The persistence of channels

Channels and stations have existed for almost as long as the platforms that host them. Andrew Jerina, writing in this post, believes that channels are a waste of money, given the nature of our on-demand world. The post was in relation to BBC 6Music, and he makes some valid points, but I wholeheartedly disagree that channels are redundant.

Channels still play a valuable role in the navigation, identification and selection of content and I strongly believe that channels will persist.

This response is largely centred on television and radio stations, but several of the points are equally valid to other media – particularly print.

The rise of on demand and the “emancipation” of content won’t destroy the need for channels. Content is integral, but it is not the only constituent of a channel. A channel’s identity is the sum of its distribution, content, branding and audience. And channels maintain several advantages that cannot be as easily or effectively replicated through other means.

These include:

Incumbency – As I stated in my prior review of the books 2.0 event, I dispute the notion that friction is friction. Behaviour is highly entrenched and difficult to change. We are path dependent people and will rarely end up with what might be considered an optimal solution. Instead, we move to a better situation to our current one, if we move at all. We are comfortable with navigating by channel surfing, and it is unlikely to ever disappear

Belonging – As the outcry of 6Music shows, people relate to channels. Certain channels are seen as “for me” – whether E4, Scuzz or Radio 3. This isn’t necessarily a unique strength to channels, but a strong channel identity can facilitate a more coherent and longer-lasting relationship than a programme or platform brand can.

Signifier – Near-unlimited choice is an overwhelming prospect. The paradox of choice means we can be paralysed with uncertainty over making the wrong decision. This is also why Sky and Virgin offer channels in bundles – it simplifies the choice. Channels (either individual or groups) offer a simple filter to act as a starting point. Rather than search individual programmes or personalities, we search through channels. Even then, people aren’t going to surf through 600 odd channels. We have repertoires. A strong, coherent channel brand – whether Discovery, 1Xtra or Disney, projects a certain image that can be more impactful and relevant than a genre label such as “drama” or a single programme strand.

Destination – Following on from that, a channel in itself is a destination. Rather than queuing up a selection and making individual choices, we can just turn on a channel and remain there. Families may spend an entire evening watching ITV1 and a workplace may keep Magic FM on for the entire day.

Halo – A channel brand may be strengthened by its content, but equally the programmes can benefit from the channel identity. X Factor may be huge, but would it be as huge if it were on another channel? Even if it were on BBC One, I suspect not. A content brand is never as big as a channel brand. Hence Channel Five being unaffected by the loss of House to Sky One, or Channel 4 not seeing a significant decline in audience for other programmes during the Shilpa Shetty/Jade Goody incident. Richard & Judy succeeded in changing terrestrial channels, but couldn’t take an audience with them to digital.

“Goldilocks” size – the Goldilocks principle is where something is just right – neither too hot, nor too cold. A channel is about the right size to promote its programmes – and trailer are one of the primary ways we still find out about new shows and whether we think we will like them. Most production companies won’t have the scale to cross-promote its offerings, while the competition for space at the platform level would mean that space would be dominated by those that have the resources to pay for it

Open access – channels are additive (unless the spectrum capacity has been reached). Having access to Radio 2 won’t preclude access to Radio 4. However, this isn’t the case with platforms. With a couple of exceptions – notably Hong Kong, with its fragmented media landscape – we tend to have one platform and stick with it (e.g. Sky or Virgin). Either-Or. If platforms control content, they would be more likely to prevent it being on the other platform in order to increase their own sales (Sky Sports, for example). With channels competing across and within platforms, this isn’t the case.

This has been quite a one-sided post, and of course there are drawbacks to channels. But I strongly believe they will continue.

In future, could we create our own channels? Yes we could – our systems could be highly personalised with social or semantic programme recommendations. But, as with online consumption, this can create balkanisation (which I’ve previously written about here. It also requires an acceptance of rationality and logical choices, and an element of user input to define the parameters. Things not necessarily congruous with the lean-back medium of television or the audio wallpaper of radio.

