Broadcast: Where We Are, Where We’re Going

There remains in common use today a popular term coined by British biologist Herbert Spencer in 1864. That phrase is “survival of the fittest,” a term later adopted by Charles Darwin as a synonym for his own term “natural selection.”

Despite there being plenty of time since 1864 to resolve any disputes over the meaning of Spencer’s phrase, it is still common to hear people using the phrase in a way that reveals their misunderstanding of it. The wrong use of the term carries an implication that “fittest” means in the best physical shape or capable of the highest performance with respect to speed, strength, stamina and so on.

With that wrong meaning in mind, businesses such as TV stations and their technology suppliers just try to increase the octane of their existing business methods. They make best efforts to become “lean and mean.” They try to improve their fitness in terms of power, strength, speed and efficiency.

It isn’t enough.

It isn’t going to work in the long term, despite the apparent short-term improvements in the bottom line. Dinosaurs died out during the Ice Age because they were reptiles, and reptiles can’t function in the cold. Their ability to run, fly and swim didn’t help them, no matter how good and fit they were at those things.

The right interpretation of the term “survival of the fittest,” expressed in my own paraphrase, is “fit for the purpose,” or “most able to adapt to the new conditions,” or even “the least inconvenienced by the new conditions.” It is with that meaning in mind that I consider the events of the year recently completed, 2013.

We found ourselves at the end of 2013 (and now in Q1 2014) in a time of particularly dynamic circumstances: “dynamic” as in “characterized by constant change.” What makes the changing circumstances so challenging to the TV industry is the fact that there are multiple changes occurring simultaneously.

I can think of at least three relevant things that are changing significantly: Technology, economic conditions and consumer behavior. The year 2013 saw major shifts under all three of those headings.

Let’s consider each separately.

Technology shift 1: “Phablets” are now ubiquitous. Phablet is a coined word, a portmanteau from phone and tablet. See the prime examples in the Samsung Galaxy Note and Sony Experia Z1 and LG Optimus G Pro. This author, an Australian living in Hong Kong, is a happy user of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. And every day when I ride on public transport, I see that I am surrounded by fellow phablet users.

We have great public transport systems here. We are not imprisoned in our cars like those poor souls living in America and Australia. We have our hands and minds free to consume information and entertainment while we commute to and from work every day. The phablet is a non-driving commuter’s best friend.

The iPad was too big for my needs, so I never bought one. I did buy an Asus Transformer, which is an Android tablet with a docking keyboard that allowed the tablet to be used as a quasi-netbook. It’s too heavy, and too big.

The Galaxy Note 2 is just right. It is neither too big nor too heavy, and yet it is still small enough to be a practical phone as well. It’s too bad that the built-in camera is such a disappointment. Perfection eludes me.

The important point is that I watch a lot of video on my phablet. It’s perfect for watching YouTube. I read the news and sometimes watch news video clips on the phablet.

The operational duty cycles of my big TV receiver at home and my desktop computer have dropped significantly, because I can do so much with the phablet, so conveniently, even while on the go.

That roaming consumption of information and entertainment on the phablet wouldn’t be practical without Technology shift 2: LTE networks.

LTE networks are pure IP networks. The voice calls and text messages and streaming media are all payload in IP packets. A phablet on a 4G (LTE) network can access the entire web from anywhere that a good wireless network (4G or Wi-Fi) can reach.

Accessing the entire web means we can also access OTT television and video content. We are free at last.

Traditional television broadcasters are now required to follow us viewers around. The broadcasters’ original mobile strategy, DVB-H, didn’t happen. Instead, the broadcasters need to buy their OTT seats on the LTE and Wi-Fi networks if they want us roaming viewers to receive their content. And that brings us to the subject of consumer behavior.

Consumer behavior shift 1: Many of us now prefer the smaller screen in our pocket rather than the bigger one in the living room.

Consumer behavior shift 2: We are spending much less time on the sofa in front of the big TV in the living room. We want to consume television and video content in whatever location we have the free time.

Consumer behavior shift 3: Even when we are on the sofa watching the big TV screen, we are also holding and using the small screen in our phone/phablet/tablet.

If the TV show is engaging, we use the second screen to find supplementary information about the show or the characters or the story in it. Or sometimes we use the second screen to interact with the TV show, via Twitter, for example. If the TV show isn’t engaging, we use the second screen to help us find something more interesting to watch.

