In the first of a two-part series, Broadcast’s panel of experts discuss the impact of the digital revolution and how the industry is responding. Suzy Bashford reports.

ROUNDTABLE: Digital

Ahead of the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Broadcast pulled together an illustrious panel of experts spanning the broadcasting, newspaper, advertising and IT industries to debate the big issues currently facing the media sector.

In this, the first instalment of a two-part feature, the panel tackle the challenges that the advent of digital in all its guises brings to their businesses and how they are restructuring to meet them. And they don’t always agree - especially when it comes to the thorny issue of money.

Commercial opportunities

Is the industry embracing the content and commercial opportunities that digital presents?

Johnny Webb: The bind we’re in is that our business has fundamentally changed from a long-tail business to focusing on five or six massive hits. As an industry, we’re trying to develop all this digital content, but it’s hard to know where to focus our energy.

I can’t help thinking that a lot of the digital content around the programmes that do take off looks like it has been rushed out at the last minute.

Matt Locke: In particular, games have been a blind spot in the TV industry. Games are going to become a really signifi cant part of the media and cultural landscape in future. But gamers display the kind of patterns of attention that we just don’t understand. We need to, though. After all, we’re talking about the same TV audiences here and games are still doing what TV has always done: telling stories using the screen. However, the industry hasn’t looked at gaming as a commercial or creative opportunity, which is a huge error.

Industry Challenges

What are the biggest challenges the broadcast industry faces?

Nancy Cruickshank: We tend to focus on the content challenges but, in my opinion, the biggest challenge is that we haven’t figured out how to package and present the content on all these platforms. That’s a massive issue that we need to have on the table.

Take my industry - the newspaper business. If you read one of our papers every day, by the end of the week you will be informed about anything from Iraq to Marilyn Manson to Cheryl Cole.

But if you go to our websites, you’ll find five times the amount of content there. You’ll have a really hard job on your hands to find the latest 600 stories.

What we’re not doing is that seren dipitous, curator role that we should take on as content creators.

Simon Nelson: I couldn’t agree more. It’s natural to get really excited about the content, and it is true that there’s huge creative potential, but we also need to be excited about the more boring things: the distribution; the presentation; the discovery of content.

Debby Lee: This all comes back to the fact that the road map should start at the commissioning stage, because that’s where we decide the ‘bolt-ons’. At the moment, the experiences off-air and on-air are not merging effectively because we don’t road-map them.

There are so many different parties involved, particularly in advertiser funded programming: media agencies, creative agencies, the broadcaster, the production company.

However, there’s only a ‘call to action’ to them all when there’s a hit. If we really believe in the content, then this road map should be set at the beginning - at the commissioning stage.

So how are you restructuring your businesses to better meet these challenges?

NC: We’ve integrated our content creation teams. It’s been quite a painful process. So, for instance, the person who heads up our sports coverage, who traditionally would have been focused only on the newspapers, is now responsible for all [sports] content. That means our editors become 360 degree commissioners and it gets away from digital being a ‘bolt-on’.

What we’ve become brilliant at is publishing content that could easily sit in a print newspaper, across multiple platforms. My obsession is always thinking about ‘intent’. You have to know your customers’ intent in different environments.

SN: All aspects of the business need to transform, not just commissioning. It’s also about scheduling, marketing, finance, production, rights and so on.

We need to transform the core production-based commissioning process because that’s the only way that an organisation like the BBC is really going to change in the way it needs to.

ML: We’ve just got rid of our ‘new media’ department.

Jon Davenport: That’s a really good move. Startlingly few products start online and then expand to other platforms but that should be just as viable.

NC: Yes, I agree. One of the issues around a new media team is that if you’re the digital director then you represent ‘the future’ and, by inference, everyone else is ‘the past’. This just sets you up to fail.

Making use of data

How can the huge amount of data that digital provides on customers be factored in to their experience of broadcast content today?

Adam Freeman: Over the next two to four years, we need to be more revolutionary. At the moment, we put content out there online and hope that audiences like it and gather around it, as opposed to optimising audiences through talking to them by segment.

