at BBC) I was always confused by the amount of rubbish being peddled at trade shows over the last ten to fifteen years in the name of "convergence".

    It was always imminent, the future and an opportunity to maximise your assets but mostly all I could see were salesmen desperate to find a use for technology.

    You are quite correct that The remarkable persistence of linear TV consumption should not make us complacent but that complacency must not be seen in the blind wonder at new delivery (and added content opportunities) when in fact most people will continue to want to just flop in front of their receiving device and watch what appears in front of them. They can then talk about this the next day.

    Event TV lives! Spend the money on this and you keep your audience.

    Spend too much encouraging fragmentation of audiences and you lose the reason to exist.

  • Comment number 3.

    Could Mr Thompson's PA let us know if he ever reads comments.

    (Also, when his contract is ending could I apply for the job? I'll ask for a little less remuneration.)

  • Comment number 4.

    Has BBC HYS been shut down?

  • Comment number 5.

    You keep going on about quality,surely morality should be your watch word.

  • Comment number 6.

    Mac, whose quality and morality?

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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