Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… TV executives’ concern over changing viewing habits is nothing new. Sports coverage continues to deliver; it’s such thinking that pushed BT to pay almost GBP900m to show some football matches. But it’s not just knowing the score as it happens that has kept audiences from time-shifting. We wrote a piece back in 2011 detailing how the industry was trying to put a renewed focus on live events. Social media have contributed to this; having a constant stream of wry comments on Twitter to snark at while watching Downton Abbey can vastly improve the viewing experience. This is somewhat lost if viewing the show later.
There was a time when live events were much more common on network TV. Back then it was other formats – radio and cinema – that were running scared from the box in the corner. Now it is television that is trying to retain eyeballs; DVRs and OTT rivals are diminishing its sway; the cable industry lost 2.2m subscribes last quarter and Fox COO Chase Carey recently conceded the cable cord was “fraying”. TV viewing in general dropped 4% last quarter, Nielsen reported on Friday. Mobile use in general seems to be the largest culprit (see chart, below). As part of a strategy to keep viewers glued to scheduled, linear TV, NBC has previously screened the live performance of Sound of Music, and recently announced plans for a live rendition of A Few Good Men. Like the latter piece on content, Peter Pan similarly began as a play, and this past week saw its own broadcast, live, on NBC. It was a fine tactic in a broader strategy. Sadly, execution, and timing, are everything. Salon saw much room for improvement. The New Yorker compared it with earlier TV adaptations (NBC did a live version back in 1955) and found it lacking. More damningly, it also saw a broader disconnection from reality, as protests swept the nation in reaction to events unfolding in Ferguson. Viewing figures were half what the network got for Sound of Music. As The Wall Street Journal points out, live events may be losing their pull; both the Emmys and MTV Music Awards saw dips in ratings this year. Meanwhile though, marketers are still willing to pay a premium for advertising during such shows. Brands are said to have paid as much as $400,000 per-30 second commercial for the telecast.
“The nature of the internet as a platform for art is double-edged. The thing that makes it attractive — the fast turnover of content produced by unusual, gifted people — may be what stops it from bringing about a Golden Age 2.0.”
– India Ross, Financial Times
Another tactic in the strategy to retain eyeballs has been to license old seasons of shows still running to OTT providers like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix. On the one hand this may cannibalise viewers who are just as happy watching old episodes as new ones. On the other, it could provide a new platform to find audiences and increase advocacy and engagement. What Nielsen has found is that both are happening. As the WSJ reports, “Dounia Turrill, Nielsen’s senior vice president of client insights, said she analyzed the results of 16 such shows and found an even split of shows that benefited and those that didn’t”. Netflix, meanwhile, closed down its public API and is seeking world domination with culturally diverse content in the form of Marco Polo. Such OTT providers have their own problems to worry about, too; their niche is becoming increasingly cluttered. Vimeo is not mentioned often as a competitor to the likes of Amazon’s services, but it too is now producing original content for streaming, in much the same way as its peers, where shows are greenlit by popular demand and creatives given full rein. An article in this weekend’s Financial Times points out the limits of such a business model, “the internet audience — vehement but fleeting in its interests — may not always know what makes the best content for a more substantial series… returns are unreliable in a marketplace where even established services suffer at the hands of a capricious audience”.
In film, new possibilities arise in the form of ticket-booking innovation. While TV is recycling old ideas of content and engagement, these new tactics look to push the industry onward. This month through January 17, New York’s MOMA hosts a Robert Altman retrospective. One of his seminal films, The Player, shows in some ways how far the film industry has come, and in others how we haven’t moved on at all. The New Yorker wrote a brief feature on the retrospective. It’s insightful enough to quote at length, below:
“In the opening shot of “The Player,” from 1992, Robert Altman makes an explicit attempt to outdo Orson Welles’s famous opening to “Touch of Evil.” He has the camera zoom in and out, track left and right, pan one way and the other, and, before a cut finally comes, pick up with most of the major characters of the film. The scene also situates “The Player”—a movie about a studio created on a Hollywood studio lot—in film history, with passing references to silent film, forties genre work, the sixties, and, finally, the Japanese, who were then moving in on Hollywood, and are seen looking the studio over.
