An action plan for Ofcom
Turning the retriever into a greyhound
Clarify the rules for advertising in on-demand platforms
One of the fundamental rules of broadcasting in this country is that television programming and commercial advertising must be clearly identified and separated from one another. Direct and indirect product promotion that falls foul of this legislation is usually guilty of “undue prominence”. Licence fee-payers are thankfully spared the product placement carnage that plagues US networks with an independent BBC, despite the attempts of wily corporations (Ahem, Coke) to bend the rules with “sponsorships” and favours. Other public service broadcasters are admirably dignified.
Video on-demand puts unprecedented power in the hands of the great unwashed, which scares ad agencies, media buyers and broadcasters silly. Advertising is a forced activity – people don’t choose it unless it is editorially compelling or a burden to be suffered for greater benefit. Putting advertising into on-demand systems is very hard as it dilutes and negates their most attractive features. It’s difficult to force advertising on people you are trying to empower with choice. This leaves advertisers with relatively few options in a world where very little is certain in terms of what works and what doesn’t. Buying by the thousand views and inflating the figures are on their way out.
The clearest route for major advertisers to invest in making their advertising more like conventional TV programming – individual brands are now spending the leftovers of their marketing budget on running their own TV channels, producing mini soap operas for mobile phones and both bending and blurring the lines as much as they possibly can. We need clarity on just how much slack they are to be granted while we all adapt to these new technologies, and when the big stick is to be brought out for those that decide to take advantage of the situation and deliberately set out for confuse consumers for their own purposes (Where’s Lucky and/or ‘unlimited’ broadband on IPTV, anyone?).
Control monopolistic behaviour by content providers
Only one name needs to be mentioned when it comes to brutal monopolisation of content rights, Sky. Restricting it to only five of the six football rights “packages” was a cute gesture, but futile. Sky owns the football, the cricket, the best US TV series and the entire Pay TV movie release window in the UK. Nobody expects it or anyone else to be a charity, but its hold on content is so absurdly strong that it directly affects the wider industry because it is impossible for anyone to compete on an equal footing. Ask any football fan and they will tell you that they would gladly switch to another platform (e.g. BBC1), and the vast majority resent Sky’s monthly charges. Pubs really hate Sky.
News International owns most of the press, plenty of world TV networks and a movie studio or two. Naturally, they cross-promote each other and favour each other when it comes to trading rights to content. Their pockets are very, very deep and their influence deeper still, meaning that coercion is more common than fairness, as all cold-blooded businesspeople would understand. The trouble is that those who suffer the most are the ordinary day to day consumers who are pay subscription fees but have little or no choice as there is no market competition.
Behaviour that acts directly against a consumer’s interest needs to be stamped on, even if it damages a company’s commercial ambitions. Wherever there is money, power or influence, it will be sought after and abused. No one media entity should be allowed to obtain or exploit more than half (50 per cent) of the viewing rights for any genre of content. That means Sky should not be allowed to exclusively control more than three football rights bundles (or cricket), or half the movies that are released for pay TV platforms in the UK. Exclusivity is important, determines the fate of businesses and forms the basis of a large amount of commercial deals, but it must be closely controlled.
None of these things are out of the regulator’s reach, nor are they impractical or damaging. The key is will – the will to move beyond the warm comfort zone we have all become accustomed to, so we can be agile enough to adapt to changes more effectively than if we were just waiting to dry off after the proverbial wave has crashed over us. No one will dispute that these are extremely challenging goals and suggestions that would cause shockwaves, but it's shockwaves we want – a regulator brave enough to roll up its sleeves, bare its teeth, and lead from the front. We have a cutesy golden retriever, when we need a greyhound.
If even two or three of these suggestions were implemented, the implications would stimulate both the imagination and the market ecosystem they are a part of. The question we need to ask ourselves is what kind of a world we want to live in, and where we want our country to be? Our Molotov cocktail of answers is just waiting for a Zippo lighter to make it happen.
Digital TX Limited is a London-based provider of technology and consultancy solutions for interactive digital television and broadband media. Alexander Cameron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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