Consumer behavior shift 4: We are taking charge of the decisions about the TV programming that emits from our screens. We are much less willing to have programming choices dictated to us by TV network programming executives.

Consumer behavior shift 5: We are creating more and more of our own content, publishing it on social networks, and we correspondingly consume content from our friends via social networks. We are becoming independent of broadcast networks for news and entertainment.

Consumer behavior shift 6: We are now emulating, in our daily lives, the same interrupt mechanism used by our computers.

We are constantly being interrupted by a notification from our phone/phablet/tablet. Our attention span is becoming very fragmented. Consequently, we are losing our ability to focus our attention for long periods of time -- an undesirable situation that probably isn’t sustainable.

For the traditional broadcaster, the implications need to be recognized: We are losing our appetite for long form programming. Perhaps we aren’t really losing the ability to focus as such, but rather, we are no longer living in an environment that is conducive to remaining focused.

The technology shifts and consumer behavior shifts are to a large degree driven by the unrelenting economic condition shifts.

Economic condition shift 1: Two diverse generations of the human race are facing the opposite ends of a shrinking job market.

Many in the baby boomer generation have to somehow stretch out their employment and retire much later than originally hoped for, if they can ever retire at all. The question of how to maintain a viable personal cash flow for another twenty to thirty years is a constant source of anxiety.

Many in the younger generation of students and recent graduates have the inverse problem of how to get their first “real” job and establish a career. They too are suffering from anxiety. We have young ones who want to get into a career, but can’t, while we also have older ones who want to retire and get out of their career, but can’t.

Worst of all, there are those who have lost their jobs mid-career after having entrenched themselves as consumers with mortgages and consumer debt of many kinds and a commitment to ongoing expenses for their children’s education or their parents’ medical expenses. They, especially, are anxiously stuck in the doldrums of a crippled economy.

The common thread running through all the anxiety sufferers is that we are all distracted. Western civilization and developed countries in general (think Japan, Spain, Greece, Portugal, America, Ireland and Britain to name just a few) are no longer able to relax. There are literally millions of us who can no longer relax.

For many of us, young and old, curling up on a sofa with a dog at your feet and a warm drink in your hand, to settle in for a relaxing and entertaining evening in front of the TV set has become a thing of the past. We are too busy. Our lifestyles have changed -- by necessity, not necessarily by choice, and the necessity is brought about by the stress of poor and continuously degrading economic conditions.

We are looking for help. We rarely find it over the broadcast television airwaves. But there’s a lot of it in the OTT domain -- that means YouTube, Vimeo, blogs, special interest web sites and discussion forums -- and social media too.

There described above is the reason that the OTT and “other” non-broadcast methods of access to video content have the chance to thrive. It’s because we can find help there.

Television isn’t just about news and entertainment. It’s about communication. It’s about education and information relating to special interest subject matter published in video form.

2013 was the year that a tipping point was reached. The constantly changing circumstances in our lives reached a particular state whereby technology shifts, consumer behavior shifts and economic condition shifts are interacting in such a way as to drive a large movement of consumers to turn away from free-to-air broadcast TV and cable TV in search of help.

Their lifeline to that help is the technology of the phablet, or the PC, or the connected TV, or any Internet access device. But the phablet is fast becoming the most ubiquitous of all the Internet access devices.

The phablet on a good high-speed network enables us to look for help, any time of day, in any location. We can find entertainment by the same means too. Relevant video content, stored in “cloud” servers, accessible by phablet devices over high-speed LTE and Wi-Fi networks -- those are the technologies that have a chance to bring about positive change in society.

It’s heartwarming to see that at least two of the major broadcast vendors in 2013 have joined the movement. Sony released a phablet product in 2013 -- the Sony Experia Z1 -- and around the same time, they announced the availability of 4K movie content on their Video-Unlimited download rental service. Harris Broadcast announced their acquisition of Imagine Communications, bringing adaptive bitrate transcoding technologies and other OTT-related technologies into the Harris Broadcast product portfolio.

Sony and Harris Broadcast show signs that they recognize the importance of OTT and mobile video consumption devices. To that degree they demonstrate an ability to adapt to the changing conditions of our times. To that degree, they enhance their own chances for survival.

So I hereby declare that 2013 was the year of the phablet and OTT. May the next few years bring some relief to our very understandable anxieties.