TV alarmists are tilting at windmills

The 30-storey wind turbine that rises above Toronto's lakefront stands as a constant reminder that Ontario's electrical 'grid' is in transition. Canada's TV medium is transitioning in a way that has an uncanny resemblance to Ontario's power system. Television is a 'grid' with its own share of emerging technology not to mention quixotic windmill tilting developments wrapped in a transitioning regulatory environment.

The 30-storey wind turbine that rises above Toronto’s lakefront stands as a constant reminder that Ontario’s electrical ‘grid’ is in transition. Canada’s TV medium is transitioning in a way that has an uncanny resemblance to Ontario’s power system. Television is a ‘grid’ with its own share of emerging technology not to mention quixotic windmill tilting developments wrapped in a transitioning regulatory environment.

The majority of today’s TV marketing efforts employ conventional, mass technology and tactics in order to reach the consuming public just as the vast majority of the public have their energy needs satisfied by conventional means – gas, coal, water, nuclear. But standing on the horizon are harbingers – mobile reception, Internet delivery, PVRs, PPMs, diginets in the case of TV – smart meters, windmills, solar panels, biomass, and vented methane in the case of energy generation. Just as both sectors pray for firm regulatory direction, the regulators’ indecision grows.

Media pontificators have created a rich and imaginative lexicon to describe our shifting landscape. We are in the middle of ‘crackling change,’ ‘holy grails,’ and ‘attraction economies’ as we move to ‘relationship models,’ and ‘consumer engagement.’ And with each newly borrowed phrase, our industry becomes increasingly frantic. Media directors compete for larger shares-of-media-soothsaying-voice. Marketers drop inspirational bombs, which capture attention but deaden the landscape.

As much fun as this all seems to be, it is not without its downside.

With each new radical pronouncement, confidence in the TV medium declines. With decline in TV confidence levels, comes decline in the funding bulwark for most of this country’s marketing, media and measurement infrastructure. The last two ‘Ballester/ICA Canadian Ad Agency’ studies have disclosed a shift in allegiance away from conventional mass media by advertisers.

A most recent phraseology, which has entered with a bang, is the characterization of TV as a medium transitioning from ‘conventional/mass model’ to ‘relationship model.’ As best I can determine, those promoting the need (or predicting the shift) are referring to how media journeymen plan, measure, price, evaluate, tactically schedule and place commercial messages and finally, determine if it’s all worthwhile.

The implication, and inherent confidence breaker, is that the industry needs to hurry up, upgrade the skill sets, think in new ways, and make those TV media dollars work harder by building relationships with consumers instead of just dropping commercial messages on amorphous consumer blobs.

But the industry has been quickly evolving along these lines for years. Target groups have moved from broad age segments to narrow demographics to product and brand user segments. Canada’s ‘Unity Project’ as well as new software offerings from Telmar and IMS allow buyers to conduct TV commerce using product user ratings. Specialty and diginet channels provide media planners with the means to reach self-selecting lifestyle defined target groups. Direct response buying tactics and tracking software continue to upgrade and allow for relationship measurement. Econometric models that measure return-on-TV-investment have been in use for 10 years. They’re fast, easy and painless. Reach, frequency and basic opportunity-to-see ceased to be our primary evaluation tools long ago.

Or what about the concern that consumers are moving off the TV ‘grid’ by downloading their video entertainment via the Internet? The share of TV tuning lost to this group is probably similar to the share of power generated in Ontario by way of wind and sun – about 1% of 1%.

Or what about the dangers posed by those evil PVR-owning, commercial-skipping people? It’s a quite manageable 6% reduction in audience from the levels TV buyers think they’re buying. Or ‘Video on Demand’? It’s just a more convenient form of walking to the video store. Or getting TV signals via satellite or phone? It’s just like buying hydro from different brokers and produces no significant impact on our business. Or what about more consumers subscribing to more diginets? We’ve been dealing with this issue since cable first entered the home.

Those who sound the alarm that the TV medium is a technological basket case and too ‘mass’ and must move to a new relationship-based model before all is lost, do the medium a disservice. From the time the first TV commercial aired, our industry has moved creatively in harmony with technological advancement. And marketers, planners, buyers and sellers have constantly pushed, pulled and prodded to build closer connections with key consumer prospects. This predicted revolution in how marketers need to use TV has already been absorbed in most part.

To suggest otherwise is quixotic.

Rob Young is one of the founders of Toronto’s PHD Canada (formerly HYPN). He can be reached at ryoung@phdca.com.