So the digital revolution is finally upon us and, strangely enough,
watching last week’s TV news shots of Michael Green and his British
Digital Broadcasting mates triumphantly ripping the ITC fax out of the
machine, it was uncannily reminiscent of the ITV franchise auction.
That, I suspect, is half the point. Much has been made of the lack of
programming originality on the part of the BDB winning consortium, and
it is certainly true that the proposals put forward by the rival, DTN
bid were more exciting. It would be tempting to conclude, therefore,
that by awarding the licence to BDB, the ITC has missed a big
opportunity - that allowing BDB’s stodgy mixture of Sky sport and
thematically dressed up re-runs won’t give us a reason to buy.
I’m not so sure. Indeed, I’d go further and say that the familiarity of
the BDB offering, far from being a weakness, is its strength. I have two
grounds for saying this, both based on a solid research case (ie me, my
family and some mates). Argument number one: if you go to a new
restaurant and it has a huge and confusing menu - vegetarian, Chinese,
Zen Italian - what do you do? Answer: most of us settle for steak and
chips or an omelette. Argument number two: the Mills household’s
relationship with our 50-channel Telewest cable subscription continues
to deepen slowly, to the extent that we are now familiar with, oh, all
of eight channels.
But which channels do we watch the news on? Answer: BBC 1 and ITV
because at least we know when it’s on.
The reality is that our TV-watching patterns (and our general media
consumption habits) are deeply ingrained and, while they are not fixed
in stone, evolve only slowly (how else do we explain the slow take-off
of Sky?). As in other markets, media brands engender loyalty, perhaps
long after their true sell-by date.
The other point to bear in mind is that while we talk quite rightly
about Sky, BDB, cable and so on extending choice, digital TV is as much
about extending the choice of when we watch something as it is about
what we watch. When you’re spoiled for choice, you settle for what you
know. That is not to say new programming choices aren’t welcome, more
that they take a long time to become ingrained habit and that they
evolve in parallel with changes in when we view TV. This being so, it is
more important for BDB to gain wide acceptance quickly - something that
the ITC recognised implicitly - than it is to be original.
However, that does not mean BDB should be entirely free of originality
or experimentation. But the people who should be using it that way are
the advertisers and media buyers. At the end of the day, digital TV is
about the multiplication of opportunities to inform and communicate,
about liberating them from time and place as we know it. The sooner the
advertising and media communities get going on this, the better.