Edinburgh fringe shows shape of things to come for digital TV

This week the Edinburgh Fringe began, a week ahead of the official Edinburgh Festival. And as usual the Fringe statistics – 1,309 shows staged by 9,810 people in 164 venues, all fighting for audiences and attention – are staggering.

The arts and entertainment worlds just aren’t used to this kind of competitive, market-driven environment, which is why the size of the Fringe excites so many remarks from despairing luvvies, wondering how they’ll ever find time for it all or (failing that) how they’ll ever decide which shows to take in, which to leave out.

But in reality the range of choices facing Fringe and festival-goers over the next four weeks is no different to that offered to shoppers in a supermarket – or, indeed, to anyone browsing through the magazine racks in a large newsagents. Soon, in the digital age, even television viewers will have to devise strategies for coping with a similar deluge of choices.

As CIA Medialab’s research has shown, viewers’ relationships with their televisions change the more choice they have. After initial confusion and indecision, most cable and satellite viewers settle on a relatively limited number of channels (average 17) to watch each month; are less loyal to programmes; have a shorter attention span; and are much more willing to surf and zap.

Not surprisingly, the longest-established and best-known television brands (BBC1 and, especially, ITV) command the greatest loyalty; as more digital channels arrive, CIA suggests, they are unlikely to offer large audiences but instead will become television’s “specialist press”.

As television channels are discovering, and magazine publishers and packaged goods marketers have long known, strong branding backed up by advertising is one of the most important strategies for ensuring survival in a crowded market. Thereafter consumer interest is sustained through return purchase by satisfied customers and by word-of-mouth.

The Edinburgh Fringe is no different. The most successful performers and shows are often those with a flair for publicity or the good fortune (combined with good management) to end up at one of the limited number of strongly-branded venues, like the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon or Traverse Theatre, where audiences and reviewers have learnt to expect reasonably high standards from performers, producers and venue managers alike.

“Success”, of course, may not be readily definable in the context of the Fringe. For some purists, merely to have produced a ground-breaking work of physical theatre in a combination of Estonian and Japanese will have been enough. For most, though, strong sales at the box office and favourable reviews are rather more important.

For some, the criterion is whether they achieve some kind of Life after Edinburgh – a national tour, perhaps, or a television contract. That’s especially true for the hordes of stand-up comedians and sketch-artistes who infest the Fringe – and there’s no shortage of comedy impresarios and TV and radio producers scouting for new talent.

Year after year, the Edinburgh Fringe demonstrates, in among a great deal of dross, that there is a constantly-renewing (though by no means bottomless) supply of promising writers, performers and comedians.

It’s just as well, really, since producers making programmes for all those digital television channels are going to become increasingly desperate for creative talent – even if there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to pay it properly.

Thoughtful people in British broadcasting are worried that, perversely, the more channels there are the more difficult life could become for indigenous programme-makers and broadcasting talent: too many services with too little revenue means too little money to invest in original programming.

Steve Morrison, chief executive of Granada Media Group, recently called for the development of US-style “super studios” in Britain – vertically integrated, with substantial financial muscle and capable of making a range of programming from the cheapest to the most expensive – if British television is to avoid the unfortunate consequences of too many cash-starved digital pay channels.

Professor Jeremy Tunstall of City University points out that, while Britain’s news providers, factual TV producers, advertising agencies and pop music are internationally regarded, the country is still for the most part a media dependency of the US, a “cultural colony rather than a cultural leader” importing large amounts of software from America.

British film-makers, he says, are in a particularly difficult position (ironically, his report has been published just as the only European-owned film major, Polygram, goes up for sale and in danger of being bought by an American company).

But it’s a problem, too, for the entire creative community. As too many Edinburgh Fringe productions demonstrate, too little money spread too thinly does affect quality. Fringe audiences are tolerant and, to a degree, captive. Television viewers are not, and they’ll opt for foreign-produced glossy product every time if the quality of the home-grown alternative is low.

Performers at Edinburgh this year who successfully master the art of marketing and walk away with a series on Radio 4 or Channel 4, plus enough money to pay the mortgage for another year, should count themselves lucky: in future years the financial rewards of a post-Edinburgh TV contract may be considerable smaller.

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