The rapid development of digital transmission technology has profound implications for the long-term future of pan-European TV channels.
So far, the major pan-European channels have survived by offering niche programming designed to fill the gap left by the traditional mixed schedules of established national terrestrial stations. In general, each has offered a broadly homogeneous product across the major regions, usually in English – with little or no account being taken of local tastes and cultural peculiarities.
Now, however, this is changing. As has been widely reported, digital technology offers broadcasters the opportunity to launch many new channels. Inevitably, a significant proportion of these will be niche channels targeting local audiences. Because they will be locally developed, they will be tailored to local audience preferences and culture.
This encroachment into the traditional niche domain of the pan-European and international channels has already forced a shift away from homogeneity towards a programme formula more sensitive to local needs.
Probably the best example of a successful multi-country channel adopting this approach is MTV. Originally a champion of universal uniformity, the station last month introduced four distinct European services for the UK, pan-Northern, Central and Southern, with each reflecting local musical tastes (MW August 14).
A similar shift towards localisation has occurred throughout other parts of the pan-European and international TV industry. Eurosport, for example, is now available in some 14 languages. CNN now has four separate services for different regions of the world, and is experimenting with a German language service.
The changing dynamics of the TV market across Europe will fuel already fierce competition between the major players. Targeting has become the key priority and those stations that genuinely reflect local taste will clearly place themselves at an advantage.
Beyond this, their challenge will be to identify, develop and market themselves as brands. CNN has been particularly successful in carving a clear brand identity for itself. Others operating within the business and news market have so far done less to maximise their latent power.
While international stations localise their perspective, powerful local operators are now well placed to develop their brands internationally. Of these, the BBC, which has so expertly developed its brand on a local basis, must surely present a major long-term threat to the established pan European and international stations.
For these reasons, the international TV market is set for change. Above all, it will be shaped by those companies that best understand not just the values but regionality, and which can communicate these values consistently and powerfully over time.