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Demanding Entertainment

Simon Pitt | Television | Wednesday 11th November 2009

Video on Demand is pretty much the greatest invention ever in the history of humanity. At least, that's the impression you'll get if you turn on your TV, listen to the radio, or open a magazine. No sooner have you listened to a programme than you get the continuity announcers explaining to you that you can go online and listen again or download a podcast or go on iPlayer and stream it. Who cares that you've just finished watching it; or even that it wasn't that good first time round, everyone is rushing over to their computers and watching everything again.

Not only can you stream it or download it from iPlayer, get it on Virgin Media's TV Choice, BT Vision, Joost or Sky + but you can also download a podcast. Pretty much every device made now can stream video or audio content; even devices that have no need to stream video, like your phone. Why? No one has stopped to ask; the fact that you could get iPlayer on your door handle or 4oD on your bike pump means that you should.

There's something desperate in the way companies advertise new technology now. They seem to be under the impression that if they just rant about Facebook, Twitter and iPlayer for a bit, then everyone will want their product, regardless of whether it actually does anything anyone wants. Really, the problem is that they're not selling anything new. Despite the buzz about listen again, iPlayer and twitter, the avergae person isn't using them that much. What we have here is a situation where there is a small but very vocal minority. After all, the people who are interested in Twitter are the sorts of people who think their views, opinions and fatuous nonsense is important enough to broadcast to the world. For the most part, though, people don't know what it is, and don't care enough to find out, or use it.

This is down to the current climate. There are a lot of emerging new technologies around, but many of them have not settled down enough to go into our cultural consciousness, and also are not ubiquitous enough to be generally useful. A quick browse on the BBC FAQ website reveals that the most asked question is "what is a podcast" (I told this to someone who worked at the BBC the other day and they responded with "Oh. What is a podcast?". I can't help thinking that if the people making the things don't understand them, what hope is there for the rest of us). After this the next most frequently asked questions are:
Basically, no one knows how to download podcasts. And most people don't know what they are or why they'd want to download one anyway. Even the word "download" sends people into a spin. For many the word "download" has become synonymous with "illegal file sharing", which in turn is, in most people's head, "something kids do". You might as well try to get the general populace to take up eating worms.

Moving on to TV, there is a huge and seemingly insurmountable block to "on demand" services. In most people's households, the computer is in the corner of the room with an uncomfortable chair in front of it, while the TV is in the centre of the room with a sofa in front of it. And if there's one thing people like, it's sitting on sofas. In many ways, this might seem an easy issue to solve: just turn the TV around. But media companies are facing a real difficulty getting members of the public to pull their finger out and sort out their own living rooms. In fact, it's so difficult, that they've given up. This is where Virgin Media's TV Choice On Demand service or BT Vision come into their own. These are products that add almost nothing to the current on demand services. Virgin Media, after all, advertise their service mainly with big pictures of iPlayer. I don't know if people have realised: i) they already have access to iPlayer and ii) it's free. Nevertheless, people rush to sign up and pay for something that they already have for free (it's one of those successes that must make suited marked men shriek with joy; like selling bottled water). And the reason for this is that people can get these services on the same screen they're used to watching. Virgin and BT are selling the need not to leave the bum groove in the sofa.

However, despite all this, on demand take up is a low. And this might come as something of a surprise. Especially since everywhere you look nowadays there's someone ranting about demanding content. Let's take a look at some of the figures. At the bottom end of the spectrum, there are programmes on iPlayer that are only downloaded 4 times a month (and not just a few either. Every month there are hundreds of programmes that are downloaded fewer than 10 times). In October 2009, the most popular programme of the month was only viewed about 150,000 times. The figures were rather better in August with Top Gear being viewed 670,000 times, but, still, compared with the television, that's pants. To take a couple of examples: Channel 4's idiot-fest Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change on Monday 19th October managed 2.1 million. Hell, even More4's pathetic Celebrity Come Dine with Me on Sunday 25th October managed 690,000 viewers.

