Kate Bulkley: Traditional TV’s new fans

“I don’t think it’s a big stretch to suggest that part of Facebook’s strategy will involve adding more video to the site. YouTube after all seems to think that adding professional content, aka TV channels, really works,” says Kate Bulkley.

Who  said that the linear TV channel was on its deathbed? This has been the lament in recent years as wave after wave of digital, over-the-top and social media have grabbed headlines, but against all odds it seems that the days of traditional television viewing – that is tuning into a particular show on a particular channel – are far from over.

It’s odd that Traditional Television Viewing (or TTV as I’ll call it) has swung back into fashion when you think of the strength of the threat: OTT services like Netflix; consumer electronics manufacturers putting together their own app-lists on connected TVs; video on Facebook; YouTube and mobile video. TTV’s demise seemed just around the next video app corner and the OTT folks, much like the IPTV guys before them, seemed to be on an unstoppable run.

But despite this, TTV is fighting back: Sky Deutschland uses HD to make its offer stand out and recently added Sky Atlantic; Al Jazeera is launching sports channels in the US and France; in Switzerland, UPC Cablecom plans to add 26 new channels in June, including six in HD; and Scripps Interactive (which bought 50% of the UKTV channels in the UK) just bought the international Travel Channel and says it has an appetite (well, it does do the Food Network) for more channels. If you look just at the number of new HD channels on the Astra satellites alone, you’ll see that the total has gone from 190 in 2010 to 267 last year, an increase of 41%. And even the much-maligned 3D channel universe is increasing, albeit at a less rapid pace.

There’s also a growing belief that social media like Twitter actually helps TTV. After all, what would anyone Tweet about if it wasn’t for live TV shows like The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent? If you’ve got a tweet-worthy show these days, it’s good news. US networks now have social media units figuring out how to engage their audiences on Facebook and Twitter. Broadcasters are also adapting their channels to better fit the digital future. The BBC is a good example with its decision to move iconic shows like Blue Peter and, in fact, all its kids TV programming off the main BBC One channel and onto the kid-specific, digital channels, CBBC and CBeebies. Indeed the channel debate in the near future is not about when TTV and linear channels might die, but instead how the TV channel is emerging and changing in the digital universe.

Clearly the majority of channels are becoming more niche and more focused, leaving the big free-to-air channels like BBC One and ITV1 to look anxiously for live, appointment to view programmes that will keep audiences as big as possible, for as long as possible. Meanwhile, every broadcaster, niche or otherwise, is rolling out second screen applications alongside technologies like audio-recognition tool Shazam and social TV app Zeebox (part-owned by BSkyB), all part of an effort to leverage the fact that audiences watch TV with at least one other device on hand. The idea is that if the TV content can be “contextualised” by the apps then advertising and other sales opportunities can follow.

This is important as people increasingly use their DVRs to defer viewing and skip adverts. US operator DISH has provoked outrage from the advertising industry with a new “auto-hop” ad-skipping set top boxes that don’t even require fast-forwarding. In light of developments like these, broadcasters are keen to enhance live viewing as well as delivering additional content to second devices.

But more challenges are coming from Facebook and YouTube. In May YouTube not only held its first “upfront” in New York to attract advertisers to its new, professionally-made channels (it has pledged US$100 million [e80 million] to content creators to kick-start YouTube dedicated channels and another US$200 million to promote them) but Google also announced its first investment in content, a US$35 million investment in Machinima, an online video production company that does extremely well on YouTube, attracting over 1.6 billion views in April, up from 1.5 billion in March. The move into content is a big shift for Google that puts paid to the online search giants’ past exhortations that it was “not in the content creation business”.  It also throws down the gauntlet to TTV and media companies to think different.

The thing is that these big online guys need to tap into the big advertising and subscription money that has traditionally been the preserve of TTV. Facebook’s IPO has not gone off as well as the company hoped, and the falling stock price underlines this fact. General Motors, which spent a reported US$10 million on Facebook advertising in 2011, pulled out of advertising on the platform this year, and I think it is a pretty safe bet that Facebook will be pulling out all the stops to attract or retain big advertisers. I don’t think it’s a big stretch to suggest that part of that strategy will involve adding more video to the site. YouTube after all seems to think that adding professional content, aka TV channels, really works. Go figure.

Kate Bulkley is a broadcaster and writer specialising in media and telecommunications. [email protected].