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Industry Forum 2: ‘5 Drivers’ Workshop

Venue: 7.Nov.07 – Citigate Hotel

Summary: (Ross Gibson)

Sincere thanks for the generous and rigorous way everyone has contributed to the research we are all doing together on the future of television. Here in the university world, we count it a privilege to be working with this team of knowledgeable and influential people at this time when so many changes, challenges and opportunities are looming.

The workshop on November 7 was extremely useful. Building on our initial October 24 symposium, the November 7 session was designed to give us fine-grained understanding of the five ‘drivers’ that we have identified as fundamental to the present and future of televsion: People, Content, Governance, Funding, Technology. We are working from the premise that a combination of these five drivers is inevitably at play in any narrative that we might want to tell about television – past, present or future. By buffeting these certainties with five ‘bomb’ questions on November 7, we were striving to understand the drivers as thoroughly as possible. With the results of the November 7 workshop, we are now able to design what we need for the next phase: a set of detailed scenarios that will function as prompt stories from each of the participants.

These detailed prompt-scenarios will be developed by the academic team during the next month or so. They will then be brought to each of you individually. In a short, one-on-one session, we will elicit from you a profusion of quick, sharp stories that you will tell in response to each scenario. Once we have collected all the mini-stories (gathered from everyone, likely to be in excess of one hundred tales), we will analyse the patterns in them, and from that analysis we will develop a small set of three to five extensive, exemplary narratives. These exemplary narratives will not be predictions so much as models of possible action and reaction — ways to help us all think in a responsive and improvisatory manner as the present rolls into the future.

So, you can see how we’re working toward a situation where we will have: (i) a thorough understanding the drivers (ii) a set of rich, adjustable scenarios (or story-settings) out of which we can spin many quick mini-narratives: (iii) a large number of short narratives that show how we might act and react in a range of different situations that have been formed from our detailed knowledge of the drivers (iv) a carefully composed set of larger narratives that take account of all the savviness contained in the profusion of mini-narratives and (v) a shared ability to narrate (or model possible actions) more nimbly in response to better-identified contingencies affecting television now and in the future.

The report you’re reading right now delivers on (i) and sets us up for (ii) and (iii). Stand by for further developments in the near future!

Report

Participants:

Room Layout:

[image here]

(Press-button microphones in front of each participant)

The Drivers and the Provocations.

1. People (summation by Ross Gibson).

Complete video on demand has arrived. A profusion of content is available from everywhere and from every period of history, without any obligation on the viewer to obey a pre-determined time-schedule. What does this do to our understanding of the people who engage with television?

It was observed that television professionals have long thought of people as ‘the audience’, a singular, ever-present, homogenous mass. But with people able to demand ‘what they want when they want it’, ‘the audience’ has atomised into several shifting groups or tribes. Indeed any one person might be part of several groups at any time, or they may morph from group to group throughout the day or week.

People are ‘herding’ into groups, partly through the urge to unite for live or topical events (which conventional television still does well), but also through online practices, sharing attributes and recommendations and files, clustering around special interests and sentiments.

People have developed a sophistication in the way they pick and choose and assemble identities and interests and content-sets for themselves, particularly now that so many ‘niche’ interests are available online or through Amazon or downloads etc. The fact that so much archived content is now available on demand means that the deliverers and makers and providers of content have to work constantly to attract and retain people who are now used to constantly moving, browsing and gathering according to their own desires.

Along with this choosiness and sophistication, people are tending to offer loyalty to ‘brands’ that work to find out what the people want and that make strenuous efforts to satisfy peoples’ desires. (Eg Google, Apple.) Because television is presently failing in this mission, ‘the audience’ is no longer a given, no longer predictably present or compliant. The audience has fragmented into highly mobile communities that are mixing and matching their media experiences. If television is to adapt/evolve and survive, it may need to re-define itself around these mobile groupings of people; television may need to regard itself not as a broadcaster or content-pusher, but as a ‘means by which audiences or groupings of engaged participants can be aggregated’.

2. Content (summation by Ben Goldsmith)

What happens if the law of the market completely prevails to the extent that there is nothing on television except sport, porn and gambling? Is it a given that consumers are king in this entirely profit-margined way?

Drawing on their industry experience, participants confidently pursued answers to some complex questions which perhaps unavoidably spilled over into the area of funding in particular, although the question of market failure remained thorny. As in other areas under discussion, there was not a lot of time to engage in any kind of ‘backcasting’ to ask how we might have reached this point, although there was a clear general unease about allowing consumerism to run unchecked.

Participants suggested that ‘games’ should be added to that list if base market forces were to be the sole determinants of content. However, we did not pursue further discussion of games or gaming as an area of content development or consumption. i.e. their live/interactive forms, (eg. Sport, multi-player games, gambling) as audience aggregators.

The changing dynamics of ‘tribalism’, were discussed — the idea that people define themselves more by the content they like and that tribes will form across geographic and other boundaries around what is ‘cool and interesting’. The emerging area of ‘sentiment analysis’ was raised as a means for content creators or audience/tribal analysts to track audience/tribal preferences, but there was general agreement that audiences are not very good predictors of what they will like and that better prediction modelling needed to be developed.

