asiCast Special Edition II: What is ‘television’?

In this second asiCast Special looking at the definitions we need to agree upon when talking about the disruptive impact technology has had on the media industry, Richard Marks discusses with a number of industry thought leaders what we now mean by ‘television’.

There remains considerable confusion around video consumption – where television ends and where online video begins. Clearly this distinction may not matter much to many consumers, but for the media industry the distinction is of great significance both for advertising revenues and for those involved in content production and distribution.

We need to find a language to define the challenges and opportunities we face. This series of podcasts is an attempt to start a discussion and all opinions and perspectives are welcome.

This is a transcript of the discussion originally published on 4th December 2018. You can listen again here.

Richard speaks to Tess Alps, Julien Rosanvallon, Nigel Walley, Brian Jacobs, Tim Elkington, Josh Chasin, Eija Moisala and Alex North.

asiCast Transcript

Mike Sainsbury
Chief Executive, asi, UK
This is the second in our series of articles looking at the definitions we need to agree upon when talking about the disruptive impact technology has had on the media industry. In this edition, our Research Director Richard Marks discusses with a number of industry thought leaders what exactly we mean by ‘television’. There remains considerable confusion around video consumption, about where television ends and where online video begins. Whilst this distinction may not matter much to many consumers, for the media industry the distinction is of great significance, both for advertising and content production and distribution. We need to find a language to define the challenges and opportunities we face.

Richard Marks
Research Director, asi, UK
 ‘What is television?’ is not just a question of semantics. It is a definition that really matters. As we will hear, there is some overlap in our experts’ viewpoints but far from a consensus. Television doesn’t have an existential crisis – it is in rude health, but it perhaps does not have as strong a sense of identity as when it was simply a UHF signal broadcast to the box in your living room. We are going to discuss the relevance of terms like ‘broadcast’, ‘linear’ and ‘time shift’, but firstly I asked our experts that deceptively simple question: what is television?

Julien Rosanvallon
Senior Vice-President – Television & Online, Médiamétrie, France
TV is many things. TV, of course, is a device on which people are watching content and there are more and more types of content that are available on the TV set. It is also, of course, a media ecosystem with a specific regulation and programmes that can be watched on the TV screen but also on many other screens today.

But if television is no longer constrained by the device that delivers it, then how do we define television? 

Tess Alps
Chair, Thinkbox, UK
We think television means something very precise to consumers and we always try and make real people our guide. I’m not saying it is completely black and white. There is a spectrum that goes from video to TV, but TV definitely means content. It doesn’t mean the TV set. Real people have absolutely no problem saying, ‘I’m watching TV on my tablet’, and it might be delivered by the internet or they’d say ‘I’m watching some great TV’, but it’s an old DVD of Pride and Prejudice from BBC. It’s still TV. It’s the content that makes it so.

The professional content is what makes the advertising in and around that different from video. If you’re going to watch half an hour of something or an hour of something, you are more predisposed to accept the advertising – to understand that you’ve got the time to watch it and you have also got a fair value exchange (as) you are getting something valuable in return for watching the advertising.

Ofcom did a very interesting piece of research on the spectrum from video to television and I’m not saying the device had no bearing on it but, by miles, the most important factor was the content itself. Certainly, anything that is broadcast – anything that has been broadcast even 20 years ago – they would call TV. Even stuff made possibly to be seen on YouTube but that had some sort of television-based format to it or a big television name, they would say ‘Is this video or TV?’ – they would be more likely to call it TV. Clearly, if you are watching it on a TV set that also helps.

However, Alex North at Facebook questions whether it is the quality of the content or the environment that gives the benefit to advertisers:

Alex North
Head of Solutions & Partner Development, Facebook, UK
I don’t think all video is video when you think about TV and what have traditionally been called digital platforms. I don’t think there is a quality threshold because quality is subjective in terms of the content that can be delivered across the platforms. For me it’s about the value that the platform can provide to marketers in terms of driving business objectives. That is the measure of the quality of the platform in our eyes.