The figures are even worse for radio. A grand total of 2% of radio programmes are listened to via Listen Again. There may have been some increase now that the BBC has finally ditched Real Player (which is about time; even Real have stopped using Real Player), but that's hardly resulted in an explosion of interest. The number of podcasts being downloaded has reached a plateau already (and a pretty low plateau at that). Which isn't very good really, especially for an emerging and exciting technology. You have to wonder, when you look at these figures, whether these technologies are as emerging and as exciting as we've been led to believe.

The problem, as I said in an earlier (and more vituperative) article, is that the iPlayer, for all its cost, and all its technological wonder, doesn't really offer consumers anything new. After all, iPlayer, as one comic pointed out, is nearly as good as a video recorder. Only a video recorder that deletes everything after a week.

There's been an explosion in ways of saving and watching TV programmes over the last 10 years. Sky+ came out in 2001 and TiVo was first on sale in March 1999. Hot on their heals was a whole range of products: Freeview+, PVRs, and DVD recorders. However, and perhaps more crucially, the vast majority of consumers had already discovered a way of getting virtually every movie, TV programme or song ever made, easily and for free. Napster was released in 1999 and before that people had been using USENET to share files since 1979. (However, the sort of people that did this were the sort of people who used computers when they were just black screens with green numbers on them, so they don't count.) Nevertheless, illegal downloading has grown in popularity as technology increased. By 2002, broadband had become more prevalent, providing speeds high enough to download films and TV programmes in a reasonable amount of time. Computers had become fast enough to encode videos, sites like The Pirate Bay and Suprnova had appeared and technologies like BitTorrent had developed. Finding and downloading films and TV was easy. People got used to doing this, and now that it was easier, everyone could do it. Estimates suggest that 70 million people regularly download programmes illegally. The world of illegal file sharing was streets ahead of its legal counterpart.

Roll forward to Christmas 2007, and the BBC properly releases iPlayer (with a new streaming service that is basically YouTube). This is all well and good, but most of the people who would have been excited by iPlayer had already set up their own systems of downloading and are happily doing that. Why would they switch back to a more restrictive and limited system?

This, of course, is the question, that has been plaguing the BBC (and, indeed, all large media companies). And this is where the flood of ridiculous product ideas and development has come from. Nokia and Apple have made deals that allow iPlayer on mobile phones. Maybe this is just me, but who's going to want to watch TV on a three inch screen? It's literally postage stamp sized. This is media desperation; a rabid attempt to create consumer excitement.

Now, all of this, so far, has sounded a bit negative towards on demand services. But this is exactly the opposite of my point. On demand is the best thing ever to happen to television (I'm not being sarcastic this time). The ability to chose to watch any programme at any time is liberating for consumers, and results in more people watching more programmes. And, also, watching more of what they want to watch. The problem, and this is the real issue at the moment, is how to get consumers to change their lifestyles. Both the sofa-bum-indentation consumers who won't move out of their seat and the internet-geek consumers who have now found other ways to get their content. Neither of these groups are interested in the branded nonsense media companies come up with: iPlayer, 4oD, itvPlayer, V+, BT Vision. What is this rubbish? At the end of the day they're just ways of watching programmes, aren't they? And your average Joe consumer doesn't care if his TV comes down his phoneline, through his aerial or whether it's farted in morse code by Ben Bradshaw, as long as he gets to watch something he likes.

On Demand is big and it is clever. However, to make people use these systems, the companies at the top are going to have to offer something that consumers can't already get. And something that they want. There are many ways of doing this: they could create interfaces that are nicer to look at, easier to use, quicker to use, more comprehensive, provide more programme information or make more links between programmes. What this is going to require, though, is companies to develop products that audiences genuinely want to use, rather than churning out branded products that don't provide any actual value. Yes, they could put iPlayer in a phone or twitter in a watch or Facebook on a pace maker so that it automatically updates your status to "dead" when you peg out, but these aren't features anyone actually wants.

Why has no one done this already? Why has the super-device not already been made and sold? Why do consumers not already have the single media box under their TV that will provide them with whatever content they want? There's one thing holding all this up; one thing that has been crippling the on demand market. It is what made media companies a lot of money, and, more recently, lost them millions of pounds a year. It is, in a word, copyright. And right now, if you have a blog and you're on the internet you're probably going to describe it as "evil".

SP



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