Strategy for the Digital Age

2002-10-15
 
The media environment is changing dramatically. In order to understand the evolving situation, and the way the public service broadcasters need to respond to it, we can identify changes in four inter-connected areas: technology, industry, consumer behaviour, and the regulatory environment.


The Changes

Technology changes begin with the growing use of digital technology. Digital technology makes possible new ways to produce and deliver media, and will bring the wider use of ever more sophisticated multimedia, inter-activity, the option of multichannel services, on-demand services, and the availability of different picture and sound quality options.

In fact there are two consecutive technological revolutions underway. The first is the"analogue-to-digital" revolution. The second is the"digital-to-software" (or IT) revolution. It is the combination of these two that is the enabling mechanism for many critical changes in the media environment.

Industry changes include the globalisation (or internationalisation) of media interests. Market economics almost inevitably lead organisations to grow and to seek ever-larger markets. Whatever public service broadcasters may do, private media companies will inevitably enlarge their interests. We can also expect more media organizations delivering more media, in one way or another.

In addition, progressively more programme content will be made for multiple delivery means, and individual companies in the industry will serve an ever wider range of delivery means.

One important specific development is that rights-owners upon whom broadcasters traditionally depend for recorded music, sports, or films, may well use new digital outlets directly themselves. This may lead to such programme content either not being available at all for broadcasters, or only in limited form, or only for secondary/tertiary use.

We can also note that, as new gatekeepers, international media corporations could control the complete media chain, from programme talent and rights to the viewer and listener's equipment at home. This means they could be in complete command of the new sources of media revenue.

Consumer behaviour changes include the propensity for media viewing and listening to be less of a collective experience and more of an individual experience. This individualisation of the media experience from the consumer side is fuelled by the technological possibilities for providing more personalised services.

In addition, at least in some countries, there is some decline in public acceptance of collective financing for public services, or at least the perception of the need for it. Maximum privatisation is seen as generally serving the public interest.

Regulatory changes include the legal consequences of the change of delivery opportunities from scarcity to plenty. There are many more opportunities for broadcasting and media delivery, and thus new regulatory frameworks are being developed to cope with this. The place and influence of the public service broadcasters in the media landscape is changing. National media regulation is becoming less meaningful as the media maket becomes more international.


Stages and Transitions

To help comprehend the likely evolution of electronic media, we could see it as having three successive, but overlapping, stages or eras. Looking from a distance, at the years since television began, and to future years, we see a pattern emerging.

The first stage is (or was) the limited channel-flow world. The viewer or listener is allowed a small number of programme streams or channels from which to 'catch' the media as they flow by. The airwaves were a limited, and thus a precious, resource; and, given the need for national coverage, only a few channels were technically possible.

In the early days of broadcasting in Europe, when public service broadcast institutions were created, one argument for doing so was the 《scarcity rationale》. This world of limited numbers of channel flows represented the first age of electronic media. In some parts of Europe, it has already come to an end. The scarcity of media delivery means called for public service broadcasters to provide generalist channels with due care for programming for minorities.
The second stage is, or will be, the multiple channel-flow world. The viewer or listener is allowed a much larger number of channels from which to catch media as they flow by. This world is enabled by the technologies of cable, satellite, and recently, digital compression.

Not all parts of Europe will enjoy the same kind of channel offer or timescale for the enlargement of services. There may also be different patterns for radio and television, but the general tendency will apply everywhere.

Where there is a very large channel offer, the viewer/listener inevitably needs help in navigating it. An electronic programme guide or EPG can provide this. If this EPG is attractive enough, it can become the anchor for the viewer, and the centre of his or her loyalty and attention - rather than individual channels themselves.

The diminishing importance of the channel as the point of departure for the viewer may precipitate changes. Public service broadcasters many need to move their "branding" from their channels, as it is today, closer to the programmes themselves. Public service broadcasters will also need to be active in the development of programme guides.


On-Demand World

The third stage will be the on-demand world. The viewer or listener is now able to choose from a vast range of individual media offers. He can watch or listen to them when he wants. The viewer or listener becomes his own programme scheduler, though predetermined channel flows may still be present for those who want them. Some media items will need to be available at particular times, such as sports events, so we will still have available the power of the shared moment, but most will be there when and where we want them. The technology of the Internet, and super-versions of today's home Internet connections – 'broadband networks', will finally enable this world. Internet today is the fledgling version of this full service quality, no waiting, and on-demand world.

But broadband technology is expensive, and in the near term, a simpler type of on demand service will be available, which will use digital broadcasting, or mix digital broadcasting with today's Internet technology. The home receiver becomes a giant storage tank for media, which the viewer can draw on at leisure. These systems use a digital broadcast channel to top up a receiver storage system. They are the "client storage" or "TV (and Radio) Anytime" systems. First receivers are already available in parts of Europe. When broadband technology is cheap enough, it may supersede client storage as a way of providing an on-demand world, but this will not be for many years for most parts of Europe. It may be that broadband on-demand and TV Anytime systems will eventually be integrated together.

Across the new eras, the content delivered will progressively include more 'multimedia'. This is the dressing of the television and radio forms that we are used to, with graphics and text, so that the whole takes on a colour magazine-like appearance on the screen. The services may also make more use of the technical capacity available for the viewer to interact with the programmes via his remote control.
Finally, in time, there will be a demand for "high definition television" - television with the level of picture detail we associate with the cinema.

The digital mobile telephone can be used in principle to deliver multimedia to the individual or group, and eventually this may include moving pictures of reasonable technical quality. An evolving hierarchy of digital mobile systems is planned, capable of ever more sophisticated multimedia: GSM, GPRS, and UMTS. Means such as UMTS may be part of the on-demand environment.

The three-stage model of the evolution of consumption patterns for electronic media (limited channel flow, multi-channel flow, on-demand) is a simple interpretation of current trends. It is much harder to predict the timescales for the transitions between the different stages, which will vary in different parts of the world. There are differences in economic climates, tastes, population sizes, and existing infrastructures, which will influence this, even within European nations. We can predict that these will be the three stages of media consumption, but timetables for the changes, and the likely periods of overlap, are much more difficult to predict. We cannot judge yet how soon the different stages will arrive, or how long they will stay.


(* Complete version of the above article is available on the website of European Broadcasting Union (http://www.ebu.ch/home_6.html))
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