You can use video on both of those platforms, of course, but you need to understand that there are different rules that apply for the different channels that you might want to be using, whether it is traditional TV or a platform such as Facebook, so I don’t think it’s about quality. I think it’s about what it can actually provide to marketers or the consumer of the platform. That is the distinction to me.

Josh Chasin of comScore is wary of a ‘quality’ definition:

Josh Chasin
Chief Research Officer, comScore, USA
One of the reasons I am wary about defining television by production quality is that one of the things we see here is that there is a new standard emerging through over the air television distribution that is ATSC 3.0. One of the things that may well happen is that TV stations will get into other businesses (not shoe manufacturing!) but get into other sorts of content distribution because they are able to do that with the technology. It could be information, it could be different kinds of programming that are not as high quality as traditional ‘quality television’, so I am wary of using ‘quality’ as the definition because who is going to define quality? There are different ways that the technological platforms may create business models and for these we consider TV companies to be different things.

Ad industry guru, Brian Jacobs, prefers to define television by the purpose for which the content was originally made:

Brian Jacobs
Founder and CEO, BJ&A, UK
I think that the television is defined not so much by the quality of it, but more the purpose for which the content is made, be that content a programme or an ad, or whatever it may be.

Let us talk about it as if it was a programme because it is easier for conversation. So, we are talking about a programme and when people make a programme or series, or whatever it happens to be, I believe if they are making it with the intention of that thing being consumed in some way on a large screen, on what we would call a television set I believe that is then ‘television’. Now, of course, if people then choose to consume that content on a small screen, a phone or a tablet, etc., then that doesn’t change the nature of the content. It is still television, in my opinion.

I don’t think it is a matter of who actually produces it because I could go off and make something. It might be absolute nonsense and rubbish, but if I am making it with the intention of it appearing on what we would call a TV set, and if I find someone who is stupid enough to give me a commission to go and do such a thing and I make it with that intention in mind, that destination in mind, then I believe that is then ‘television’.

If, on the other hand, I can film a video of my dog playing with a stick or something, I doubt very much that anyone is ever going to put that on TV! I am certainly not making it with the intention of that appearing on a TV set. I’m making that for consumption on a social media channel or YouTube or whatever it may be. I don’t think that is television, I think that is video.

So, is it quality?  Is it design that defines television?  Decipher’s Nigel Walley argues that television is the composite of a range of different factors:

Nigel Walley
Chairman, Decipher, UK
That question hasn’t been resolved after five years of attempting it. You can throw things down which kind of make sense but there are always holes and examples which disprove it. So there is always the assumption that television is professionally produced, not UGC or amateur-produced, and there is a level of professionalism which is implied in the term ‘television’ but, of course, there can be examples where that isn’t the case.

There is an implication that it is content that is destined for mass consumption in some form, and there is an implication that there is a heavy role of editing and artistic direction in there but, again, each of those three, you would probably nod and say yes, that kind of implies television – but then you can immediately come up with examples that disprove it so I think it is a very hard definition, ‘television’. We all know it when we see it, but it is actually very hard to put an absolutely rock-solid definition of what is and what isn’t television because a random piece of video that we would definitely say is not television may, with some judicious editing and placement, end up being quite an important piece of television.

If we are agreed that television is definable separate from wider video content, are SVoD series made by Netflix and Amazon Prime television?

Nigel Walley: Thinking about whether Facebook can make telly or distribute telly or whether twitter can, there was a time when we said the same thing about Amazon, and now suddenly Amazon is winning Emmy’s and BAFTA’s for its content and both Netflix and Amazon have gone past the point now where the majority of their content is viewed as a large screen experience not a small screen experience. So they are clearly outsiders to our original definition of TV who crashed the party and they are making content which is both delivered in a TV-like context and consumed in a TV-like context.

