Project Timeline 2005–2010

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Technology and Audio-visual Media

Introduction

Listening to Trevor Barr and Mark Pesce provided a useful reminder that when we talk about the future of television, we are covering (inter alia) two separate but related issues: technology and content.

Trevor Barr’s presentation mapped the path of regulation up to the present and canvassed options for the delivery of “high-speed” broadband via cable including an open access model (G9) and the current Telstra model. He also explored content and technology in the Kenniswijk model in Holland and the Lyse Norway model of localising distribution. Mark Pesce concentrated on the burgeoning opportunities which exist for content makers in a high-speed, broadband-enabled world: opportunities extending far beyond the current confines of fta television and using the full potential of alternative delivery systems from BitTorrent to Meraki Meshes.

One of my takeaways from an invaluable day is that there was at least one key uncertainty, central to our scenarios, that is common to both the technology and the content issues : the question of access to high-speed broadband systems and how that access regime may allow or deny to ordinary citizens a global opportunity to develop their rich creative potential. What will be the primary national delivery system and at what speed; who will control it; what content-makers will have ready and affordable (or free) access to it; what will the content be and how can citizen’s be guaranteed space to effect new forms of content, freed from the old controls? Alongside these questions is the question of who makes these decisions and on what basis!

Telstra says it will build a high-speed service but only on access terms acceptable to them. An opposing proposal from the G9 consortium (AAPT, Internode Systems, iiNet, Macquarie Telecom, Optus, PowerTel, Primus Telecom, Soul and TransACT) offers an “open access” service. The realities (including power, speed etc)of these and any other potential proposals will be tested when the new ALP Government calls for tenders shortly.

Why does it matter? It matters because an extraordinary range of activities and content endeavours is becoming available to the majority of internet users. There is the potential, for the first time, to alter the balance of power in audio-visual media. It would be a tragedy if the balance were to be tipped back to the traditional power-holders.

Technology

The technology of television is what has made it, so far, the most powerful medium in the world: it has gained centre-place in households globally. Passive, one-way, free-to-air analogue technology distributed terrestrially and by satellite, it has delivered an extraordinary range of impacts from political to personal: from upending national regimes to building national languages and conversations. Analogue transmission is a massive user of spectrum, meaning that in most countries “ownership” of television airwaves has been held by a very few, very powerful organisations (nationally, not globally). Community television exists in most capitals in Australia but it is an expensive system to serve and not one which allows any real personal or highly niche entrants.

Just as free-to-air Television has amassed audiences, it has confined the skills necessary to feed it into a limited number of privileged production specialists in any one country. Individuals rarely get a look in!

With the introduction of digital production, distribution and exhibition that model is being superseded, bringing considerable turmoil as well to the advertising system which has traditionally sustained the majority of FTA television. The threat, of course, comes from a combination of digital television and the internet (separately or as IPTV): interactive, on-demand, personalise-able and infinitely malleable. Vitally it also uses far less spectrum per distribution “channel” , meaning more channels for your buck.

How real is that change right now, let alone in ten years time? IBM recently released a paper titled “The end of advertising as we know it” based on a global survey of consumers and advertising experts. It concludes:

The global findings overwhelmingly suggest personal Internet time rivals TV time. Among consumer respondents, 19 percent stated spending six hours or more per day on personal Internet usage, versus nine percent of respondents who reported the same levels of TV viewing. 66 percent reported viewing between one to four hours of TV per day, versus 60 percent who reported the same levels of personal Internet usage”. (“The end of Advertising as we know it.

– IBM; Authors Saul Berman, Bill Battino, Louisa Shipnuck, Andreas Neus)

The individual is certainly getting a look in right now. Television has built its formidable domestic presence because technologically it was all that was widely available for sixty years. It should be no surprise, then, that new technologies should be taken up very widely as they become available.

Content

The content of Television has been structured, formatted and scheduled in a manner intended to maximise the audience for a single channel in intense competition with a comparatively small number of other channels. Audiences have had little choice other than to watch or record at the time of transmission. Formats were designed to intensify experience but without using up too much of the limited time that is available for attracting large audiences: particularly so in the case of primetime viewing. Dramas and documentaries have been limited to under-30 minutes or between50 and 55 minutes viewing, news and daily current affairs limited to under 30 minutes of highly formatted content; children’s programs parked judiciously well outside primetime and limited in duration; sports timed and often reshaped to fit schedule slots; information programs reformatted as infotainment and so on.

Though there is nothing “natural” in those limitations, they have formed the shape of the TV viewing experience to date and carry with them a global industry ( supported by advertising, subscription or government intervention) which has established not only a very successful revenue base but has also provided a vital underpinning to many national film industries.

