Divergence of convergence

Steve Plunkett, director of customer innovation at Red Bee Media, explores the many platforms for delivering content.
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It’s a term that has been widely used and long predicted in the digital media, online and TV worlds: convergence. Convergence is the bringing together of broadcast-driven TV with a broadband-enabled rich media Internet experience. It’s a compelling proposition, combining the best of linear TV with the flexibility, interactivity and almost unlimited capacity of on-demand content, applications and information.

As we move from theory to practice this year, with an ever-increasing variety of products and services hitting the shops or your desktop, the reality is that convergence is turning into divergence. Content that used to appear on your TV set is now appearing on a vast range of devices and the fast multiplying number of platforms that serve them. Movies and TV shows are accessible from your PC, games console and wireless device. Games and Internet content are available on your broadband-connected TV and set-top box, and all of this is available on your mobile device, too. It’s all very exciting but still a bit complicated (both commercially and technically).

What does this divergence mean for the industry and its major constituents? It’s too early to say definitively, but by looking at each constituent group, it is possible to make some general observations.

Content owners and broadcasters

In the traditional linear TV world, broadcasters produce and source content, plan and schedule their output and distribute to a limited number of destination broadcast networks, namely terrestrial, satellite and cable. The receiving devices and distribution networks are highly standardized with little technical variation, at least regionally.

In the on-demand, broadband-delivered TV world, divergence really comes into play. The range of device types, screen resolutions, functionality and platform requirements are highly diverse and increasing in number. As broadcasters and content owners evaluate this new landscape, they face a lot more choices than before in terms of destination platforms, and these decisions are non-trivial. Each potential platform means a new commercial relationship and typically a platform/vendor specific media transformation and delivery process. They must consider their own business models and decide which platforms can bring in an attractive audience for their advertisers and what forms of subscription and PPV capabilities are available on the platforms.

The nature of the audience is also changing because of this divergence. A broadcaster needs to understand and reach out to its audience across these platforms, and the methods of interacting with them and signposting them to and from linear TV is complex because the platforms and end devices offer many different user experiences.

Platform owners and device manufacturers

Platforms used to be closely coupled with the distribution networks that served them. This restricted the number of viable platforms in any given geography. The Internet is changing that relationship, and both over-the-top (OTT) and ISP-managed platforms can and have entered this space. The separation of wholesale DSL from retail DSL provision in the UK also allows for more choice in the managed ISP platform area.

There appears to be something of a platform gold rush underway at the moment. The number of PC-centric Web TV platforms seems to increase on a monthly basis, and every major CE manufacturer has announced its own on-demand, broadband-enabled video platform running on games consoles, TVs, set-top boxes and connected DVD players.

Most of these new platforms are offered by global vendors who want to differentiate themselves from each other, so they each develop their own signature experience and define their own specific formats for media playback and related metadata. This drives innovation, but also greater divergence.

They all share one common difficulty: how to attract consumers to their platform rather than a competitor’s. This typically means striking content deals with rights owners and broadcasters.

Consumers

Finally, there is the group that will ultimately decide the success and failure of the competing platforms and the levels of convergence and divergence that result. Consumers are going to face more choices than ever before in terms of where, how and from whom they consume content. They are likely to be influenced by content choice, price, platform/device features and signposting from peer/interest groups, friends and intelligent recommendation and search facilities.

Platform owners will need to create the right conditions to attract good content and significant audiences (and drive actual consumption). Content owners, broadcasters and brand owners will need to understand the increasingly sophisticated needs and demands of a crossplatform audience and find ways to engage and interact with them.

The Internet looks very different today than it did 10 years ago, and the same will undoubtedly be said about the TV and media world of today in 10 years time as they continue to converge and diverge.

Steve Plunkett is director of customer innovation at Red Bee Media.