They are, without a doubt, television players and so then people say ‘surely Facebook will be different?’, but I suspect that Facebook will go through the same evolution that both Netflix and Amazon have gone through and they will create an app which will be a ‘telly’ app where they are professionally produced and the source content sits. We won’t be watching telly through the existing and traditional Facebook app. We’ll be watching in a bigger screen context and then like those other two, the Facebook television app will migrate to being within television platforms.

This year we will be seeing Netflix doing a deal with Sky in the UK, so suddenly this outlying app that was meant to disrupt telly is just sitting alongside HBO and NatGeo as another telly brand, and Amazon Prime is rapidly making the same evolution. It sits within BT YouView and other television platforms – not in Sky yet – in the UK. And around the world it sits in television platforms as a content player alongside, again, HBO, Discovery, NatGeo; and so they made an evolution from being outside insurgent, non-television brands to being just another line-up of television brands. Which is great, because it means there is new competition and new players and I don’t see why Facebook, a thing called ‘Facebook Watch’ or a thing called ‘Facebook News’ couldn’t make the same journey.

Tess Alps: To us at Thinkbox we would say Netflix, Amazon Prime are absolutely part of the TV industry. There is no question about it and it’s only us who question that. When they are up for an Emmy or a Golden Globe or a BAFTA, of course they should be considered as part of the TV family. They pay, they commission content, they make it available (okay not in the linear channel format), they market it, they pay proper money for it and they are offering people an excellent service for extra money, obviously, but for a lot of people that is a very good deal, and it is more competition, more TV competition. TV is where everybody is trying to get to be. We’ve seen something of a goldrush where every company sees that is where the real money is to be made in advertising.

Eija Moisala of Finnish public broadcasters Yle, believes that we need a user-centric rather than an industry-centric definition of what television is:

Eija Moisala
Head of Smart Data and Audience Insight, Yle, Finland
We, inside of the company think that it is all television because it is produced by a media company.  We have video and audio so in a way it is all television. It can be said or thought that it is all video but, of course, you want to separate it from the user-generated video side or the streaming service video side. But I don’t think that the audience is making those categories, or they are not differentiating. If we are asking youngsters ‘what do you view?’, they would say that ‘well, I watch Netflix, I watch YouTube and I watch Yle Areena’, which is our player, so from the user perspective it is crucial to understand what type of content it is, but not to label it so much.

Alex North: I think from the consumer angle they probably, almost certainly (thinking of myself as a consumer) think about things differently to the way we do within the measurement industry. I don’t go home of an evening and say, ‘I’m going to consume digital’, ‘I’m going to consume TV’ or perhaps even if I do say ‘I’m going to watch TV’ then it might not necessarily be on the TV set in the way that has formerly been described historically within measurement.

So it ultimately comes down to the consumption of content, consumption of something. I want to watch something, I want to listen to something and the challenge that we as an industry face is trying to measure people because we are too preoccupied with these definitions. I think it sometimes gets in the way of standards and planning and measurement opportunities because you then decide ‘well, this doesn’t fall within this bucket so we shouldn’t measure it in the same way’, whereas, at the end of the day, you’re trying to measure people and what content people are exposed to.

If you are a marketer or an advertiser you want to reach a person in the right way and engage with them in a certain way with a certain story and a certain piece of creative, and that is device and definition agnostic.  You want to engage with them in the right way and you want to understand how to do that, so there is a danger that we get bogged down with some of these different definitions sometimes. I think some of the measurement ones that we apply have served us well but might not necessarily translate to consumers in the way that they view the media.

Of course, television can be watched in a number of different ways: live, recorded or via catch-up services. Are we clear what we mean by those terms? Is, for example, the phrase ‘linear television’ useful? What does it mean?

Nigel Walley: So, is the word ‘linear’ television helpful in this mix? Again, we tie ourselves in knots around this. We are increasingly nervous of the word ‘broadcast’ and use ‘linear’ sometimes to appraise broadcast. We’re happy with the word ‘broadcaster’ oddly. We will describe a company as a broadcaster but we are conscious that many broadcasters put their channels out over the air and also as IP streams so the word ‘linear’ is helpful in that mix because it describes the type. Because it is live, linear scheduled television is a description of a television channel, whether it comes over the aerial or it comes over an ethernet feed. So, linear telly, as a short version of that longer phrase, is helpful in a world where single cast IP streams are growing up as an option for watching big broadcasters’ output.