This then led into a discussion of the power/desire of the content creator to produce certain types of content without the security of guaranteed remuneration or the expectation that content would be embraced by audience. This relates to the idea of ‘loss-leading content’ which contrasted to an earlier proposition and discussion and apparent general agreement that high-quality, high production value, expensive to make content will diminish. It was clear that there remained considerable uncertainty about funding of content, which fed into debate in the next part of the forum.

The point was then made that while television executives might be keen to innovate, this desire was frustrated by CEOs and MDs of networks whose focus on profitability and other priorities (eg. Gambling in the case of PBL/Channel 9) means that conventional television will contract to ‘safe havens’ – tried and true programming.

There was also informed and highly informative discussion of the place of advertisers, of their ‘richer and deeper’ involvement in content production through, for eg., branded content, which entails a fundamental shift in the politics around content creation. The question was then raised: will content follow dollars and consumers, or the other way around, with in either case the likelihood of substantial ‘market failure’ in the middle. The optimistic response to this was the suggestion that public service broadcasting might provide the space for innovation, although the point was also made that if consumerism ran rampant (as the challenge suggested) then arguments for protected funding for PSBs or regulations for local content production would be harder to sustain.

3. Topic- Governance and Industry Constraints (Summation by Annmarie Chandler)

Television regulators picked up on the model of the oil industry in Venezuela and Russia: government has said to the transnational corporations, “Bugger off. We are now nationalising the resource. Every activity and transaction in television in this country is now regulated and we are taking revenue from it.” i.e. open slather market forces haven’t prevailed. Instead, nationalist re-regulation has come storming back and spectrum is a rare and controlled commodity again.

Some of the key messages included:

Areas we could further investigate that might promote extreme forms of government regulation and control include piracy, crime and the anti social use of digital networks and content.

4. Funding (Summation by Philip Bell)

Advertising has ceased to be the economic driver of the majority of television (no matter what the reason) — who is going to pay for programming? How?

The provocation that imagined ‘television’ without any paid advertising proved difficult for many participants to respond to. ‘Free-to-air’ television was acknowledged to be in decline. It may well disappear in its current form. But it was hard to envisage how the $3.5 billion that now funds ‘television’ would be found to support local distribution, let alone local production.

Participants proposed various ways by which content could be paid for, although most of these assumed the persistence of advertising in some sense of the term, even allowing for the disappearance of the 30-second TVC.

Content might be created by corporate commercial interests, and ‘owned’ by these brands. Advertising would then infiltrate content in a process that is not very different from current sponsorship.

Interactive (game-like) commercial relationships could be designed, with advertising ‘called up’ so to speak. Exactly how advertising would be linked to program content, however, is difficult to specify on this model.

Sponsors/advertisers might ‘own’ spaces, sites, arenas of a-v cultural activity. How minority interests would be catered for here is a problem, of course, unless ‘public’ television continued in some form (a point raised again later in discussion).

Participants questioned the role of advertising in children’s programming and in feature films and other on-demand content. Here TVCs would be irrelevant and possibly counter-productive. However, it was pointed out that advertising remains important in US Pay TV.

Generally, advertising (and its various successors) needed to be understood in relation to how content could be accessed, used, and enjoyed. The model of music down-loads with voluntary (or at least discretionary) tariffs, raised new possibilities. Micro-billing (a term not used by participants) for content used, whether at voluntary or prescribed levels, was envisaged. However, the idealistic scenario of Radiohead’s recent release was greeted sceptically.

Trevor Barr pointed out that significant minorities could not afford to pay for content, and Broadband access was essential regardless of funding arrangements. Connectivity, equity issues, public access, etc., meant funding could not be entirely private, i.e. advertising/sponsorship based. Licence fees (with mandated content production conditions) were mentioned.

Underpinning (or undermining) the funding possibilities discussed would be govt. policies. For how long would ‘public’ media continue to operate as convergence/divergence gained pace?

5. Technology (Summation by Ross Gibson)

Imagine that television become COMPLETELY connected, to the extent that television is actually a network of appliances connected to content caches, social communities, commercial providers and services. What are the repercussions of such networked connectivity, how is completely connected television significantly different from the broadcast model

The ‘piece of furniture in the corner of the living-room’ is just one of several TV appliances or mechanisms for encountering sounds and images throughout the day. This new array of technologies, broadly understood together as ‘television’, can give people access to world in new ways. (Technology, after all, is a ’means of gaining advantage on the world’.) Television has become a set of various technologies for receiving and sending sounds and images. This newly configured array of technology can enhance peoples’ ‘purchase’ on the world. Television is becoming an investigative and a communictive technology as well as a receptive one.

With this array of technologies giving people such flexibility, mobility and opportunity, television workers may become ‘community managers’ in addition to or rather than being content makers or providers. This is especially striking, already, in the games industry and its many ancillary communities.

The existence of so many different types of devices encourages an array of types of audio-visual content. This gives rise to niche content making, at niche budget-scales and with niche production-values, rather than one-size-fits-all ‘industry standard’.

Conclusion

The next stage of the project is now imminent. Having canvassed each others views and having analysed what seem to be the key drivers and principles pertaining to television now and in the near future, we will begin to ‘worry away’ at some uncertainties in order to force ourselves into modelling some challenging storylines. In doing so, we will goad ourselves into questioning some presumptions whilst also entertaining some ‘lateral’ or ‘blindsiding’ possibilities, thereby increasing our readiness to act and react nimbly and creatively as change keeps inking in surprising directions.