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Friday 17 January 2003

Television ‘Branding’ and The Future

Back in the 1980s, I remember occasionally seeing excerpts from foreign TV on the American TV news programs. These excerpts were almost always flickery as hell, because they were produced by someone in Tehran pointing an American TV camera at a television set, and hitting ‘record’. The United States uses electrical power at 60 Hz — the current alternates sixty times a second, which is why it’s called ‘alternating current’. Most of the rest of the world — Japan is the notable exception — uses alternating current at 50 Hz, which means it alternates fifty times a second. There’s probably an interesting story behind this difference, but I don’t know what it is. Undoubtedly the American engineers thought that it was perfectly reasonably to divide a second, itself 1/60 of a minute, which is 1/60 of an hour, by sixty again. The European engineers who designed the electrical system over there, on the other hand, were steeped in the metric system, and opted for fifty. (Update 20 January: I have been informed that this is not the case, that 60Hz was originally selected by Tesla for obvious reasons, and that 50Hz was selected because it’s the minimum frequency at which incandescent light bulbs will work well. Later, GE & Westinghouse in the U.S. standardized on 60Hz possibly to preclude competition from European manufacturers. In any case, this is a very murky topic, and only very tangentially related to the matter at hand.)

Anyway, the result of this is that televisions in the United States (and Japan, and Canada, and a few other places) show 30 frames of video per second (60 divided by 2), while TVs in most of the world show 25 frames per second (50 divided by 2). (In the early days of TV, it was simpler to just use the AC signal as a kind of clock, I suppose, rather than handling all that inside the TV. These days, it doesn’t matter since TVs contain their own clocks; I think this is why you no longer have to adjust the vertical hold occasionally.)

It’s difficult to impossible to see the difference in framerates in person, but if you point an American video camera at a foreign TV set, you see a lot of flicker, since the American camera is trying to record 20% more data than the TV is trying to provide. That 20% shows up as severe flicker in the image.

None of that has anything to do with anything, though. The other thing that struck me about their foreign TV broadcasts, and the thing that’s relevant to this discussion, was that they almost always carried some kind of logo on the screen, letting you know what channel you were watching. Maybe in some countries, the logo meant that the broadcast had been approved by the Generalissimo, but generally it incorporated a number, and I think it’s safe to assume that this was a little reminder of which of the two state-owned TV channels you were watching. The practice always seemed strange to me.

It’s no longer strange and exotic to Americans these days; nearly all of our TV now carries some kind of logo in the corner. News programming is pushing the envelope here, with as much as 25% of the screen devoted to their corporate logo, the crawl, the slug for whatever they’re talking about now (‘Showdown With Saddam’ or ‘North Korea Nukes’ or ‘Missing Child 3000 Miles Away From You’ or, increasingly, ‘Breaking News’ to mark their regular on-the-hour recaps), etc., etc.

TV people maintain that these logos — called ‘dogs’ or ‘bugs’ in the jargon — are necesasry to differentiate their channels from others, particularly as people begin to watch more and more of their TV through mediated means, like with a TiVo.

And there’s the problem. TiVo as it exists now threatens the very existence of TV networks, besides screwing up their business model.

NBC’s Thursday night schedule is a good example of how this works. At 8:00 p.m. this Thursday, NBC shows Friends, and at 10:00 p.m. it shows ER. NBC doesn’t make any money on Friends and ER; they’re very popular shows, so the producers can charge NBC a fortune for the privilege of showing them. It’s a loss leader, if you will. NBC makes its money between 8:30 and 10:00 p.m., when it shows Scrubs, Will & Grace, and Good Morning, Miami. The hope is that viewers who watch Friends and ER will remain parked in front of the TV for the 90 minutes in between, driving up the ratings (and thus the ad price) of the three relatively inexpensive shows in between.

This is how all TV networks work; the very popular shows are loss leaders, and they’re surrounded by inexpensive crap whose ad price can be inflated out of all relation to the quality of the programs by people who are tuned in to watch the expensive show. There’s nothing dishonorable or sneaky about this; it’s how NBC can afford to show Friends without it being a 10-minute program with 20 minutes of ads.

And it’s not going to work any more.

The TV networks fretted when remote controls became commonplace, because viewers were then more likely to not watch ads. Now, with things like TiVo, they’re going to miss out even on the ability to use ‘loss leader’ shows to boost their ratings. To combat this, they’re cutting costs and rolling out all kinds of zany schemes that will do nothing but further alienate viewers.

The problem is this: do you care what network a particular show is on? Does something being on, say, NBC, make it better than if the exact same program is on The Discovery Channel, assuming you get both channels? No.

And as more and more people use TiVos and TiVo-like devices, it’s going to matter less and less what network carries a given program, and even whether a program is on the same network from week to week.

This is likely to be a boon for the people who make TV programs — there are going to be more opportunities to get hold of a (relatively) large audience — but it’s going to be murder for the TV networks, which are going to be relegated to the status of mere conduits.

In the meantime, I expect a period of pain, as the current regime fights to remain in existence. We’ll see a lot of hostility toward viewers, I predict, as programmers try almost anything in an attempt to force viewers to watch ads for products they’re not even slightly interested in.

Eventually, though, I think that the experience of watching TV won’t change all that much from what it is today in TiVo-equipped households. You’ll tell the machine what you want to watch, and you’ll watch it when you like. The programs will be interrupted with commercial messages periodically, but they’ll actually be advertisements for things that might interest you, instead of being for Viagra, adult diapers, and Billy Mays products, as all ads on TV seem to be today. In this way will the advertisers get you to pay attention.

The viewers win, the advertisers win, the producers of TV shows win. Everybody wins, except the bloated bureaucracy currently running TV broadcasters (including cable TV channels). These organizations will still have a role to play in the future, but it’ll be much diminished from what it is today.

Posted by tino at 13:23 17.01.03
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You should write a book.

Posted by: Todd at January 19, 2003 07:31 PM

Actually, I have been thinking of writing a TV sitcom, since that has such a bright future.

Posted by: Tino at January 20, 2003 11:18 AM