His Masters Voice: painting by Francis Barraud adopted in 1899 by the new ‘Gramophone Industry’

The television viewer of the future, it was expected, would abandon the broadcast schedules in order to PVR or VOD their favourite television. TV programmes would become stand alone pieces of content. This would leave leave television networks as content providers, but less relevant as actual broadcasters – “slow melting icebergs” as one commentator put it recently.

However, it is becoming clear that these predictions reckoned without two important factors that, I believe, secure the future of the smart TV channels as both content creators and (flexi-) linear broadcasters.

  • The first development is the rise of live event television, backed up by social media – particularly Twitter – creating mass digital co-viewing events that people dare not timeshift for Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). Reality TV, soap operas, sport and news events all ensure that a significant proportion of viewing will always be live and therefore channel-based. With the 2013 Superbowl imminent, try telling CBS that linear viewing isn’t important at $4m per 30 second spot!
  • The second factor is more subtle and is the focus of this blog. In a sea of similar content, I believe that viewers have an innate desire for guidance, for curation, for someone to tell them what is good and what isn’t.  That is where TV channels can really come to the fore.

I was struck by the following recent comment on the US TV Board by Charlene Weisler:

Networks will be challenged as viewers opt for specifically chosen programs on the DVR, VOD and online at their convenience…. In this situation, television could become more like music where there is no longer a “Side B” – a weaker product that gains sampling because it is placed near a stronger product”

It’s a good point – so let’s look at the music industry experience for guidance about the possible fate of TV broadcasters. Music is arguably the most mature digital business, largely as it took its pain early, its journey starting well over a decade ago.  Whilst video content was waiting for broadband to be widely accessible, an MP3 could be downloaded even on dial-up, and so the music industry embarked on the road from Napster – via the law courts – to iTunes and Spotify.  As Peter Gabriel said, the music industry can be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for other media.

So what can the TV industry learn from the music industry? And more importantly what mistakes should it avoid? For me it’s about the vital importance of curation.  There has been a lot of talk recently about TV ‘Recommendation Engines’. Samsung at this month’s CES unveiled their Smart Hub connected TVs, which “..use a technology called S-Recommendation that allows you to speak to your TV and discover shows you’d want to watch.” (Business Insider Jan 8 2013)

Clearly this, and many other TV recommendation engines, is based on the classic online retail model of  “people who like this also like this” – statistical analyses looking for correlations. Who needs TV channels when you have an EPG and a smart TV or an iPad App to guide you? Well, I firmly believe there will be a clear role for TV channels beyond content generation. Why? Two personal music-based experiences come to mind:

The first of these is the wonderful Gideon Coe Show on BBC 6 Music in the UK . Last Thursday night in the space of a three hour show, he played Big Youth (reggae), Johnny Dankworth (jazz), Talk Talk (80s ambient), Donovan (60s), Wire (punk) Dioris Valladares (Cuban swing), Sonic Youth (grunge) and the Smoke Fairies (indie).

6 musicNo recommendation engine on earth, no intelligent algorithm, could possible ever, ever, ever come up with that range and combination, and yet the artists have one thing in common – they are all good (and even if they aren’t they are at least interesting!) and that is what matters. The point of the show is to widen listeners’ musical range and alert them to new and old artists they may not otherwise have encountered in the heavily thematic world of format-driven radio.  How will an algorithm, however intelligent, be able to do that when it comes to TV, music or indeed books? I love playing around with the wonderful Discovr music app on my phone but again it just shows musical adjacency not actively recommending anything different.

The second example is Spotify, to which I recently signed up. It is simultaneously a godsend and incredibly scary. I have nearly all recorded music at my finger tips, I can explore strange new worlds of music, but where to start? There is just too much choice, so I end up exploring the back catalogue of artists I already know, cursing my conservatism and vowing to jot down what Gideon Coe plays tonight to use as a start point.

human-league-dareThe issue here is that I need a map, a guide, a trusted advisor to point me in the right direction – a human being, as opposed to a computer telling me that people who like the Human League also like Heaven 17, or that people who like Big Bang Theory also like How I Met Your Mother. Hardly a surprise given that both bands are from Sheffield and both TV shows are scheduled together. Does their proximity cause similarity or vice-versa? Do people who like chickens also like eggs?

The real danger for the music business – that the TV industry needs to be aware of – is around excessive categorisation and stratification. In his recent excellent biography of Kraftwerk, called Publikation, David Buckley writes…

Publikation“The year 1983 bore witness to the end of the history of modern…There would be great music made after 1983 of course, but… all the major movements to come would be ‘sounds-like’ music… After the mid-Eighties it was difficult to find a review of a new artist that didn’t compare them to something that had come before. Like The Jesus And Mary Chain? Then, you’ll like the Velvet Underground. Keen on the Pet Shop Boys? Better check out Sparks too.”

This happened well before digital, but digital amplified it and set it in stone. Music is flourishing, but it has done so at the expense of becoming easily categorised, heavily stratified and entirely dependent on its own history. Pop ate itself.

bsgThe origins of this blog came after I reflected on an attempt to describe the TV show Battlestar Galactica to a friend as “the West Wing meets Blakes 7”. It really isn’t and that was lazy description – but when confronted with the new, it’s so easy to fall back into the habit of describing something as a cocktail of other, older, references as opposed to something truly innovative. I should have just said: “You’ll love this, it’s great – trust me”.

I believe that this stratification of music content is one of the many things that killed HMV last week, the UK’s last High Street record chain.

From the 60s to the 80s, independent record shops were curators, where you could go to explore and discover new music. In his charming recent autobiography Danny Baker describes working in One Stop records in Soho in the 70s as a sales assistant come musical adviser to the aspirant pop-star customers.

However the major record retailers since the 80s became standardized, homogenized and eventually irrelevant in the online era, leaving HMV as the last man standing. HMV didn’t add any value to the default option of buying online and did add to the cost, so it died.

And that is the key point here. TV channels can still ‘add value’ and can have a future not just as programme-makers, but as the curators of good content.  People will be looking for a seal of approval, something that tells them ‘This must be good because it’s on HBO’, or ‘this is my sort of show as it’s on E4’. Otherwise we are just in that world of ‘People who like “Big Bang Theory also like How I Met Your Mother’. Yes, but one is great and is not. I want the good one and that is where the curation comes in. Call me an optimist, but I think audiences of the future will want to be surprised, rather than just wallow in a segregated pool of ‘police procedurals’ or ‘genre fantasy’, their viewing becoming increasingly stale as they consume ever-decreasing circles of similar content.

So I may be strange, but when I am online and a helpful recommendation engine bounces up to me like a puppy and tells me that ‘people who like this also like this’ I want to run in the opposite direction. I don’t want an album, book or TV show that is similar to the one I have just bought. I want a change – I want something that is good.  And I want someone to help me find the good stuff, be they Gideon Coe, Channel 4 or Comedy Central.

Not just an algorithm.

So I’ll leave the final word, appropriately enough, to Sheldon Cooper here.