My point of view may not resonate with the online masses, who largely seem to be of the opinion that social-powered on-demand is the way of the future. I don’t think I’m a Luddite, a conservative, or a traditionalist. But for something to become not just mainstream behaviour but standard behaviour it needs to offer a clear improvement on something. And, personally, I think channels are just fine.


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8 Responses

  1. Simon, I would whole-heartedly agree with you. It’s not “luddite”, or any of the other nouns you employ. I don’t want to come over all Thinkbox (Leave it) about it, but they have a point. I think personalisation/on demand era is still quite some way off,and the Paradox of choice you touch on makes me think of that other book du jour, Nudge, and the idea of “choice architects”. I think that’s where Broadcasters will be positioning themselves in the-no-so -distant future. Guiding people around their content, but it is their content that people come for. The delivery vehicle may change, but it’s always about the content, man.

  2. I agree with you. Most people don’t think about how they watch TV. Despite the plethora of catch up TV services, such as iPlayer, plus 1 and Sky Plus, the vast majority of viewing still takes place to the origination. People are lazy. They want to sit back on their sofa and watch a programme, at the time it has been scheduled, on the channel they flick to and feel comfortable with.

  3. Mat, don’t be embarrassed about coming over all Thinkbox.

    Don’t be shocked, but I do think we are seeing the emergence of meta-brands in on-demand despite the BBCiplayer insisting on running a channel ident before programmes.

    But I think that’s because most people come to on-demand services already with quite a strong idea of where the programme started out. 4oD, Sky player, itvplayer etc may become more important relative to the channel brands, but not more important overall. Look at Hulu and you’ll see that channel brands are a key navigational device.

    Channels don’t have to be linear of course; they are just retailers. But I think we’re only just starting to understand the importance of linear, especially in the context of social media.

  4. Hi all, thanks for the comments. The trusted guide aspect is certainly important – but (to counter the one-sidedness of my main post) could this be done by other parties? E.g. would you listen to a Sky One recommending their latest drama, or a Radio Times “channel” (though this would necessitate a change in definition from non-linear to shared content and – as mentioned – linearity is the easier option at the moment).

    I think we could get to a point where iPlayer can be considered a BBC channel alongside One – Four. As a “catch all” station, it is arguably no different to Discovery masterbrand/channel versus subisidiary channels. And, on Freesat at least, they are all available on the same platform.

  5. Thanks for the response Simon. I should point out that my initial post was also intentionally a little one sided as a reaction to all the 6Music hysteria that was going on – if you analyse what people were complaining about it was the death of the content produced by the station rather than the station itself and there had been a commitment to keep the best of that content anyway. In that sense, if the content survives and is still easily and readily available, so be it.

    Secondly, I don’t think channels/stations are completely without value. Again, the context of my post was the fact that there is no doubt the BBC are going to have to make cost savings, particularly if the next government is a Tory one. From working with the BBC, I know that the building of channels as differentiated brands is an extremely difficult and therefore relatively expensive task – and also, the type of communications that did that job best was was focusing on the content anyway.. Given that their usefulness is also (arguably) declining, I’d much rather see them save money and effort here than see them lay-off journalists or otherwise reduce the quality and diversity of their output.

    Let me deal with some of your points above in turn:

    Incumbency – behaviours are undoubtedly difficult to change, but this is a case where they are changing already, which is part of what prompted my post. People are already happy using different navigational systems to find music and online video – hence the success of the (frankly awful) iTunes for buying music and other tools which filter for individuals not the collective like LastFM, Spotify and Amazon recommendations. I’m fairly sure nobody saw this radical behavioural change as likely when Blur and Oasis were selling a quarter of a million CD singles each in a week and everyone was popping down to Woolies to choose between them (just 15 years ago). As with music buying, I’d argue tailoring to individual’s needs makes navigation easier, not harder and this is why it would be adopted.

