Last mass standing

PHD's Rob Young weighs in on the last mass standing. (Hint: it's not newspapers.)

It’s easy (and fun) to poke holes in past predictions made by media futurists. Take George Gilder for example, who, in the mid-’90s, prophesized, “Computers will soon blow away the broadcast television industry. But computers pose no such threat to newspapers” (p. 139, Life after Television, 1994).
This was a reasonable enough prediction in its time.
But media transitions the way water flows downstream – never in a straight line. As it turns out, online is throwing a nasty one-two punch to newspapers, combining free content redistribution with pilfered classified ad revenues. Television, on the other hand, is exhibiting signs of – well, more than just survival.
Apart from a few bumps and bruises, television is still standing tall. Here in Canada, Shaw’s acquisition of Canwest demonstrates $2 billion worth of faith. Record high audiences captured by the 2010 Winter Olympics broadcasts suggest that group-view is still popular. Resilient TV ad revenue levels during our country’s nasty ’08/’09 recession belied most marketer’s predictions.
TV has developed a degree of immunity against this “online contagion.” The Economist recently published a Special Report on Television (May 1, 2010) that agrees with this claim. Threats to TV from digital technology are reviewed in detail but overall, the report concludes: “In a world of fragmenting audiences [television] is the only real global mass medium. If TV can combine scale with specificity, become more responsive to its audience and learn to aim adverts more precisely, it will continue to thrive.”
In other words, TV could well be the “last mass standing” in our media world.
It’s hard to believe that television remains relatively unscathed having passed through the internet’s technological gauntlet – mobile, PVRs, Hulu-ism, streaming, computer screens and fragmentation.
But the voices prophesying the negative transformation about to befall television all fall under only two doomsday narratives.
The “deconstruction” narrative: can television survive online’s ability to provide niche programming?
And the “bypass” narrative: can television survive online’s ability to digitally stream programming direct to the consumer’s computer/phone?
The “deconstruction” narrative asserts that online outperforms TV in providing coverage of specific areas of program interest. Want to find out about tajine cooking? You could waste a lot of time tracking this theme down on the Food Network but a quick online search gets you all you’ll ever need to know.
Also known as “disaggregation,” this doomsday narration argues that online has harmed the music business by turning LPs into tracks; has harmed the newspaper business by turning newspapers into articles; will harm the television business by hijacking audience, time and attention, and turn TV networks into a search list of programming niches.
But a reality check shows that total time spent with television is holding and the anticipated audience exodus isn’t happening.
This is because online simply does not have a business model capable of matching television’s ability to produce high-quality programs such as Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, The Wire, Dexter or even mass audience appealing CSI, Heroes, Lost and Idol.  
The “bypass” doomsday narrative is also called “disintermediation” and refers to online’s ability to bypass the TV medium and directly reach the consumer by providing on-demand entertainment. Television can’t compete with an online streaming service that provides TV shows for free (or cheaper) with no commercials (or fewer) on-demand, or so the line of logic goes.
The important reality check here is that the television business owns the programs. TV programs are streamed at the bequest of the television medium, not the online medium. And the individual act of viewing streamed programming is at odds with group-view, which accounts for a great deal of TV viewing (especially sports viewing).
Television is surviving because control over quality programming trumps the worst-case scenarios forwarded by these two technological doomsday narratives.
At current rates of growth, internet ad revenue will surpass television revenue levels by 2014. This fact is often heralded as evidence of television’s demise. However, we must remember that a portion of that online ad revenue is generated by TV-owned online businesses.
Furthermore, almost 40% of that online revenue is generated by “search” tools (advertisers pay to have their ads or links appear close to online search results). This revenue stream has more in common with directories and classifieds than the branding commercials carried on television.
The television business model calls for huge content investment, which, for the internet, represents a big barrier to entry. Consumers seem prepared to trade their time and attention in exchange for quality AV entertainment, and as long as they continue to do so, TV will be the last mass standing.

Rob Young is senior VP director of insights and analytics at PHD Canada.