Most irritating things in media #7: ‘Traditional’

Unless you are a real ale brand, being labelled ‘traditional’ isn’t exactly flattering.  Those media which can date their origins to before the birth of the internet are regularly put in the ‘traditional’ box and it’s always by way of a put-down.  Yes, you would have found posters in Pompeii, but I’d call the format more classic than traditional – i.e. vital, relevant and with a strong future.   The use of ‘traditional’ as far as TV is concerned is particularly inappropriate.  Appearing barely 30 years before the internet, TV has never stopped evolving, taking advantage of every new technology that’s come along.  In fact, in a matter of days, it will be technically impossible – strictly speaking – to watch ‘traditional’ TV when the analogue broadcast signal is switched off.

The news this week that YouTube is to launch 60 new ‘channels’ in Europe featuring TV content from very reputable TV producers  like Hat Trick, All3Media, BBC Worldwide and ITN provoked the latest wave of TV scare stories.  Being on-demand, YouTube doesn’t (yet) offer channels in the linear broadcast sense you and I might think of them, but YouTube’s choice of language here is telling. Calling them channels aligns them with the TV that everyone knows, loves and trusts. They’re not calling them ‘professionally made, long-form video hubs’ and with good reason. It is YouTube’s way of saying that these have been curated and so will be good quality; there won’t be a dog on a skateboard in sight – unless it’s been checked for hilarity first.

After years of doing well from TV content, YouTube is now increasingly interested in more formally joining the wonderful world of TV.  If it launched something on the EPG and started holding upfronts next I wouldn’t be that surprised. So why on earth certain quarters have positioned this further expansion of the TV universe by a keen new player as an ‘assault on traditional TV’ is beyond me. YouTube is joining TV, not trying to beat it. Let’s not look for conflict where there is none.

When Sky launched in 1989 was that an ‘assault on traditional TV’?  It certainly created some competition for existing broadcasters, but the net effect was the expansion of commercial TV.  When 4OD launched in 2006, was that an ‘assault on traditional TV’? Is ITV constantly assaulting itself with the ITV Player? If these were intended as assaults they haven’t worked as broadcast TV viewing and advertising investment has reached record highs since. Those on-demand services have also helped TV to colonise new places and new times.  Better to think of them as beloved offspring to embrace. People watch linear and on-demand TV for very different reasons; they co-exist and complement each other.  It is all TV, no matter how it gets to you or how you want to watch it.

The fundamental mistake many commentators make is to assume this is a zero sum game; that any new TV service must cannibalise existing ones.  In fact, people are finding more time to watch these new forms of TV and mobile devices are helping people watch TV on the train, in waiting rooms or at the office.  It’s much more likely that this viewing is displacing a non-TV experience – updating their Facebook status maybe.

Blinkbox’s Michael Cornish recently said in an interview that he wanted Blinkbox to be at the front of the long tail of TV content available online. Leaving aside the fact that the front of a long tail, anatomically speaking, is perilously close to the arse, he was here acknowledging how the TV universe now works, its ubiquity and ease of access and the place of on-demand within it. TV’s long tail is just getting longer.

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