Television networks across the world can't decide whether the internet represents more of an opportunity than a threat. Most broadcasters recognise the upside potential of the web. That's why they are playing with it. But (like their cousins in hard copy media) the mood darkens when they worry about how they can find 21st century gold while preparing to defend traditional cash-cow businesses from attack by digital newbies.
The inevitable conflict starts with the debate about what television actually is. If we define it as 'video programming', there are three broad types of TV:
1. Broadcast: free-to-air or subscription or pay-as-you-go; and terrestrial or satellite or cable
2. IPTV (Internet Protocol Television): web programming by network operators like British Telecom or Telstra or Verizon.
3. OTT ('Over The Top'): web services provided independently of network operators, like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, LoveFilm, and BBC iPlayer. Either free or pay-as-you-go.
Taking those broad definitions, it is worth reflecting on some of the TV-related developments of the past few months:
- The hotel-room naked images of Britain's Prince Harry in Las Vegas were broken by Time Warner's TMZ. This is the entertainment internet channel that, three years before, was first with news of Michael Jackson's death 250 miles down the road in Los Angeles. TMZ (named after 'Thirty Mile Zone' - the LA-centred world of film studios) has 3million US viewers and at least 1m worldwide. They devour TMZ celebrity news and gossip presented with split-screen video, photos and graphics.
- Waitrose, the UK's powering upmarket food retail co-operative, announced the launch of its first online TV channel covering food, drink, health, ideas and interviews. The chain and its department store parent John Lewis are marching across the frontier that has long separated media from retail - in just the same way as fashion digitals Net a Porter and ASOS. (Media content will increasingly oil the wheels of ecommerce - and vice versa.)
- BskyB, the News Corp-controlled world-best pay TV business, has launched NowTV. It's (initially anyway) a film channel to compete with the rampaging Netflix, Amazon's LoveFilm, and new movie channels from Tesco's Blinkbox, and Dixons' KnowHow Movies.
- HBO, the Time Warner-owned movie channels, has moved into the Nordic countries in a different way.
- Australia's National Basketball League has started selling its live coverage direct to viewers for A59 per season.
The common link between those recent developments is that they are all OTT services, showing how the internet is starting to be a new home of TV and not just a promotional (and catch-up) channel for it. Further evidence for the growing importance of such web TV came from the Google-owned YouTube with the milestone news that it had sold one of its best-watched 'programmes', "Recipe Rehab", to America's ABC network.
YouTube can increasingly be seen as Google's trojan horse for its invasion of mainstream TV viewing. Its 100 channels certainly now include a large amount of high-quality programming like "Everyday Health" and it dominates music-video. YouTube is becoming the ultimate modern - and truly global - TV group, increasingly featuring the work of leading companies and producers. "Recipe Rehab" itself is the brainchild of award-winning broadcast TV producer, one Mark Koops, who previously gave us "The Biggest Loser" and "Masterchef". He hailed the ABC deal as a breakthrough: "It's a sign of the emerging times. Television is no longer just the television".
Words to savour.
But there's plenty more evidence of the growing importance of such internet services, especially in capturing difficult-to-reach young audiences for whom TV viewing is more about laptop than lounge.
Enter the UK's largest online 'broadcaster' with a stunning story to tell. SBTV was created six years ago by the then 16-year-old Jamal Edwards. His Mum had given him a video camera for Christmas, and Jamal went out filming urban music and dance from his Acton, West London home. Now, SBTV (after SmokeyBarz, a former alias for his experimental video clips and the name of his booming YouTube channel) claims more than 100million hits on YouTube, is oozing advertising and sponsorship - and is cool cool cool.
The whole operation is much more than a web site. Its combination of funky news, music and edgy video represents a real blurring of media channels, the shape of things to come. Is it TV? Well it's watched by milllions of young Brits. Is it a web site? It is great online source for news and gossip about music, fashion and urban stuff. Is it radio? Well, its a good place to listen to new music. Ask Ed Sheeran, who was "discovered" by SBTV. And Kelly Rowland, Jessie J and Tinie Tempah who were thrilled to be part of it.
"JamEd" is a fascinating if slightly confusing blend of the radical and the mainstream. His rap world is spliced with commercial success and hob-nobbing with David Cameron,Richard Branson, and Simon Cowell. He's written columns for daily newspapers, and has appeared at festivals and on platforms where people hang on to every under-stated word about the way of the world and young people's place in it. He was a Spirit of London Ambassador and carried the Olympic Torch at the invitation of Coca-Cola.
The fast rising success of Jamal Edwards' SBTV means different things to different people. But this is a major media "channel" that has been created completely beyond the world of regular broadcasters. It is slick and uses a thrilling multimedia approach that has captivated millions of young people in ways that are beyond the regulated, strait-jacket worlds of broadcast TV and radio. Hundreds of thousands of young people are watching more SBTV than ITV, the UK's largest commercial channel. This is how more and more TV is going to look, feel and be delivered - and Edwards is not the only one who understands that.
BskyB has launched its own OTT service because (for all the acclaimed success in winning 11m subscriptions for its £7bn cable-satellite network), the UK market still has 13 million households that don't have pay TV. Sky already has 4m broadband internet customers, so OTT is a real opportunity, as it is also for the retailers who are dying to develop truly interactive TV linked to home shopping. But the major result is sure to be a proliferation of TV-like formats on the web, multimedia channels that will challenge conventional media demarcation - and also, of course, defy traditional cross-media ownership restrictions.
These new channels will increasingly be able to offer the kind of split-screen, interactive, and social networking opportunities sought by the multi-tasking generation. Unfettered by regulation, the channels will attract ever more creative use of advertising, product placement and sponsorship. Many of these new channels (like SBTV itself) will benefit too from the kind of buccaneering spirit that made pirate radio stations so appealing to an earlier generation. And for every youth TV channel, there will be many others to further crowd the market for movies, news, business - and sport. How many sports organisations will be watching Australia's basketball marketing of its own live channel direct to the consumer? Such OTT applications may come to rock the world's traditional broadcasters, with all the potential for interactivity, ecommerce - and gambling.
Tens of millions are now watching broadcast TV on iPads and smartphones in ways that were so recently thought to be beyond the technological frontier, let alone consumer taste. Other seemingly improbable things will come along and captivate people who are increasingly hungry for choice, change and mobility in their entertainment and information. Whether viewers have internet-connected televisions, web-enabled set-top boxes (like the UK's newly launched YouView)or make their viewing choices on something more mobile and versatile, creative new channels will flood the web - and some will become huge right around the world.
Media Fortune, Fame & Folly