The development of digital technology for audio-visual media has the potential to free up these artificial limitations. It also makes room not only for VoD, multitasking etc but for the reconfiguration of content, the precise targeting of delivery and, vitally, for people to communicate in real time as their preferred content plays in or out.

Access

Access impacts content because it drives the democratisation of the web. This is the first mass technology shift that has offered such an opportunity and the door will not remain open for very long. This shift makes it doubly manifest what an appalling decision the Coalition Government made in privatising Telstra. The capacity to insist on a range of obligations and public opportunities has gone. And this for the most powerful communications media ever conceived. The truth is that there has been no visionary leadership in digital communications in this country for the last 5 years and more. Instead of nation-building and considered national strategy, Australians will now witness an unlovely scramble to grasp “ownership” of the communications of the future.

Traditionally any public media potential has been taken up sooner or later by a small number of private interests. How likely is broadband to escape this historical reality and particularly given that the deployment of BB is so tightly connected to economic growth in the 21st century?

It is inconceivable that the battle to control this spectrum will not be hard fought by a range of traditional and new players. The new players will be the interesting ones because they will represent the full forces of corporate Australia (and elsewhere) to whom broadband offers far more than audio-visual media. To the broadband offers significant economic benefits. In Australia alone the ALP’s policy paper of March 2007 concluded that digital technology has the potential to deliver up to $30 billion in additional economic activity every year.

– ALP: New Directions for Communications March 2007.

Here are two views of the importance of digital technology to economies globally. They give some degree of landscape to the battlefields on which spectrum-control battles will take place.

Few would dispute that information and communications technologies can effectively “prime the pump” of a nation’s economy. Efficient and effective information age infrastructures enhance productivity and provide a comparative advantage in “knowledge- based” industries that include such diverse fields as data processing, banking, insurance, management and technical consulting, travel planning, customer relations management, business logistics, etc. With an increasingly global economy enhanced by reduced trade barriers and the quest by companies to find new growth opportunities, substantial incentives exist for public and private players to leverage information and communication technologies domestically and abroad.

– Best Practices in Broadband: Lessons from Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States p.1. Rob Frieden Professor of Telecommunications Penn State University 102 Carnegie Building University Park, Pennsylvania USA 16802.

To compare to previous new technologies, it is important to note that ICT appears to be an important transformational technology today. OECD Growth Study suggested that governments have to ensure they have the policies in place to seize the benefits of ICT, as well as limit any negative effects. As with any technology that is based on networks — and the Internet is that – - the more people that use it, the more benefits it generates. Encouraging the use of ICT, by increasing usage to bring down costs and by building confidence, should therefore be an important policy aim. It is also important to recall that the development of ICT partly resulted from policy efforts in some OECD countries to create a more innovative economy. Governments should help to build an environment that is both conducive to innovation and adaptable to future technological breakthroughs.

– OECD/IPS “Towards a Knowledge-Based Economy. November 2002 p.5.

Those comments indicate the scale of the competition for control of and space in the web of the future. Media uses will form a minority and will not necessarily be the driving force for the Net or the Web of the future. Add to them the burgeoning need for forms of governance (including regulation, IP protection, privacy, etc) and it is clear that the rights or desires of the individual are going to be well down on the pecking order.

Protecting access to new media

This, then, is a significant issue for our scenarios. Massive businesses will bring forces to bear to control access to the internet and those who wish for a liberal regime will have to form significant and noisy alliances to ensure that they are not left out. My own view is that a combination of the democratic power of broadband, allied to a philosophy of “community management” is a natural forward path for Public Broadcasting. It would take the notion of PB to its most natural extension: the public having the voice and the delivery within a global media community.

Ironically, those seeking ongoing democratisation will have to organise and regulate themselves in some ways in any case. They will need to devise effective ways of protecting IP so that individuals may receive benefits for sharing their ideas. And they will need to focus on some effective ways of providing financial stimulus for some to do so on a lifelong and “professional” basis. Not every kind of content currently available can be replaced by the wisdom of the crowd. And the tragedy of the media commons (manifested for example by piracy) is a very real prospect, already signalled in the debate surrounding net neutrality. Supporters of the democratic web will need to demonstrate to hard-headed traditionalists that their way offers real benefits.

It won’t be easy, and the takeover of some of the key social sites by major media interests makes it obvious why. But the notion of Public Broadcasting has wide currency and is already accepted as a financial and social benefit. It is also a “loose” concept, capable of wearing many faces and is thus adaptable to the future in the way that other organisations are not.