We’re just having to be slightly careful of the word ‘broadcast’ now because it is one of those dual meaning words. It never used to matter. When we talked about a broadcast before there was only ever one technology option for getting it into a house: it was on aerial or antenna. But now you can watch BBC One over the air as a broadcast or as an IP stream broadcast and you realise that broadcast can mean a content concept – ‘one to many at the same time’ – but also it was used as a technical description for over the air. So, linear has come in to help us deal with that confusion. And again, even scheduled is helpful. Linear, because you can pause it, you can have time-shifted linear, oddly. If you press pause on a television set-top box, go and make a cup of tea for twenty minutes and come back and watch it, you are watching linear telly but time-shifted. We have a Venn diagram we drew with all these definitions and it got up to about fifteen different circles, all interlocking, and linear was just one of the circles on this.

It is interesting that Nigel sees linear as an alternative to the word ‘broadcast’, but many are using linear as a specific type of TV consumption, to mean watching live, scheduled television in real time:

Tess Alps: I think we happily use the phrase ‘linear TV’ because I think people understand what we mean by it.  Sometimes we also use the word ‘scheduled’.  What it conveys is something that is a real time occurrence and the idea that everybody wants to watch everything on demand seems to be not a sound assumption.

I think people will probably watch more of their TV on demand in some way, but actually people love the real-time nature and time is a linear thing, so for anything that is related to real time, the word ‘linear’ seems to make sense. It works in the way it describes how an EPG works as well. You can go forwards in a linear schedule, but you cannot actually go backwards as you can do on YouView. So, I don’t think linear as a word is a problem for understanding. I think people know what it means, but it is not the only form of TV. Obviously, people know that.

Time shifting is a human need, so I think we would say time shifting can both be recorded and played back, or it can be on demand. The point about the word is that you understand it had a time. You could only shift a time if you accept that it did have a life in real time somewhere, so it tends to, when you talk about time shifting, come to the things that have been broadcast. They were hooked in to their time then and now you’re shifting their time, but you don’t have to have just one way of time shifting.

So, how are the measurement companies defining the different types of television viewing?

Julien Rosanvallon: In France the official reference audience measurement for television measures, of course, live TV viewing, time-shift TV viewing, catch-up TV viewing. In France what we call ‘time-shift viewing’ is the use of the personal video recorder or the use of the play and pause button on the remote of the TV set top box of the users. The ‘catch-up’ usage refers to the viewing of a programme that is accessible on the platform from a TV player or a telecom/TV player. France does not use the term ‘VOD’ to talk about catch-up. We use alternatively the expression ‘replay TV’. We use the term VOD mostly when we want to talk about SVOD: subscription VOD. The general term VOD, which could include catch-up if you look at the meaning of the term, is not currently used in France.

These are the definitions that the television currencies tend to use throughout the world but how useful are these definitions for advertisers?

Brian Jacobs: Well, I don’t think linear TV is a particularly helpful phrase, no. I know what it used to mean and I am probably out of date with it, but I don’t believe it does mean that for the perfectly good reasons that there are all sorts of other ways of viewing TV now, be it on time shift or catch-up TV or indeed binge viewing or whatever. No, I don’t think it is a particularly helpful phrase. I’m not sure what it adds to the discussion to be honest.

Why would that matter to an advertiser? Well it could matter. One might argue that if you are watching The Bodyguard live on, say, Sunday night, then you are paying more attention to it than if you are somewhere or other watching it on catch-up and you might know what happened or you might have read something about it in the paper or something. I suppose you could argue that it’s a more valuable exposure because it is going out of the moment, as it were, but I’m not sure that it really matters much and I’m not sure that it’s a very helpful definition. I watch The Bodyguard live.  If I’ve chosen to record it because I want to see it later, I’m going to make sure I don’t know what happens so my experience of watching it is going to be the same as if I had watched it on Sunday evening. So, I don’t know if it makes so much difference.

