TV content lags behind increase in channels

Television is my first choice medium by a long way. As with most of us, the small screen has captured many enduring moments for me: the moon landing, the space shuttle disaster, Fawlty Towers, beating Holland 4-1 in Euro 96, the funeral of Princess Diana.

As a medium, TV is embarking on its most rapid and fundamental reform as channel capacity multiplies. With this process well underway, what has become clear is that television’s content is not keeping pace with its distribution growth. Despite there being over 75 new channels, viewing has not significantly increased and the perception of multi-channel television is still terrible – no wonder that cable connections are stuck at 22 per cent of homes passed.

More capacity has not, for the most part, brought more choice in television. Major players in this market (BBC/Flextech, Granada and Carlton) are guilty of soaking up the new capacity with slick-looking channels with large marketing budgets that are only re-running old programmes. This waste of capacity would not be tolerated in any other medium, so why multi channel TV?

This brings me on to radio. The two per cent medium with the one per cent attitude we all used to joke. Now radio is a medium that has doubled its market share and is a creative wealth of different stations targeting specific groups of listeners whether with jazz, classical, ethnic, local, soul, talk, Christian or, lately, alternative music with Xfm.

These radio stations have a much closer feel than many of their cable and satellite TV counterparts for what their audiences are looking for. In several cases, they are run by people with a genuine passion, who know their market, and start from the premise of giving listeners what they want.

There is little point throwing a big promotional spend at the problem until you’ve got the product right and found the audience. In marketing speak, it’s a product development issue as much as marketing communications one.

The experience of radio is a model from which multi-channel TV has much to learn. However, radio must be careful – there is a temptation to proliferate current winning formulae such as Virgin and Capital, thereby stifling creative development to the detriment of the listeners.

Widening this media examination to the magazine market reinforces the argument. Here we have a mature medium whose innumerable titles are sustained through a diversity of product which satisfies the customer. If magazine shelves were being filled with last year’s Cosmo or yesterday’s newspaper, the advertising industry would be up in arms and, more importantly, readers wouldn’t buy them.

The television medium’s future lies in its ability to provide specific groups with specific interest content. Sky Sports has shown the way through giving the viewer genuine extension of choice. We are beginning to see a new era of channel emerging: travel, children’s, financial, food, computers. But where are the rest?

The variety in other media, such as radio, allows customers more choice and advertisers higher levels of targeting. There is no reason why the multi-channel world should not follow suit and offer more choice, not just more channels.

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