When it came out, “The Player” was regarded as a scorching attack on greedy and unimaginative Hollywood: in the film, the industry’s shining past surrounds the executives at the studio and shames many of them. Twenty years later, the huge profits from big-Hollywood movies—digital fantasies based on comic books and video games—have washed away that shame. The executives in “The Player” have stories pitched to them constantly by writers, and then they say yes or no. They don’t consult the marketing division on what will sell in Bangkok and in Bangalore. The thing that Altman may not have anticipated was that one would be able to look back at the world of “The Player” with something almost like nostalgia.”
Signs of promise, but are reports of TV advertising’s death greatly exaggerated or not?
Near the end of the masterpiece manqué that is “Touch of Evil”, Orson Welles’ character pays a final visit to an old friend, a gypsy played by Marlene Dietrich. Usually a dab hand at fortune telling, the woman looks at the fallen detective dejectedly, and with pity tells him that his time is over, the world has moved on. What with the release of Google TV, as well as the newest incarnation of Apple TV, the industry could certainly said to be volatile. Reuters have an excellent primer on what both behemoth’s machines actually do, here. This will surely only divert eyeballs away from advertising. Why watch a commercial when I can easily watch other media from the Internet before Pop Idol returns from its break, as is possible with Google TV? Why watch broadcast television at all when all the films, music and photos I want are streamed from my computer’s iTunes via Apple TV?
Furthermore, increasing DVR penetration can also do nothing but dent the impact of above-the-line advertising. In an article in Variety by Brian Lowry a few weeks ago, the journalist commented that digital video recorders were now in 38% of US homes. “To which many will doubtless say, ‘Only 38%? But everyone I know has one!'”. As Lowry points out, this delayed and fast-forwarded viewing has led Nielsen to create special designations, such as ‘Live+7’, to allow for the different impact of viewing an ad after its original airtime, as commented on by The New York Times recently. More importantly however, the rise of the DVR – from only 1% penetration less than five years ago – “points to a shift that threatens to hasten the separation of haves from have-nots”. Augmentation of these platforms will, Lowry writes, cause a fracture between those doomed to watch commercials, and those suitably kitted-out to avoid them. In particular, the problem for advertisers, and hence the networks they support, is that those people that own DVRs tend to make up a more desirable part of the population, which 30-second spots will no longer reach.
“[W]eaving messages into programming will become even more of an imperative… Taken to its logical extreme, advertisers peddling big-ticket items will have to think twice about whather 30-second spots are an efficient use of marketing budgets. The companies still relying on TV… will be the ones pushing inexpensive products[.]”
So it would seem the structure of television as we know it is an endangered species, soon to shuffle off the coil. William Gibson once wrote that the future exists already, it’s just not well-distributed. Surely this is the case here, and what we are glimpsing at the fringes with uptake of new platforms for viewing multiple media serving as a looking-glass into what will be the widespread norm in the coming years. Yet despite these new technologies, and the continued rise of all things digital, a front page article in Variety at the beginning of the month noted,
Advertisers appear to be returning to TV again, with automakers, especially, shelling out more coin… In fact, the major broadcast and cable networks were cheered at the start of the summer by a better-than expected upfront advertising sales market.
Indeed, The Economist reported last week that, with the recovery of the ad market, the two clear winners are the Internet, and, yes, television. The article states that at the end of last year spending on British TV was predicted to fall by 0.2%. It is now forecast to grow 11.6%. The previously moribund ITV has seen advertising revenues shoot up by 18% in the first half of this year. And while disruptive technologies may eventually take hold, the fact remains that people are watching more and more TV; 158 hours a month in America, two hours more than last year. Markets less mature that the US or UK have not yet faced the technological developments that await. “30% of Chinese regularly use the internet, whereas 93% watch TV”.
The article doesn’t address the fact that this is likely to change though, and importantly it’s likely to change a lot more quickly than it has done in the West. Moreover, the articles states that “search engines and online banners… do not offer emotional experiences.” But this is not all that the internet offers as far as branded experiences go. To see some great examples of work done to promote this past summer’s onslaught of films, click here. But the thoughts of The Economist clearly are the prevailing philosophy at the moment. According to an article in the FT last week, online advertising “increased by 10% in the first half of the year, but has fallen behind that of television and other traditional media for the first time.” Cinema also gained 12% and outdoor was up 16%. Press continued it’s slow decline. The thinking is that in the midst of still-prevalent economic uncertainty, advertisers are flocking back to a medium that they trust. For how long this trust will hold is a question that few in the world of above-the-line and TV networks will want to answer.