For anyone interested in the future of broadcasting, the place to be last weekend (apart from the queue at Dixons or Comet) was Promax 98, the annual get-together of the industry’s marketing and promotional people.
The buzz as you walked into the Royal Lancaster Hotel was remarkable, greater than at recent Edinburgh TV festivals or Royal Television Society events. More than 800 people from 16 countries had signed up for the event (the average age was 28).
This is a business which has grown exponentially in the past few years, fuelled by the explosion of new channels. The Promax conference was given a reminder by one speaker of just how far things have changed, in a quote from Radio 4’s arts programme, Front Row, last week. To mark the launch of ONdigital, it played a clip of the death of Grace Archer, who was callously sacrificed by the BBC on the night of ITV’s launch in September 1955, in order to steal the following morning’s headlines.
As its presenter Mark Lawson observed, if the BBC were to sacrifice an Archers character every time a new TV channel launched these days, there’d be a massacre in Ambridge every week.
This was the first Promax of the digital age and, to mark the occasion, the roll-call of distinguished speakers queuing up to testify to the importance of marketing in TV was almost as long as the waiting list for a set-top box. Culture secretary Chris Smith, BBC Broadcast chief executive Will Wyatt, and Sky Networks managing director Elisabeth Murdoch voiced their approval in keynote speeches. The minister’s was the most remarkable.
Given Labour’s obsession with the media and the message, and the recent report of his own Creative Taskforce quantifying the commercial importance of the creative industries, it is perhaps not surprising Smith was there. But few expected him to endorse the promotions business quite so enthusiastically. The culture secretary suggested the role of marketing and promotion of TV programmes had been undervalued in the past, pointing out just how much value has been brought to the BBC brand over the past 50 years.
When Smith asked which element was the more important, the programme content or the marketing, I for one expected him to say the programmes. Indeed, in his speech, he stressed the importance of quality in programme making. But his answer was “both”. Marketing could not sell an inferior programme, he said, but in the multichannel age, if a broadcaster has an excellent programme, it has to market it well or viewers won’t find it amid the competition.
Never before have the TV promotions and marketing people received such a Government endorsement. And, with ONdigital’s launch but a few hours away, the culture secretary gave a timely reminder that there was no point in selling the “idea” of digital. Selling the benefits was what mattered. I’m not sure ONdigital’s campaign really does that, though it certainly made an impact at the weekend. Those who thought SkyDigital might run away with the market may have underestimated the power of ONdigital’s backers to line up ITV’s biggest guns with promotions featuring Trevor McDonald, Cilla Black and Coronation Street stars in support of “dish-free” digital.
The ITV promotions, one an hour, add considerable weight to ONdigital’s own commercials, which feature stars such as Terry Venables, Ian Wright, Lord Attenborough and Jonathan Ross, wittily giving the message that Sky’s most popular offerings, sport and movies, are available through ONdigital as well as Sky.
If only ONdigital had a few more set-top boxes in the shops it might take greater advantage of the demand it is creating.
But the digital revolution is also going to have an impact on the way programmes and channels are marketed and promoted in the years to come, according to Will Wyatt’s thought-provoking speech at Promax. Indeed, he suggested, at some point in the future, channels may be a thing of the past with the technology, and the programme promotions enabling people to create channels of their own.
“We think, by the year 2000, the next generation of set-top boxes will be able to store ten hours of video, and perhaps several thousand hours by 2010,” he said. “Imagine the promotional opportunities. We already target our promotions to different audiences. It will be possible to have a promotional trail with different video streams running. The one you see is specifically targeted at you,” says Wyatt.
“Imagine you then decide you want to see the programme. You see an on-screen icon, press your remote, and the set-top box captures the programme. The video recorder is a thing of the past.”
Crucial to the future, Wyatt believes, is the Electronic Programme Guide. “EPGs will become visual and genuinely useful, selecting from a broadcaster’s output and on-demand libraries. In time, we will migrate from a service- and channel-led proposition to one based more on the genres which have been invested in over many years – BBC news and comedy, for example.
“If the set-top box captured and stored all our science output in a particular week, then, hey presto, you have, in effect, a ‘BBC Science’ channel that would be offered to viewers expressing an interest.” And the key to that, he said, was a clear branding and promotional strategy.
So how many people can we expect at Promax 2008? More than can fit in the Royal Lancaster, that’s for sure. Unless, of course, the all-singing, all-dancing EPG has been taught to create its own promotions.