I was fortunate to sit in on a very lively conference session at IBC last week. Entitled “The Great Connected Television Debate: Will the Internet Be the End of Television as We Know It?,” we the audience were treated to an Oxford-style debate moderated by William Cooper of Informitv with three speakers for and three against the motion. Given the nature of the audience – this was at the International Broadcasting Convention, after all – it will come as no surprise that the team arguing against the Internet carried the day.
For details of each individual speaker’s position I recommend reading William Cooper’s session summary, but in the interim it is worth noting that the traditional television supporters each seemed to be arguing for the continued dominance of a different aspect of the current television experience. For example:
- John Honeycutt, the Chief Operating Officer of Discovery Networks International, argued TV has faced technology challenges before and adapted to each one.
- David Brennan, the Founder of Media Native, said channel brands would become more important, not less, because they help consumers find something to watch.
- Nigel Walley, the Managing Director of Decipher, said consumers want to be freed from choice and traditional channels did just that.
The divergent courses taken by each debater illustrates the complex nature of television as it exists today. Yet what they held in common was their belief that the edifice known as “television” was unassailable and that nothing, not even the Internet, could disrupt it.
Are they right?
John’s argument that technological innovation tends to strengthen television on the face of it looks true. DVR, VoD, and Hulu have clearly helped consumers watch more TV shows. Yet just as clearly it points to the fact that, for a large amount of TV shows, scheduled broadcast delivery is simply not necessary. Isn’t linear broadcasting one aspect of TV that defines the medium? If it isn’t necessary and, over time, is used by fewer consumers, is it still truly “television” that they are watching?
David’s argument that brand is important because it helps consumers find content also appears on the surface to be true. If you want character-led dramas, watch USA. If you want sports, tune to ESPN. But are television brands somehow unique in their ability to define and communicate content types? Of course not. Every web user knows what they’re getting when they head to Funny or Die and Machinima. So brands certainly aren’t unique to or define television.
Finally, Nigel’s argument that traditional programmed channels is the best solution to “couch potato” lean-back passive viewing also seems to have merit. But the idea that viewers will have to stumble through thousands of web links to find what they want to watch is plainly wrong. Online radio services like Pandora and Spotify have proven the web’s unique capacity to develop heavily customized yet hands-off “stations”; The same approach can and will be applied to video watching.
In the end, the Internet will undoubtedly change “television” in several fundamental ways. Major broadcasters such as Discovery are well aware of this and are moving to embrace the new medium. As John Honeycutt told me after the debate was over, Discovery is already using web-based delivery and many other new models in various markets around the world. For the agile broadcaster, it is likely they will carry their successful brand into the Internet world and continue to enjoy success with their viewers. What I question is whether their viewers will still call it “television” 10 years from now. If not, despite the claims of television stalwarts, the Internet will indeed have ended television as we know (or at least as we used to know it).
But that’s enough for this opinion piece. IBC was a long and productive conference, but I think it’s high time I put my feet up and relaxed. I’m off to veg-out and watch the Internet.