Reflections by Andy Bell on 03 September 2012
I totally agree with Liz Murdoch that TV is failing to keep pace with the digital revolution. But I totally disagree with her suggested solution: more collaboration between the big players. These collaborations may deliver big infrastructure projects like YouView (of doubtful creative impact, in my opinion) but they will do nothing to deliver new formats making clever use of new technology, which is where the UK's great talent lies and where real value will be generated.
Reality shows like Big Brother were made possible by cheap, robust offline editing, allowing the story to be pieced together after filming rather than before. The new wave of talent shows were made possible by large-scale telephone voting systems. New technology enables new formats, but in surprising ways that can only be discovered by creative experimentation.
Innovation comes from the poorly-funded fringes, rather than from execs collaborating to throw money at top-down solutions. If more collaboration between execs isn't the answer, what is?
1. More experimentation
For tech startups, building a product no one wants is more often the cause of failure than getting the technology wrong. Time spent on customer development - the process of discovering what your audience wants - is increasingly seen as crucial. Before taking on millions in investment, small teams can learn a great deal by cheaply testing their assumptions in the real-world with light-weight prototypes.
At Mint we've successfully used this approach to launch our own direct-to-consumer businesses. 18 months ago, one of my colleagues, Kejia Zhu, came up with an idea for an Instagram magnet printing business. Initially, I was skeptical. However, at the cost of an afternoon's work he was able to launch a simple a homepage, which was enough to get 1400 signups in the first week alone. With some further prototyping, we were sufficiently convinced to build a fully functioning site. To date, StickyGram has customers in 90+ countries and is on track to turn over £1m.
Lower costs mean more experiments. More experiments allow you get away from endless commissioning meetings and towards real-world tests that generate much more valuable learning.
2. A new breed of commissioning execs
Good TV commissioners have wonderful skills at divining the zeitgeist and formatting it back to the nation, but often they lack the same feel for technology. We pitched a two-screen idea recently to a TV exec, who said he didn't think the idea would work because the shape of the interactivity was unlike his previous success in the area. I tried to point out that two monster two-screen successes - Betfair and Twitter - were also totally unlike his previous success. But no - he killed the meeting, drawing a dodgy conclusion from a data set of just one example.
3. Better technology
The standard of web technology across the TV industry is off the pace. This means TV interactive experiences, with a few honourable exceptions, don't deliver a user experience on a par with the best of the web. User experience is to online media what narrative is to TV: get it wrong and the whole proposition crumbles. This is a hard problem as big web firms are investing billions when broadcasters are investing millions. But APIs and other cheap web technologies mean there are ways to compete, if broadcasters can make digital excellence a priority.
To conclude, the next Big Brother-sized TV hit may well combine the mass-participation of interactive media with the mass-narrative of TV, in a way we haven't yet imagined. If this format is to spring from the UK, we need to do more to allow high quality digital experimentation.
(A version of this letter was published in Broadcast Magazine).
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