TV industry is fast approaching a tipping point

Television has been remarkably resistant to disruption from the internet and only now are we beginning to clearly see what the disruption might look like

TV is undergoing a profound change in viewing patterns. Photograph:  EPA/JOERG CARSTENSEN

TV is undergoing a profound change in viewing patterns. Photograph: EPA/JOERG CARSTENSEN

 

I don’t have a television, which is one of those admissions that’s really hard to make without sounding insufferably smug. But rather than swearing off all televisual entertainment, I do have an Apple TV, a Netflix subscription and a projector, a combination that offers more than enough content.

That set-up also helps me avoid two of the big downsides of TV ownership - one, having a black screen dominating my living room, with the rest of the furniture arranged before it like it’s a shrine; and two, the risk of falling in to that coma-like state known as “vegging out in front of the box”.

I’ve always been rather fond of, and astounded by, media and technology writer Clay Shirky’s observation, in his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus, that while all of Wikipedia represents something in the region of 100 million hours of work (or at least it did back then), every year Americans alone watch 200 billion hours of television. That’s roughly between five and six hours of television viewing per American, every single day.

Shirky anticipated the internet would precipitate a massive shift from passive consumption to active creation, with a whole range of unpredictable benefits and repercussions.

But television has been remarkably resistant to disruption from the internet, certainly in comparison to other media industries, and only now are we beginning to clearly see what the disruption might look like.

In recent weeks, there were a few very telling pieces of news that illustrate the television industry’s approaching inflection point.

Last week, an Ofcom report revealed that in the UK, the average amount of TV watched by children between four and 15 fell by 12.4 per cent between 2013 and 2014. That still amounts to just under two hours a day, which isn’t insignificant, but that decline is very telling - online activities, including watching YouTube, are having a dramatic effect on the television-watching habits of the next generation.

And it’s not just the kids - in the 35-44 bracket in the UK, TV viewing declined by 8 per cent.

Those changing viewing patterns were also illustrated last week when Disney announced its quarterly earnings, and warned of a decline in subscribers to its cable network offerings such as sports channel ESPN - the much discussed “cord-cutters” were finally becoming evident. The stock took a pummelling, shedding 9 per cent - it turns out, and I would not have guessed this, that Disney’s huge cable TV division contributes about half of the entertainment giant’s revenues, so unless they were to release a Pixar, Marvel or Star Wars movie every other week, those revenues are going to take a significant hit. Inevitably, other cable companies also took a dive on the markets at the news.

The final telling vignette from recent weeks involved the pugnacious Jeremy Clarkson and his former Top Gear colleagues announcing they were setting up camp with Amazon’s streaming service, having been bounced out of the BBC. As Clarkson put it, “I feel like I’ve climbed out of a biplane and into a space ship.”

Clarkson’s quip seems to reflect the obvious and inevitable - streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix paired with devices such as Google’s Chromecast or Apple TV (space ships) will gradually draw more and more viewers away from the broadcast channels (biplanes), usurping the model that has defined television since its inception.

Indeed, in a rather striking symmetry, ESPN has reportedly lost 3.2 million subscribers, according to US ratings firm Nielsen; Netflix revealed in its most recent quarterly report that it had attracted 3.3 million new subscribers globally, to 65.6 million in total.

Now, it’s important to note that the TV industry is actually an amalgam of very different business models sharing a medium, and furthermore the underlying business models differ dramatically from country to country. The US is dominated by cable networks and a frankly baffling array of countrywide affiliates offering the big three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. Without ever having lived in the US, it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around how convoluted the system of local cable monopolies really is, but it’s telling that cable providers such as Comcast and TimeWarner are universally loathed by consumers.

Then there is what might be called the BBC model of a licence-fee supported public service broadcaster, which is largely immune from competition in the traditional sense, but not so immune from political interference, as the BBC is currently discovering. (And then you get Italy, where all TV is fascinatingly awful.)

Finally, there is the economics of live sport broadcasting, which as the £4.2 billion Sky deal for the Premier League recently demonstrated, seems to defy business gravity, until you realise that live sport is the key to future subscription bundles, as it’s basically immune to “time-shifting”.

The variety of different business models at work here means the disruption from streaming services will not follow a predictable path, and many public service broadcasters might be well positioned to thrive in the era of streaming services. But the disruption will happen - and pretty soon, saying you don’t have a television won’t be so rare, and hopefully won’t sound so smug.

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