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What Television Can Learn From Yahoo

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I love TV, always have, always will. It's been written off on many occasions, but has always proved itself an incredibly durable medium, much more versatile than its critics imagine.

So why did I jump ship to go to online? Could it be the ship is sinking?

I can promise you that nothing could be further from the truth. Television is still the ultimate lean-forward experience. It has shown that it can embrace digital opportunities, and is now beginning to understand how its content can be delivered and monetised worldwide in a way that wasn't possible ten years ago. As Darwin pointed out, you don't have to be the strongest to survive, you just need to be adaptable, and TV has shown that it can be just that.

But there are still reefs ahead on which TV could founder. Television may be adaptable, but it is not very good at changing course quickly. The big cultural difference I've observed since moving to Yahoo is that the company is superb at spotting opportunities and moving with unbelievable speed to seize them. Onliners are, in a sense, a different species, and their creativity is of a different kind. Television is brilliant at developing content that is both pithy and durable, loved by audiences - you only have to look at Coronation Street, still going strong after 53 years, or X Factor. The world of the web is far more iterative, instant and judgmental. It tries out many different offerings - often all at once - and moves on fast, based on the utility of the product. If users want it, they'll find it and will show you instantly with one click and pass it along; if not, it vanishes almost in real-time. While television spends many months crafting its offerings and preparing them for market, honing the script, piloting, and trailing, apps can literally explode from nowhere, moving from idea to online sensation in only a few days or even hours via viral marketing.

These approaches can and should be complementary. TV and the Internet can learn from each other. I moved to Yahoo because I am curious about many of the things that make the Web so attractive, most importantly the particular and precise ability it has to understand what its users want, in a way that TV can't: how a person consumes media, which brands attract him or her, what kind of ads they perceive as relevant. Television has made the major investment in content, but it is online companies who have invested in the powerful technologies and products that enable us to understand the consumer journey, and deliver highly personalized content and relevant advertising in an entirely targeted way that makes television's own audience metrics look prehistoric. I was and still am also fascinated because the Internet is in some ways the always accessible library of the world. It has become an amazing platform for delivering content, and online companies are not only curating content but also increasingly creating it. Yahoo itself has grown from being a web catalogue and search engine to become the largest publisher on the Web, with more than 800 million users every month and more than 400 million monthly mobile users.

Surely this is a threat to TV? No: it strikes me that the world of television and the world of online content can meet in the middle. The idea that television will take over online, or online content will destroy television is absurd; the Web is a huge world in which both can happily co-exist, and enhance each other's businesses.

As yet, though they might aspire to be able to do anything television does, today, most online content creators don't have the same skill-set or experience as broadcasters. Netflix, LoveFilm, YouTube and Amazon have yet to trump the broadcast model that allows significant investment in quality content. Nor do I think that consumers turn to online as a first window for moving pictures. Yes, for video snippets and quick video content, the web is the premiere address. Television's strength lies in producing and premiering top-notch long-form content. It is the perfect first window for original drama, a new comedy series, or a live event. But its big mistake is to imagine that it can thereafter control access absolutely and forever within a walled garden. When viewers seek something specific, they expect to be able to come online and easily re-access content, over and over, and in an ever-connected and changing real-time world, the consumers and their needs must be at the centre of a company's focus.

Broadcasters therefore need to be much more relaxed about where their content appears. There is value in availability, so it makes sense to liberate your content and then work out how to monetise it. Anyone who provides content that is significantly better, different or newer will always be able to charge a high cost per minute. But audiences expect different price points at different stages of the content's life-cycle: immediately after online release, they are prepared to pay a premium, but six months down the line they will only pay lesser amounts via subscription services, and after two years they expect to view it for free. At that point, any commercial returns to the creator will have to come via advertising or sponsorship. Nevertheless, the more you allow people to interact with your content in multiple transaction windows, the more money you will make. Television's future lies in continuing to do what it has always done so well, but it must explore different ways of making it available to audiences and it must explore these ways fast.

2024: The Future of Television, commissioned by Darren Child's, CEO, UKTV is available for free download on 27th February from Amazon.co.uk and iTunes

This is an abridged essay - the full essay is available here

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