Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The future of TV is not quite as rosy for consumers as it appears

I’ve been reading lately about the future of TV. There are no shortage of interesting material on the topic like these short quotes from industry leaders compiled by CNBC, the great post by Brian Solis “The future of TV is more than social it’s a multi-screen experience that needs design” and this must listen podcast by Mitch Joel “The future of TV is social”.

I don’t dispute any of the conclusions in the content  above. The lines of argument are that TV is the next big battle ground. One that has remained relatively unchanged for 25 years but one that looks set to see significant disruption over the next few years through the convergence of social media and digital technologies with television, through dual-screen media consumption and through a wave of technology innovations from motion control, voice control, ultrahigh definition, 3D, to greatly enhanced search and streaming etc. This post is not about the potential technology innovation in the future of TV, it’s about some of the practical barriers that consumers may face over the coming years as the TV industry goes through its transformation.

The first challenge I see is that in an industry dominated by mega-players content will be distributed amongst multiple providers via a rights bidding war. If I just take the UK market as an example, competition to define the future of TV is fierce. We have the traditional terrestrial TV providers like the BBC and ITV who are investing heavily in digital and streaming content. We have the dominant Satellite TV provider BSkyB, whose monopoly has been eroded somewhat over the last few years by BT, Virgin Media and others. In addition, we have Apple TV, Netflix, Google TV, Tesco (via their blinkbox acquisition), Amazon (via their LoveFilm acquisition) and a host of other players inclusing potentially some of the content providers streaming their content direct to consumers. In other words the TV industry has some of the largest companies on the planet with some of the deepest pockets, all competing for eyeballs. In order for any of those players to remain relevant in the market they have to have content rights. A potential scenario for the next few years is that we may see a battle of the giants for content rights which will not only push up prices but also ensure that content is scattered across multiple providers. Take for example the recent announcement that the 2013-14 to 2015-16 premier league football rights have been sold to BT and BSkyB for £3bn – this represents a staggering increase of £1.25bn on the current rights package and splits content between 2 competitors. As rights for other premium content follow suit the result for consumers may be that consumers will need to go to multiple providers for content and that these providers may change at every rights renewal.

A secondary impact of the rights war will be that providers, keen to claw back their investments, will hang on to their existing business models. Those with lucrative subscription models will cling on to them as long as they can and those with exclusive rights (e.g. premier League football, Heineken Cup Rugby etc), will maintain either high prices or increasingly sophisticated (or relentless!) forms of advertising – some of the terrestrial providers in the UK now seem to have more forced adverts on their streamed content than they do on free / live television! The result for consumers? We may well have to consider multiple subscriptions, multiple contracts, multiple hardware devices and more adverts forced into our content. In addition, it’s likely that we may see more providers heading the way of Setanta sports to bankruptcy as over-prices rights become a poisoned chalice for some providers.

A third challenge I see is viewing quality. Over the last few years picture quality within the DVD / Cinema and Cable TV segments has improved radically – we’ve seen a mass roll out of HD, some muted take up of 3D and the potential launch of ultra-high definition. In the streaming world, when picture quality increases so to does the strain on the broadband network. This phenomenon is of course exacerbated as more and more people start to stream more and more content. At the end of last year Netflix accounted for 33% of peak time internet traffic in the US. As more players enter the streaming video market, more consumers stream content and the resolution of that content increases, broadband networks will likely struggle to keep pace.  In reality this means one thing for consumers in the short to medium term – buffering!

A final challenge that consumers may have to contend with will be shortening product lifecycle times and continual hardware / software compatibility issues. To illustrate what I mean here, let me use a personal example. I bought a smart TV less than 18 months ago. The software is already out of date and cannot be upgraded – in effect my “smart” TV is now just a dumb monitor. Now, I understand that many hardware manufacturers moving into software have a pretty steep learning curve to produce brilliant, upgradable software (with the exception of Apple it’s simply not in their DNA). In addition, I understand that rapid technology innovation is resulting in shorter product lifecycles. But most consumers, used to purchasing a TV that lasts many years, may not be so accepting. In addition, TV manufacturers will likely battle against an array of players for dominance of the living room. If you’ve invested millions in developing “smart” TV’s, the last thing you want is for your device to be kept as a dumb monitor, while consumers plug in IP boxes and TiVos and “flick” content from their smart phones onto the TV. Whilst consumers will undoubtedly see huge innovation, it is highly unlikely that the various hardware / software providers will work in harmony, again leaving consumers facing potential frustration, confusion and expense.

Bill Gates once said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”. There are some incredibly exciting innovations in the future of television, but mass adoption may be held back, unless some of the barriers above are addressed.

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The Customer Revolution Blog by Laurence Buchanan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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