From the moment she was appointed, the word on the street about Carolyn McCall has been positive. The new chief executive of ITV was formerly the boss of easyJet, and her status not just as a senior media executive (previously CEO of Guardian Media Group) but a business leader of proper heft and experience meant expectations ran high from the minute she started the job in January.
And the signals have been good ever since. Everyone, and I mean everyone, rates her highly. Her desire to develop a British SVOD (subscription video on demand) channel for ITV in partnership with the other UK TV channels is further evidence that McCall gets what so many other TV executives are missing: the future. And the speed with which it now approaches.
“I think the window is closing,” McCall told the Guardian on Monday. Asked if ITV and its domestic rivals were in a last chance saloon to develop a British competitor to Netflix she responded: “Of course, which is why I think ITV feel we just want to get on. We know it’s not going to be easy. We know it’s not slam dunk. If we don’t do it [now] we will never do it. We have to take the plunge.”
To understand why the “plunge” is necessary now you have to understand what I have witnessed around Europe over the past few weeks. I’ve visited many of the major markets for TV and given talks to marketers, agencies and media people. There’s nothing worse than some British wanker turning up in places like Frankfurt, Prague and Bucharest and showing exclusively British data to an audience who don’t know their Bush House from their Benny Hill.
So in advance of my visits, I gathered secondary data from these different markets to help me make my case in each of the countries during my presentation. And while the data helped me connect with the people I met and (I hope) deliver a more engaging talk, it also taught me something important.
In every market the picture is remarkably similar. Linear TV viewing is declining, but gently. And far more gently than the media might have you believe.
But mobile video is not displacing it. Despite what we were told two or three years ago at a crap conference by a bearded, sockless futurist, the growth in video viewing across tablets and smartphones is not the future of advertising. It’s not even the future of mobile.
Even so-called millennials still derive more of their video advertising from a TV and not a phone. TV remains the predominant medium for reach, video and emotion. The future is not quite as futuristic as we were promised.
At this point, if you work for commercial television, it might appear to be time to crack open the bubbly. TV is not dead. Mobile video is not the future. Let’s party like it’s 1989.
Non-traditional TV viewing
Not quite. Across Europe I keep seeing the same chart. A slight decline in time spent watching linear TV at the top of the line graph. At the bottom, bobbing along with relatively little growth, is time spent watching video on smartphones and tablets. But usually, somewhere in the middle of the time spent viewing chart is a third line.
It does not have a consistent name yet. Sometimes it is labelled ‘autre television’, on other occasions it’s called ‘verbundenes Fernsehen’ or is simply referred to as ‘autro’ depending on which country you are in. It’s the line representing all the viewing time that audiences spend watching the TV set, but not watching ‘TV’. It’s Netflix, it’s YouTube, it’s any viewing that happens on a TV that is non-traditional in origin. And it’s growing. Really quickly.
It’s clear that the TV set will remain the central portal for video, and especially video advertising, for many years to come. But it’s becoming equally clear that traditional TV stations are up against global digital companies intent on invading the TV set and taking over.
Buying a new TV is currently a miserable experience, with apps from multiple vendors serving to befuddle a new user.
The future of television with programmatic sales and addressable advertising looks amazingly bright. I’m just not sure many of the commercial TV channels will be around to enjoy it by the time that future arrives. The digital behemoths have turned their gaze from the plundered wrecks of news media and are now planning their raids into television.
Google has YouTube. Amazon is experimenting with broadcasting via Prime. Facebook has Watch. They are coming. The challenge for these amazing digital companies is developing a competence for making and delivering TV.
That might sound simple but just as the BBC would struggle to run an online retail site, the digital giants currently suck at making TV.
Amazon’s summer broadcast of the US Open tennis was variously described as “dogshit” and “1975 bad” by disappointed viewers. Google struggled to get more than a tiny fraction of its YouTube viewers to sign up for its TV-like Red channel. And it will probably struggle just as badly now that Red has been rebranded Premium. Facebook Watch is, well, Facebook Watch.
But while digital platforms struggle with becoming TV providers, the TV providers are struggling with digitisation. Take a look at the apps of most European TV stations and it’s clear that they also suck really badly too. Despite the future of all television viewing clearly being the ability to offer an online viewing experience on a smart TV, most TV companies have shit digital apps with poor usability, stuttering content and the regular inability to actually work for longer than five minutes.
A single broadcast app
The reason for this sub-optimal performance is two-fold. First, TV companies are good at TV, not digital development; and second, TV companies are national, independent entities who tend to approach all their tactical challenges accordingly.
Challenged with building an app to encourage digital viewing, each TV company has built its own shitty, local application. Faced with the world’s biggest, most global rivals that are literally a hundred times their size and scale, each national TV company has attempted to build its own local, little application.
What they should have done is link up and develop a single global TV app that each station could skin, use and populate accordingly. Instead of a global wheel each TV company has built a small, shitty wheel of their own. And there is a real danger that Amazon or YouTube or Netflix will roll their giant, global techno-wheel over hundreds of shitty little TV wheels in their ultimate domination of connected TV.
Carolyn McCall is quite correctly in a hurry to build her digital offer and she is keen to do so cooperatively with the other former competitors of ITV, which now must work as partners on delivery and content. On TV, the enemy of my enemy is now my friend. They may even prove a life-saver.
McCall’s urgency is appropriate. Smart, connected TVs are arriving everywhere and consumers are now deluged with digital options. For now, those options are awfully confusing and disappointing.
Buying a new TV is currently a miserable experience, with apps from multiple vendors serving to befuddle a new user. Where once a single remote answered the needs of busy British households, the nation now scrabbles around every night looking for the half-dozen little remotes that operate different devices at different times.
That confusion won’t last long. A couple of victors will emerge and dominate the connected TV set of the near future. Both YouTube and Netflix have managed to worm their way onto the remotes of the major TV sets. Their apps are now often pre-loaded on the sets. It’s a smart move because convenience and simplicity will deliver victory to the future dominant players.
ITV should have a significant jump on its digital adversaries because it has home field advantage. But the scale, size and ambition of Amazon and the other digital entrants cannot be ignored.
We used to say that TV is not dying, it’s having babies. Well those babies are growing up fast and only one of them will eventually rule the big smart screen on the living room wall. My money is on Amazon, which, once it gets the hang of it, can produce TV sets and a TV app and the shopping network to supply it with addressable product offers. Carolyn McCall might yet have a say in it but she had better move fast and she had better think bigger than just ITV, or UK broadcasters, if she wants to defend her corner.
I continue to believe TV will be the most powerful advertising medium, I just don’t know who will be on that TV set five or 10 years from now. What’s coming up on the TV next has never been a more interesting or uncertain issue.