Feature

The Channel 4 TV Planning Awards 2006: Review - Testing, testing

Marcus Vinton investigates the latest technology at the decidedly groovy iBurbia studios.

For the past 60 years, we've watched TV and run our lives around the schedules of television executives. Appointment viewing offered us entertainment, education and escapism. Back in the day, a consecutive run of popular programmes on any one evening would be strategically circled or underlined in the paper by my dad and officially heralded as a "good telly night', which meant you stayed in, knowing that your mates were doing the same. This was before digital and interactivity, a time when television was defined by ITV and BBC, not VOD, P2P or 4OD.

That said, one cannot underestimate the ways in which these digital innovations will shape our culture and inform consumer behaviour. For advertisers or marketers, the future of TV can seem more about confusion than convergence. However, if the reality of digital TV today interests you as much as what's in store for us tomorrow, then "press pause", and head down to iBurbia in West London - it's the happening place for all new telly stuff.

IBurbia is part of the very clever Decipher Group, digital TV gurus who are as interested in what's going on with consumers in front of the TV as what's going on behind it. In a series of "lounge" environments with comfy sofas and choccie biscuits, iBurbia has all the latest "kit" in the shape of digi-boxes, recorders, hand-held gizmos, etc, all the mod "comms" in the form of emerging platforms networks and digital services. So, let's see how I got on.

First of all, the kit. Personal video recorders record digital TV straight on to computer-like hard drives. They let you pause, rewind and replay action on screen while you are recording a programme - allowing for "time-shifted" viewing of live TV. Penetration is around two million in the UK, mostly Sky+. This box is a life-changing piece of equipment that a child could use (and they do). To date, most media pundits have seen PVRs as a threat to traditional ad revenues, but to say ad skipping is the end of advertising is nonsense. We have always had ad skipping - it's called switching the channel. PVR homes actually watch more TV. Just like Caxton's printing press, radio in the 20s, commercial TV in the 50s or the internet in the late 90s, PVRs represent the launchpad for a wholly new platform for engaging advertising and marketing activity.

The most significant advance in terms of quality is high-definition TV. With at least twice the linear resolution of standard-definition TV, seeing and hearing really is believing. You'll need an HD-ready TV and an HD set-top box or decoder to receive the programmes. An HDTV is not like upgrading to a flash telly. The step change in quality is amazing, offering sharper, clearer and brighter pictures, better sound and an all-round enhanced experience. HD camcorders, DVDs and recorders are already here.

The other much-hyped devices are mobile TVs, multimedia players and location-free mobile telephones. They work and they're here, although network operators are still struggling to pay off the billions spent on 3G licences. And while mobile operators have the most at stake, they may not necessarily be the real winners in the long term. New content providers such as brands and independent producers are well-placed to capture revenue, not least because they can take advantage of their control over mobile broadcast rights to ensure that distribution is on their terms rather than the operators'. Mobile devices may well become the dominant receptor within five to ten years, both in terms of content and penetration.

Connecting your TV to your computer, or just having one machine that does both, is expected to be a big trend. It will open up a huge library of video from the internet to watch on a television set, as well as using the computer's memory as a PVR. Microsoft's Media Center is really impressive and Apple has released similar technology. The media centre interface appears on your PC or TV whether you're browsing YouTube, Sky Anytime or looking at family pics or videos. This is genuine convergence and a model for the future. Slingbox is another amazing, though simple, bit of kit. With no subscription needed, this device beams your digital home TV signal to any PC wherever you are in the world.

The really big one to watch is video-on-demand, another PC-TV convergent technology. VOD systems either stream content so you can watch programmes, or download content to a set-top box to store. 4OD is Channel 4's new VOD service and has a great headstart on the competition. With a beautifully designed interface, the "viewser" feels empowered to glide seamlessly through Channel 4 programming, via the web (PC only, not Mac, yet) and through Virgin Media. You can "Catch-up" on your favourite shows 28 days after they've gone out; buy, rent or "Pre-book" downloads; or rent shows up to two weeks in advance. Sky Anytime also offers convergent TV-PC on-demand content - hundreds of movies, sport and entertainment - while Virgin Media offers more than 500 movie titles and TV.

Regardless of the quality of VOD content, we don't yet have the quantity. This is primarily due to the production community and platforms struggling with perf ormance and exploitation rights on reruns, downloads online and mobile devices. But once the lawyers have re-drafted the legislation, VOD content will flourish.

All this new channelling and technology is not an end in itself, however. People don't really care about how stuff gets to them providing the stuff is engaging. It's estimated that, this year, $40 billion worth of conventional adspend will be diverted into experiential marketing and entertainment properties. Global brands are increasingly turning towards the independent film as a means to build consistent messaging. Also interesting is the relaxation of legislation around brand integration and placement. So VOD presents a perfect distribution channel for brands to offer measurable and immersive long-format content.

Another important new platform is peer to peer (P2P) and user-generated content, such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, blogging or podcasting. Of course, user-generated content is not new, just ask Jeremy Beadle, but the ability for people to publish their own content to the world is. We are now witnessing the phenomenon of "people as producer". Bandwidth and terabit have become the new pencil and paper. As broadband access to the internet via TV and computer becomes commonplace, there is potential for a new type of network to emerge that improves upon some of the functions of television, while increasing connections to communities. Independent content is already finding slots on network TV.

So, in terms of "New-TV" innovation, our nation leads the world. For consumer and marketer alike, television has fundamentally changed forever and for the better. Our consumption of the new networks and channels will lead to better content, new business models, and the monetisation and liberation of information and entertainment, both commercially and creatively. Television is thinking "outside of the box".

- Marcus Vinton is a co-founder and the chief creative officer of All Terrain Entertainment.

PREVIOUS WINNERS OF THE C4 TV PLANNING AWARDS
2003
Winner (under £1m category)
Hasbro Action Man
Sam D'Amato, OMD UK

Winner (over £1m category)
Orange
Simon Sadie, Media Planning Group

2004
Winner (under £1m category) Hornby
Katrin Schlenzka, BLM Media

Winner (over £1m category)
GSK Niquitin CQ
Janine Edwards, MediaCom

2005
Overall Winner
HarperCollins
Lisa Batty and Sian Amato, OMD UK

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