History lessons from 25 years watching TV

History is not an especially popular subject in marketing circles. But the 25th birthdays of MTV and BARB – both fall this week, and are not unconnected – touch on the future, as well as the past.

In 1981 there was no multichannel television. OK, there was CNN, but its appeal was limited to a small, closed world of politicians, journalists and businessmen until the Gulf War of 1991. It took the launch of MTV to establish the credentials of targeted television channels with a whole generation.

BARB, as Torin Douglas puts it, has been the chronicler of these changes. When set up as the UK’s first jointly administered TV viewing measurement system, it had little to contend with: just BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Then, starting in 1982 with breakfast TV and Channel 4, the trickle turned into a torrent. By 1992 there were 17 channels to report on, by 2001 there were 132. This year, there are 227.

Spookily enough, two other events this week happen to give perspective to multichannel TV, one generation on: the end of Top of the Pops (there are a number of reasons for this development but, viewed over the long term, MTV is certainly one of them), and the announcement of ITV’s worst-ever viewing figures.

The latter recorded a 17% ratings drop year-on-year, while its viewing share plummeted to only 16.8% during July. Yet here is the self-same channel which, in BARB’s first full year, held a 50% share and, for top billing programmes, could count on 23 million viewers. Now, it would be lucky to achieve – outside football – 10 million, and the downward trajectory shows no sign of letting up. Of course, it’s not just ITV that’s suffering. Of the mainstream channels, only BBC1 and C4 increased their audience over the year.

Neither BARB nor MTV have escaped unscathed in the multichannel revolution. BARB, notoriously, has struggled to reconcile the increasing complexity of measuring smaller and smaller audiences over a wider range of channels, with the concomitant overhead that has to be passed on to its main subscribers. No easy solution to this worsening conundrum is visible.

For MTV, the issue is considerably broader. The rebel has turned establishment and now, like the rest of traditional media, it is threatened with being left behind by new developments. The theory behind Chris Anderson’s new book The Long Tail – Why the future of Business is Selling Less of More has a wider application than the music and television industries, but it certainly applies to them. In a nutshell, the internet has empowered consumers to go beyond the big hits of yesteryear and to dig deeper and deeper into democratised sub-genres (the “long tail”, whether of music or programmes). To compete with the likes of YouTube, MySpace and Google, MTV is trying to reinvent itself as “MTV 2.0”, with the launch of new digital services.

By way of completing the 25-year perspective on the communications revolution, we might note the changing reportage of warfare. The tightly controlled Ministry of Defence bulletins were one of the images that best recall the 1982 Falklands conflict. In 1991, CNN brought a frightening immediacy to the cruise missile bombardment of Baghdad. Now, the most harrowing images come not from CNN, but the macabre, grainy videos being posted on YouTube.

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