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What happens to telly if it becomes radio?

My Twitter feed today was full of tweets a conference called Imagine. One tweet https://twitter.com/benoonbenoon/status/266131995015401472from Paul Bennun really caught my eye:

“”Radio is back” — Anna Kirah at #imagine2012 (suppose because if TV is an ambient medium then, hey, radio)”

This is a big change, and started me thinking about the consequences.

As my friend Mark Sorrell often points out, there are three different meanings of the word television:

    • The box in the corner
    • The structure: channels, idents, liner programming, the schedule
    • The individual programmes and formats

In a pre-digital world, they were all the same thing. They were inseparable. I grew up with only three television channels, and the launching of a fourth was very big news indeed. Now they are being rapidly separated, in the same way that the internet has broken apart our concept of the book-as-dead-tree and book-as-collection-of-ideas, or how mobile has broken the concept of Facebook-as-social-graph and Facebook-as-platform.

Now television is becoming ambient. It no longer refers just to the box in the corner. I watch television on the box, my laptop, my iPhone (occasionally for catchup TV) and on the family iPad. I use the box in the corner for playing games, watching movies from Lovefilm and boxed sets borrowed from friends and, of course, watching some good old fashioned telly.

The individual programmes are as valuable as they have every been. Actually, that’s not true. The good ones – the ones that build emotional connections with their audiences, both directly and by creating a social context for their existence – are more valuable than ever. The Internet has encouraged the big to get bigger and event television like reality TV (X-Factor, I’m a Celebrity), sports events and event drama (Downton Abbey, Sherlock, The Doctor Who Christmas Special) is becoming more important to the networks.

The content that is struggling is the ambient content. The shows that exist, as one tweeter put it, “to fill the time before something you wanted to watch came on”. The filler that exists because broadcasters, in a pre-Internet age, had a monopoly on our screen time: it we wanted to be entertained by a screen, we had to watch whatever they put on. Now, when we have smartphones and tablets, games and apps, websites and social networks, the content no longer looks so compelling.

That content is not structured to build “true fans”. It doesn’t naturally build audiences who love everything about it and will happily pay a lot of money for something they truly value. It is not niche, it is mediocre. It is cheap (which is fine), but risks failing to connect with its audience (which is not).

I don’t believe television is dead. I do believe that the current model with broadcasters relying on their scarce control of the airwaves and cable pipes is in terrible trouble. This is great news for global format holders, creating content that can be shared on a world stage. It is terrible news for territory-restricted broadcasters who often fund and promote that content, but are ill-suited to benefit from its global success.

Nicholas Lovell