TV’s future looks long and strong

By Torin Douglas Media correspondent, BBC News

Remember all those stories saying “TV is dead”? Google is full of them – about 949,000, according to its own calculation.

“TV is dead. Long live the internet,” proclaimed a Guardian headline just a couple of months ago.

Yet what once seemed the conventional wisdom now looks premature at least – as Google’s chairman Dr Eric Schmidt admitted at the weekend at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

“In 2010, UK adults spent as much time watching TV in four days as they did using the web in a month,” he said in his keynote McTaggart Lecture. “TV is still clearly winning the competition for attention!”

A Deloitte analysis for the festival reported that TV viewing had risen every year since 2006. In May 2011, it said, total television viewing was up by 6% year on year, an increase of 364 million hours.

“To put this rather large number in perspective,” said the report, “it is equivalent to double the time the UK spent on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter in the same month. Not too shabby for a medium that has been, and continues to be, prophesied to disappear.”

The chair of the Television Festival, George Entwistle, director of BBC Vision, said: “This year we’ve seen enormously resilient audience figures for traditionally scheduled TV experiences – from the Royal Wedding and Saturday night blockbuster entertainment to a resurgence in high quality drama from the big broadcasters.”

People are also buying more – and bigger – TV sets, according to TV Licensing, with more than two million 40-inch-plus sets sold last year.

Far from being killed by the internet, television viewing has never been more popular. Some in the industry claim TV is now set to be the dominant partner, creatively at least.

John McVey, director of the producers’ association PACT, said internet companies were crying out for top quality television content to feed the demands of its audience.

YouTube (owned by Google) is one. Created on the back of “user generated content”, with millions of ordinary people sharing their video clips, the company now has a director whose job is to build its partnerships with broadcasters and other professional content providers.

In a session called The Battle for the Living Room, Ben McOwen-Wilson said a major priority for YouTube this year was to bring more “high-end” content onto the platform by offering to split advertising revenue with broadcasters and independent producers.

Channel 4 was the first broadcaster in the world to put its full catch-up service on YouTube.

Another priority, McOwen-Wilson said, was to make it easier for people to watch YouTube on the television screen – a further example of how TV and the internet need each other.

Reporting challenge

TV may still be much more popular, but the internet can add millions of viewers to some audiences.

More than half the viewing to ITV2’s The Only Way Is Essex is online and catch-up viewing is almost as important for some editions of the BBC’s A Question of Sport and Torchwood.

The Royal Wedding was live-streamed 72 million times in 188 countries, even though almost every broadcast outlet was showing the footage.

This was the underlying theme of the festival – not which of the two was going to “win”, but their convergence, and how this is changing the way people watch and engage with programmes, often using two screens at a time.

“The internet is fundamental to the future of television because it is a platform for things that traditional TV cannot support,” said Dr Schmidt.

“I think we’re on the cusp of a golden age for TV – a vast choice, made manageable by a magical guide, ensuring there’s always something wonderful to watch.”

The internet enables us to have mobile and video-on-demand devices such as the iPad, Sky+ and the iPlayer, and services such as iTunes; electronic programme guides, which help viewers find programmes and channels more easily; and social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook which let people share comments and draw attention to compelling programmes, through hashtags and the “like” button.

It was Twitter that alerted the world to Alex Crawford’s remarkable Sky News reports from Tripoli, as she joined the rebel convoy on its triumphant progress into the Libyan capital, through thousands of cheering people, hugging and kissing the soldiers.

In a memorable Worldview session at the festival, the award-winning reporter was interviewed live from Tripoli with her camera crew.

She vividly described the technological challenge of bringing the pictures to the world, with a lap-top linked to the satellite, balanced on the bonnet of the pick-up truck, powered by the vehicle’s cigarette lighter.

And she reminded the audience of the continuing importance of experienced reporters from established news organisations, in an age when anyone can upload video and other “user-generated content” to the internet.

“People didn’t believe what was happening in Tripoli til they saw the pictures – and a journalist they could trust, on the ground,” she said.

‘Giant predator’

But how is all this television content going to be paid for in the future?

Sky itself seems secure, with a firm base of 10 million paying subscribers.

Often criticised for not spending enough on “traditional” TV programmes, a Sky executive described how it was rapidly increasing its investment in UK drama, comedy and arts programmes, as well as buying HBO series for its Sky Atlantic channel.

Others are more concerned about their income.

Can the convergence of television and the internet help replace the advertising revenue being sucked away from traditional broadcasters and newspapers by the web?

In a session called Chasing the Convergence Cash, ITV and Channel Four spelled out their attempts to harness the new opportunities, but it was said that Apple’s iTunes was the only service making proper money out of video-on-demand.

And what about Google itself, often seen as a giant predator?

Dr Schmidt denied claims that Google was a parasite, taking billions of pounds in advertising without investing in content.

He insisted Google was a friend of television, not a foe, and had shared $6bn (£3.7bn) worldwide with its publishing partners in newspapers and broadcasting.

It was also entering into a partnership with the UK’s National TV and Film School, to fund a course in online film-making.

But John McVey of Pact said Google needed to pay far more before independent producers would consider it as a regular outlet for their programmes.

Google may not be a foe – but the consensus among TV folk in Edinburgh was that it’s not yet a true friend.