So, having made our best attempts to define television, where does it sit alongside newer media?

Nigel Walley: Why do people still use the phrase ‘TV and digital’? I am going to be quite harsh here. Personally, I think it’s incompetence!  I think it is people who are spouting phrases who don’t actually understand what they are talking about. Whenever I hear somebody say TV and digital, my mind goes blank at that point because I know that whatever else comes out of their mouths is going to be completely avoidable and not relevant because they are not intelligent enough to make a simple comment about different forms of media. If an industry professional is using the phrase ‘TV and digital’ I would have to look them square in the eye and really question whether they understand the industry they work in.

We need to be careful not to stray back into the territory that we covered in our first podcast, ‘ The death of digital?’, but the use of the phrase ‘TV and digital’ is an attempt to constrain television itself, portraying it as an old medium, not a digital medium.

Tess Alps: I have a personal crusade against journalists who use ancient cathode ray tubes to illustrate TV and we usually respond by using a picture of a massive mainframe computer to signify the internet! It is crazy. All of the images that they use like that actually wouldn’t even work in the UK any more as TV sets, but it is part of characterising television as something that had its heyday in the past, something from the fifties or even the seventies, certainly nothing for today. You just don’t see TVs in peoples’ homes like that, but we have to, unfortunately, live with pictures like that and sometimes just even icons. I can tolerate little antennae on top of screens because, in fact, aerials still are an important way of delivering television, but it’s the curved edges and the funny buttons that are clearly annoying.

As Eija Moisala points out, television is strong but its not an island. It needs online and social media to really thrive:

Eija Moisala: We need all forms to reach the people that we are trying to reach. Yle is a tax-funded company so they need to have good understanding of all the different audiences. Some of the audiences are not in the more traditional world any more. By that I mean broadcast or linear TV, where there is broadcasting from one-to-many, but many of them are in the world where the way of doing media is one-to-one and that is why we have been developing that for multiple years.

Our player is over ten years old, so we have learned to be fairly good, in many respects, in serving one-to-one. But we need the cooperation and we need good partnerships also with the other companies, social media platforms to actually find the audience and to be able to tell them that we have all these great things, because the one-to-many isn’t working any more and that is not the way that we will be reaching them.

Tess Alps: We should never underestimate the value of YouTube to broadcasters as a marketing place. They willingly upload bits of their professional content in order to make people love that series, so you can imagine we’d all be lost without YouTube.

Richard Marks: In our last asiCast I warned against the use of the phrase ‘television and digital’ but it is equally important that, when we use the word television itself, we don’t use it interchangeably to mean the medium and one of the devices that delivers that medium.

We have television sets which can share television and other forms of content like gaming and we have television, the medium available on TV sets but also on many other platforms and services. So, rather than digital leading to the death of television, by becoming a digital medium television has been liberated from the TV set to become ubiquitous across all platforms. It is a medium that the newer digital players have entered because they see that television is still where the money is.

As we have heard, there is consensus around television being a cross-platform medium, but there is not agreement about where television ends and online video begins. Is it who makes it? What screen it is made for? The quality of the content? The length of it? … or a combination of all of these? As Eija and Alex have pointed out, for the actual consumer, it really doesn’t matter. However, for the media business itself a clear definition is vital if we are going to understand how advertising is allocated, where it should be allocated and whether there is a difference in effectiveness between ‘television’ and other forms of video.

This provides us with a ‘cliff hanger’ to the next part of our series, where we will be hearing about what our panel have to say about advertising itself. Can we define what a viewer is? How can we compare impact across platforms and can we ever define and measure engagement and effectiveness across those platforms? So, stay tuned for that, but in the meantime, we’d like to thank again our panel of experts for taking the time to speak with us.