The Future of TV

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A couple of months ago I attended the Television of Tomorrow conference in San Francisco, where I delivered a short talk as part of my role on the flamboyantly titled Dragons of Design panel. Our self-chosen topic was: What Is TV Becoming and How Do We Design for It? Quite a broad brief, it was met by an equally wide range of responses from each panelist.


As a company, broadcasters are in our DNA; before starting Ostmodern I worked at the BBC with Tim, our Creative Director, and Jody, our Managing Director, worked at Channel 4. We started Ostmodern while working on the first version of 4oD and have since gone on to work with all the major UK broadcasters on video-centric products of one type or another. So for us, when contemplating the question “What is the future of TV and how do you design for it?” a related question springs to mind How is broadcasting evolving and how will we design their future products?.

As we expand our client base outside of the UK, we are often fascinated and amused by the differences between viewing patterns and behaviours from one country to another. Our first non-UK based projects was in Scandinavia and it quickly became apparent, back then, that our in-depth knowledge of the UK viewing patterns had limited relevance to Scandinavian audiences. As our work increasingly exposes us to new cultures and their viewing habits, we’ve seen similar differences in consumption with Russian families, US students and Japanese football fans, among many others.

As a company with a strong UX emphasis, we’re very curious about the role of nature over nurture in relation to many of these long-standing and well established behavioural patterns, and these differences raise an interesting question; how much do people watch TV the way they do because of some innate desire to consume content in that manner, and how much of current viewing patterns are influenced by cultural, technological or corporate factors?

This is an especially relevant question in the UK where the media landscape has been / is dominated by a few major broadcasters. Over the years we’ve had first hand experience of the way the internal structures of these organisations has had a profound effect on the shape of their launched products, subsequently influencing the way we, as viewers, behave.

In order to start to understand this question, we need to look at our current viewing behaviour. So how do we behave?

Well, despite all the attention that is paid to new forms of consumption, as a nation we’re still completely obsessed with watching linear TV. In 2012, the average UK viewer watched 4 hours of TV a day, with 89% of that being watched as it was broadcast. Only 10% of viewing was time shifted and 81% of that was watched within 7 days of the original broadcast. This shows that broadcasters and their schedules still have a hugely important role in the average persons’ life.

Traditional TV Audience

That said, we’ve spent the last 8 years designing On Demand products for broadcasters and witnessed a huge shift in behaviour. In our early days with 4oD and subsequently ‘Project Kangaroo’, when testing with users we regularly experienced scenarios where people struggled to comprehend the concept of ‘catching up’ on linear TV. Then, thanks in large part to the BBC and the simplicity with which they communicated the purpose of the iPlayer “making the unmissable, unmissable”, we had in the region of 4 billion shows watched through catch-up services in 2012 — and those numbers have continued to grow year on year. Now we have people of all ages catching up on shows they’ve missed on all manner of devices.

Taking the simple use case of “you missed something on TV, but you can watch it here” has served the broadcasters well and had a widespread effect on our behaviour. You could consider this first generation of productised catch-up services as VOD 1.0. However, being as close as we are to many of these catchup products, it’s been clear to us for a while that this paradigm is no longer fit for purpose.

In our rush to overcome the technical challenges of delivering VOD 1.0, we unquestioningly embraced existing web paradigms, putting content into branch structured sites and encouraging users to find what they wanted to watch by things like categories, A to Z or search. These ‘products’ are machine-like delivery tools, cutting content into ‘assets’, losing much of the magic of traditional TV and the humanity of the schedule, channels and continuity.

Content silos

This ‘library’ model works fine if the user simply wants to find something they already know is there, but it will become increasingly unsuitable for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, as VOD consumption grows, people don’t always know what they’re looking for in advance. Some figures we've recently seen from the BBC confirmed what we already suspected about a shift in user behaviour: A year ago, over 90% of people who visited iPlayer already knew what they were looking for. In more recent stats over 40% of visitors arrive not knowing what it is they want to watch. A paradigm based on a productised siloed delivery tool does not encourage discovery of new content.

Secondly, these products are increasingly finding their way back onto the 10ft screen through smart TVs or game consoles. TV is and always has been a lean-back medium, the problem with transporting these VOD products based on web paradigms back on to TV is that even with a smart TV remote, gesture or even voice control, the frontloading of decision making is very unfamiliar and unsuitable for the living room.

So to return to the original question: What should we be expecting from the next generation of broadcast products?

Product Suite

Now that we’ve overcome some of the initial technical challenges of delivering on-demand content, and this behaviour is well enough established in users' minds, we expect to see broadcasters refocusing on what made them successful in the first place. Users may be starting to engage with linear broadcasting in new ways, but the underlying concepts of scheduling, continuity & editorial curation still drive viewing behaviour, in spite of the current crop of VOD services.

These are ideas that broadcasters should be able to exploit better than anyone, and despite the fact that there are still big areas of organisational inertia to overcome, from what we’re seeing users are desperate for products that recapture some of the magic of linear TV.

If the evidence of companies like Netflix commissioning their own content is anything to go by, if broadcasters can’t provide it, then eventually someone else will..!

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