Tailoring the communication is going to be the absolute future for us and I have this argument with our editorial team all the time. For instance, now, if we break a massive news story, we put it on our home page and ram it down people’s throats. The vast majority ignore it. Surely it would be better to take this important breaking news story to a small audience first, who care passionately about it, who want to be involved in it and who want to spread it themselves? But that requires a completely different mindset and we haven’t cracked that yet.

For me, the same story shouldn’t be on the homepage for everyone. We should be able to know enough about our customers to know whether they will be interested in certain content or not.

NC: I agree. The next year or two is about getting to know our customers better. In the media world, we know very little about them, especially in digital formats, and that’s a disaster.

Online behaviour is so different. If I’m interested in a news story, then I want to know what The Guardian thinks about it, as well as what The Telegraph thinks, and maybe even what The Sun thinks too. So I’m all over the place.

We’ve got to find ways to create value for these customers, and I think that comes back to the issue of packaging and presentation. If we do, then people will tell us more about themselves and we can respond accordingly.

I am spending a lot of time in our newsroom these days trying to effect these sorts of changes, but we need to know more about our customers to do this.

Charlie McGee: Working for an agency, I have clients crying out for useable data on consumers. But I hear you all talk about data and I feel a bit worried. I hear words like “audiences” and that suggests to me that people are listening to you all the time. I’m not so sure they are.

I hear “mass reach”, which is also a bit worrying, as my clients are moving away from carpet-bombing and want more targeted information about the people in this digital environment.

The panel on… Monetisation

Griff Parry: Clearly, these digital experiences work effectively in supporting your core linear broadcast and sustaining your audience’s experience beyond it. But you should be thinking more about how the monetisation works.

I start worrying when some of you talk about moving into new businesses. Matt [Locke], for example, has been talking about his 1066 game [created to support the channel’s factual drama 1066]. Channel 4 is clearly sustaining the attention curve with this game, but it’s also moving into a new business, which isn’t core TV.

Matt Locke: We tell stories. Increasingly, stories are hard to tell in one format. What we’ve done in the past couple of years at Channel 4 Education in particular is ask: where is my audience and how can I reach them?

It does mean going into new areas but we’re trying to reach these audiences, whether that be through an online comic, a game or a mobile app. It’s still the same goal as it always was.

GP The game sounds brilliant in terms of engaging with the story, but are you making money from it?

ML Channel 4 Education didn’t have a commercial remit. But we could make money really easily. There’s no reason why games couldn’t be developed for the iPhone or iPad. Gaming, after all, has a far more mature transaction-based business model than online video content.

We could also sell ads against those games. There are lots of ways to make money with games and what’s really interesting is the length of engagement we get for them. We’re lucky to get viewers’ attention for three to five minutes for an online video but the average game time on 1066 is 23 minutes and there are many repeat plays.

Johnny Webb: There’s also a debate to be had on how pay behaves. In a predominantly ‘free’ world, where does pay start? Our experience is that as we give up control, close our eyes and take a leap to put stuff out for free, it seems to be driving linear audiences across multiple devices.

GP I would have to challenge you on that. I think there is a long list of people who took the leap and seriously regret it, realising later that it wasn’t in the industry’s interests. Hulu is a great example.

Adam Freeman: Our experience is that consumers will pay for functionality and utility, even when they won’t pay for content.

ML I agree. We’re starting to realise that the open web will be a loss-leader and you can’t just put up a pay wall where you want because the costs of switching are virtually zero and the variety is huge. You’ve got to genuinely create additional value and, increasingly, bespoke packages and applications.

Jon Davenport: It’s about functionality too; where we edit and do the hard work for them, that’s what they’ll pay for.

GP I think we should remember that a lot of us in this room can make decisions today that will affect the extent to which TV content is commoditised in future. We should remember we still have a great deal of exclusivity and can create pay propositions, even on the open web where people can jump from browser to browser. I absolutely believe that.

➤ See next week’s issue for part two of the roundtable: where the biggest media opportunities lie

Broadcast Roundtable

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