    Belonging – I accept this in the case of 6music, but I think it’s a bit of a rare outlier because of the nature of its listener base – there’s already an existing sub-culture of sorts around indie music amongst whom a sense of belonging (and self-importance) is already important. They’ve adopted the station rather than being built collectively around it. The fact that the proposed death of the Asian Network, with around half the listeners of 6Music, leading to a relatively insubstantial level of protest suggests I might be right.

    Signifier – it’s interesting you use Sky as an example, because they are already organising their content by genre really – Sky Sports, Sky Movies etc. Similarly, people do buy packages of channels but look at the basis on which those packages are sold – you buy an entertainment package or a sports package, you don’t say I’ll have Virgin One, Sky One and HBO.

    Destination – I would actually turn this around as a negative (particularly for the poor buggers being subjected to a whole day of Magic!). Isn’t what you’re describing here better labelled as inertia? Because people are blindy tuning in to a specific channel and leaving it on for the evening, they may well be missing out on content they would enjoy more or new things they would otherwise have missed. Besides that, if you don’t want to choose and want to just sit and watch similar things passively, your digibox or online service could almost certainly deliver that as well.

    Halo – I’d pretty strongly contend this, but I guess it really depends on how we’re defining a brand. I’d suggest that Eastenders is far more strongly defined as a brand than BBC One is and there’s no question that the Premier League is stronger than SkySports. The pull of both of this content is stronger than the channel it’s on as well – you can argue the Premier League didn’t pull in enough subscribers for Setanta, but that was more to do with their model being wrong and also having a terrible package of games and Steve McManaman (again, back to the content). And doesn’t your Jade Goody example support my side of the argument? People still tuned into the content they enjoyed because each programme is a seperate decision in its own right, removed from any controversy stirred up by a different programme on the same channel. If the friendly copy on one flavour of innocent smoothies suddenly changed to racist rhetoric, you’d probably stop buying other innocent smoothy flavours as well, because they are all seen to come from one coherent entity.

    Goldilocks size – I guess the planning of trailers is one thing that would certainly become more complex – although not having to plan in channel level promotions anymore will free up some media planning time! Again though, I don’t think this is insurmountable. Already you would place your trailers near to similar content, so it’s easier to do that here – not to mention the ‘loyalty card’ effect you would get for individuals based on previous viewing/listening actually helping you to target your promos better.

    Open access – this one is harder to disagree with and I guess, in this case, iTunes/iPod is a good example of your point where the fairly strict controls of the use of the content you’ve bought ties you in to not just a single content provider, but their hardware as well.

    Part of this, for me, comes from the fact I don’t have UK channels to choose from, I can only get radio not TV from iPlayer and I’m forced therefore to download the TV I want to watch from home (given I also have a download limit on my broadband plan I’m forced to be even more selective). However, despite this, I haven’t had any trouble finding content I want to listen to or watch, regardless if I’m consciously looking to watch something in particular, or just want something on in the background whilst I’m working. Perhaps I’m unduly biased by my own experience (which makes me a very naughty researcher).

  6. Hi Andrew – thanks for the thoughtful reply. I suspect we agree on far more than we disagree on, once our respective stands are taken into account, but to adress some (but not all) of your points

    - Multiplicity of choice in navigation is a good thing. You are happy in an on demand environment (as am I), but many others wouldn’t be. The proportion of viewing to live might fall from 99% but the simplicity of turning on without a moment’s thought (for escapism with TV or background music for radio) shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, the numbers of people using RSS for their web browsing are still pretty low.

    - Content and channels have a symbiotic relationship. Sport and film are an exception to this, as they are high quality “strands” that people are willing to pay extra for – whether cinema, live ticket or on demand (indeed, France, which has a largely transactional VOD service, sees films as one of the few types of content viewed this way). Most other genres or programmes don’t have this status. It gets a little messy with masterbrands (BBC) vs sub-brands (BBC One) but I would disagree that the EastEnders brand is stronger. EastEnders is just constituent that makes up BBC One – alongside Dr Who, The Apprentice, Attenborough documentaries etc. People would be upset if EastEnders was cancelled, but not to the same extent as if BBC One got cancelled.

