TV – ‘the tallest midget in the room’

It has been fashionable for some time now to forecast the death of any medium that isn't digital.

It has been fashionable for some time now to forecast the death of any medium that isn’t digital.

Of late it’s been the newspaper. You can’t open one these days without reading about one or more of its fallen brothers, or about how a once-proud industry is being left to hemorrhage on the battlefield, overwhelmed by virile new media, overlooked by web-enabled consumers and abandoned by the advertisers who once supplied it with endless fresh ammo.

Now joining the list of casualties is TV, for pretty much the same reasons. Declining ad revenues, channel fragmentation and changing media usage habits are the usual culprits in this reality show, in which digitally driven millennials have apparently voted the once-monolithic medium off the island.

I have to admit, watching my own Gen Y offspring in front of what McLuhan once referred to as the ‘electronic hearth’ seems to validate some of these assumptions. They may be physically planted within viewing distance, but are never without a laptop, busily instant messaging and surfing while the boob tube blares and flashes in front of them. The image of the nuclear family happily hypnotized by the mind-numbing cathode ray is surely a thing of the past.

But while once-monopolistic TV networks shed their staff in record numbers, other numbers belie their apparent fall from grace. In Canada for instance, TV viewing trends have remained relatively stable since 2004. According to the Television Bureau of Canada, in 2008, adults 18 to 49 spent an average of 23.8 hours in front of the television every week, a number that actually moved up about 0.3% since 2004. This produced an average reach of 99% for the same group. Basically, this translates into the fact that television still has the highest daily and weekly reach of any medium in Canada.

Certainly the media professionals agree that when it comes to media buying; TV remains ‘the tallest midget in the room.’ But the buy has changed. Anne Myers, EVP managing director at Starcom MediaVest Group in Toronto, states unequivocally that it is still the fastest way to build brand reach, but not for the same reasons as it used to be. ‘For some time, it’s not been about the ‘spot buy,” she says, ‘but about the integrated, targeted buy. You have to couple your buy with sponsorship opportunities and content integration designed to reach very specific groups.’

The research and customer profiling demanded by this kind of media purchase, integrated as it is with a carefully balanced and precisely weighted presence in other media, have been the impetus behind the growing intelligence and importance of the contemporary media agency. The debate around this in recent years has focused on the incapability of traditional full-service ad agencies to build the knowledge base necessary to support these complex buys, and has fuelled the frustrations – and growing creative clout – of media shops which were once only focused on brute purchasing power.

Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for research firm NPD Group says that in support of this paradigm shift, ‘TV has become more of a portal into a wide range of video sources’ rather than a standalone device and service. The U.K.’s ITV commercial director John Bercow agrees. ‘A huge part of online response and search is directly driven by TV ads but is often wrongly attributed. Take TV away…and the internet, creatively and commercially, would go hungry, if not starve.’

One of TV’s greatest assets is the high degree of technical excellence that it has contributed to the evolution of video imagery. As fashionable as user-generated content may be at the moment, research shows that folks still respond much more positively to professionally produced video – even when it’s in the form of online advertising. And while people may be watching programs on their PCs in growing numbers, it’s TV content they’re watching. The medium is definitely not the message.

Perhaps the real issue is not the medium or the message, but the degree of control that consumers now have over both. There can be no doubt that with the advent of PVRs, not to mention the internet, the broadcast networks and the advertisers that funded them are no longer in the driver’s seat. This fundamental change in the balance of power is what’s driving the complexity of the contemporary media mix.

Television may no longer be on top of the media heap, but there’s no question that it plays the most important supporting role, whether by validating the perceived quality of brands encountered online or by providing the content that migrates from broadcast to broadband. To quote the sage of St. Mike’s, the content of any new medium is the medium that preceded it. Brands would be wise not to ignore that.

Will Novosedlik is VP brand and communications for Globalive Wireless, Canada’s newest national mobile operator.