Media Forum: Is the end nigh for linear TV?

Is linear broadcast TV heading for the knacker's yard, Alasdair Reid asks.

Channel 4's deal with YouTube is a world first, apparently - though with so much happening in the space where the web meets television, attempting to be definitive about firsts is always slightly risky.

Clips of Channel 4 programmes have been available for years on YouTube, obviously, but this is apparently the first time that a broadcaster has made a comprehensive archive of whole full-length programmes (legally) available on an online video aggregator. It's a non-exclusive deal - and Channel 4 will continue to offer "catch-up" access to its programming on other platforms, not least its own website.

Ad revenue, sold by Channel 4 and derived from pre-roll as well as in-programme ads, will be shared between the two companies - and there's talk of advertisers being offered hyper-efficient targeting as the initiative matures.

All very exciting. Even more so when seen alongside another potential deal - talks between ITV and Hulu are also said to be at an advanced stage. Owned by three of the big four US television network operators, NBC, Fox and ABC, Hulu is the leading US online aggregator of video-on-demand television - and it has been given the chance to break into the UK market courtesy of our competition authorities, which hobbled its British equivalent, Kangaroo, back in February.

Son of Kangaroo, now owned by Arqiva and recently renamed SeeSaw, is now gearing up to decide on a new provisional launch date. Some commentators even speculated last week that the ITV and Channel 4 plans, when taken in conjunction with the continued success of the BBC iPlayer, already add up to a "watershed" moment in the history of television.

We could, in short, be witnessing the beginning of the end for linear broadcast television. Oh no, we're not, Tess Alps, the chief executive of Thinkbox, says. She argues: "The balance between linear and on-demand is certainly one of the most interesting questions. And actually, TV companies are in a fortunate position. Because, in some respects, TV companies are in a better position than other media, such as print - they can derive the same amount of revenue online as on linear TV. TV content is already digital content delivered via a screen and it's always been free, funded by ads."

And in any case, Alps adds, there's strong evidence that online viewing is additional, incremental viewing. Pete Robins, the founder of agenda21, concedes there might be a grain of truth in that. But he reckons there's something fundamentally new in play here. He explains: "The interesting thing for me is that these broadcast companies are looking to form partnerships rather than trying to compete on their own. In the past, in the broadcast market, distribution and content used to be owned by the same people. Now there are so many options for reaching people with video content in different ways and in different places."

People, he states, will increasingly exercise that choice. Maybe, David Cuff, the commercial director of Virgin Media TV, counters but that doesn't mean that the linear schedule is on its way out.

He explains: "It's true that we're near a tipping point as regards the blending of internet-sourced TV to our TV screens. But live TV has an imperative to view and will always remain a strong proposition. When people come home, their first question is still: 'What's on telly?' And if they can't find what they want - then they go to on-demand and look at their favourite channels. Conventional TV is not going to die in the foreseeable future. There's just too much good stuff out there."

Chris Locke, the trading director of Starcom MediaVest Group, tends to agree - internet viewing will actually enhance linear TV. He concludes: "Developments like this deal put VoD into an enhanced space - and it's an attractive new advertising opportunity. Interestingly, this is good news for YouTube too, which has been struggling to gain traction in the marketplace."

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NO - Tess Alps, chief executive, Thinkbox

"There's every indication that viewing on a screen other than a TV set is incremental viewing. But actually, live viewing meets a basic human need - and Twitter, which allows people to share a live experience, could be making live viewing more important."

YES - Pete Robins, founder, agenda21

"The market clearly is changing and we have to be prepared to react to that - and I'm by no means convinced by the argument that changes to viewing habits are going to remain incremental."

NO - David Cuff, commercial director, Virgin Media TV

"The top shows perform better in the on-demand paradigm and the net effect is not that people move away from the linear stream but that they watch less low-quality TV."

NO - Chris Locke, trading director, Starcom MediaVest Group

"There's every evidence that people who watch video-on-demand in any form end up watching linear conventional TV even more. It will be good for the consumer. Ad opportunities such as pre-roll are good too, especially if the ad is relevant to the show."


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