    Some of my points – incumbency, destination – can be viewed as negative reasons for their continuation. But I think destination can be a positive thing. Some people would rather listen to MTV than pick out 10 music videos to watch. Friday nights on channel 4 have traditionally been a destination to watch comedy strands. This might benefit from a big hit (Friends, Will & Grace Ugly Betty) to anchor the strand, thus allowing smaller programmes that may have gone under the radar to be exposed to them. The audience may be missing out on a funnier programme on Paramount Comedy but the optimal choice isn’t always the “best” – it might also be the easiest.

    A final point to make is that, as with everything, you have good channels and bad channels. A good channel is something that has a clearly defined proposition and identity. Dave was a good example of this (essentially a repackage of G2), because the audience (male ABC1) was different to the rest of (majority of) the uktv stable. There have been diminishing returns with the rebranding of their various lifestyle programmes as the branding, audience, distribution and – yes – content isn’t clear.

    Thanks for your answer – again, you raise some very valid points

  7. I’m not saying this will happen overnight, but I think there will be a gradual movement to on-demand viewing. As such, it makes sense to gradually reduce the number of channels and stations. In the end, as with the digital switchover, a few laggards will have to be forcefully moved over, but I think most people will find it beneficial after a bit of gentle coercion.

    I’m not underestimating the value of just switching on, I’m saying that you can do that in an on demand environment as well – it’s just the switch isn’t an arbitrary number on a remote, it’s your own tastes set to random.

    I think the BBC is a stamp of quality and would continue to be one of the filters people would apply, but I can’t agree on BBC One. People would be annoyed if BBC One was cancelled only if it meant that Eastenders, Dr Who and the Apprentice (which BTW, I believe started on BBC Two and seamlessly switched over to One) disappeared as a result. As I think I said in my original post, if Eastenders suddenly moved to ITV then 8m viewers would almost certainly follow it. BBC One would have a very hard time filling that half an hour 4 nights a week with something getting anywhere near those numbers – because it’s the content they’re tuning in for, not the channel. By your rationale, the strength of the BBC One brand would keep them there 7.30-8pm 4 nights a week regardless of what was on? [/exaggeration for effect]

    Of course, certain things will always be scheduled – the premiere of a new soap episode will be at a certain time available in a certain place, and sports are not much cop if they’re not live. But I just don’t think the system for classification needs to be a channel as we know them.

  8. As I mentioned, these things are symbiotic – content is important, but it is not everything. Content and channels can mutually benefit. EastEnders will outperform most other programmes in that timeslot on BBC One, but not all viewers would follow if it switched. ITV1 would see the biggest audience transfer, due to the prominence of channels. Take your Apprentice example – audiences are far higher on BBC One than BBC Two. If it switched back to BBC Two would it maintain the same audience? No, because of the channel effect.

    The final point you make on scheduling is an important one, and one I’d overlooked. TV, and to a lesser extent radio, are shared, social experiences. The watercooler effect is still strong. We do see “liveblogs” of US dramas populated by people that saw the programme the previous week via “alternative” means, but the majority of viewing is still “live” and still talked about the next day at work/school.

    It is fair to say that in future we will see other classification systems competing with channels, and the weaker channels may no longer be able to survive if they are just rehashing content associated with other entities. With iPlayer vs. BBC TV and radio stations, there is going to be increasing crossover and less linearity. There will also be a space for other trusted recommendation sources – whether Radio Times, Mark Kermode on Film or Baby Cow productions (though I would argue the latter is too abstract a concept for most viewers). However, I think “traditional” channels will still be the primary mechanism for navigation for the majority.


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