What we do we mean when we talk about ‘TV’?

This could be a slightly obvious and pedantic post, but something keeps niggling at me when I read reports about changing audience behaviours around broadcast media. A lot of reports are using the word ‘TV” very loosely – sometimes to refer to specific broadcast models, sometimes to refer to all video watching in general. We’re seeing big changes in the way audiences find and consume video, and this sloppy use of the word ‘TV’ isn’t helping us see how the industry is changing. So I wanted to write up some notes on what we mean when we use the word ‘TV’, and how we need to be more specific in our language from now on.

The recent Telescope report on TV Viewing in the UK reports that we own fewer TV sets than 10 years ago (1.83 per household, down from 2.3 in 2003), yet we’re watching over four hours of ‘TV’ per day, up from 3 hours and 36 minutes in 2003.

This is a really interesting report, looking in detail at changing behaviours in media consumption, and with a very innovative ‘TeleHappiness’ report that shows what kinds of content makes us happy in different parts of the UK (sport in Wales, comedy pretty much everywhere). But the news coverage of the report uses the word ‘TV’ to describe three different things, a mistake made by many people analysing the current media market, not least in similar reports about the the TV ad industry body Thinkbox’s recent report on on-demand viewing.

For most of the last 50 years, the phrase ‘TV’ was a useful catch-all phrase covering three things – the business model of broadcast TV, the content commissioned by TV broadcasters, and the box in the corner we used to watch broadcast TV. Over the last 10 years, those three things have started to split from each other, and the split is getting more pronounced every year. The risk is that research or analysis of audience behaviour that doesn’t take account for this split will be increasingly inaccurate, and will make it harder to put emerging audience behaviours in the correct context.

So I think it’s time we started being more specific with our use of terminology when talking about audiences and their media consumption:

Televisions are the boxes in the corner. They are still mainly used for watching broadcast  content, but they’re also hooked up to games consoles, the internet, and other non-linear sources of content. We might own fewer TVs in our homes, but this is partly because we’re using other devices, like laptops, mobile and tablets, to replace the secondary Televisions we used to have around the home. The market for selling TVs is starting to flatten out after years of growth as customers switched to large flat panel digital TVs. With the ongoing financial situation looking bleak, and 3D not driving sales as much as predicted, its likely that UK TV sales will continue to plateau.

Video is the content itself – the audiovisual content that we consume on an ever-increasing number of different devices. The combination of broadband adoption and smartphone/tablet sales has hugely increased the consumption of Video on devices that aren’t traditional TVs – for example, 23% of iPlayer content is delivered to mobile phones or tablets. Online video is probably the fastest growing media sector at the moment, and this is driven by social circulation and other emerging behaviours, not traditional distribution. For example, AdAge reports that 85% of the audience for M&Ms’ 2012 Superbowl ad was driven by social circulation, not traditional paid media. If you’re a production company making video things are looking pretty rosy –  there’s never been more people looking to invest in making video – eg Youtube or Netflix –  or more places to put video so it can be found and shared by audiences. This is only likely to increase in the next few years.

Broadcast is the traditional business model for delivering video content to TVs in people’s homes. It relies on huge investment in distribution technologies over digital transmitters, cable or satellite, requires regulatory approval, and involves commissioning or acquiring content to fill separately branded channels that usually run for 24 hours a day. Commercial broadcasters rely on selling advertisements inserted into broadcast content to fund their business models. Broadcast TV’s share of the total ad market has been broadly flat in the last few years, with fluctuations based on major events like the Olympics. Current predictions are for a small contraction in the market in the UK after a modest growth in 2012. The trend for individual channel share has been downwards, as overall viewing has split across channels as UK audiences switched to digital TVs with many more channels available. Most broadcasters have managed this transition through launching portfolios of channels to keep their overall share up despite this fragmentation. Channel 4, for example, has seen its overall share go up from 10.3% to 11.2%, whilst the BBC and ITV portfolios have seen a reduction in share. This increased portfolio brings with it increased costs, as each new channel in the portfolio means more marketing and commissioning expenditure. New players like Lovefilm, Netflix and more recently Tesco’s Clubcard TV offer archive content from broadcasters and film producers on demand without having the regulatory or scheduling requirements of traditional Broadcasters. As a result, outlooks for growth for traditional broadcasters is mixed. Increasing ad sales inventory usually means launching new channels, which adds huge ongoing costs, whilst overall ad prices are being squeezed as media buyers shift investment to digital and other platforms. Only broadcasters with a direct transactional relationship with the customer – such as subscription channels like Sky or HBO – have some insurance against the flattening digital ad sales market. Put simply, if you’re reliant on traditional display advertising around free to air linear channels for your broadcasting business model, you’re looking at flat growth in the next few years, and possibly decline.

So – TV is the box in the corner, Video is the medium, and Broadcast is the business model. When we talk about the state of our industries, and their potential futures, lets be more specific in our language. If you’re talking about broadcast media (as Thinkbox and BARB do – their stats only refer to content produced by the major broadcasters, not Youtube, Netflix or other VOD providers) then use the definition ‘Broadcast TV’, not just ‘TV’.

The thing that we’re all watching more of is Video – online, on TVs over broadcast channels, on our phones and tablets, on Xbox’s, or whatever. TV is increasingly too small a definition, with too much historical baggage, to capture the way video consumption is growing.

And yes, I’m quite aware that I made the same mistake myself in an earlier post on Storythings. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…


  1. jimcaig

    Great post, Matt. I heard Evgeny Morozov talk last night in very similar terms about ‘the internet’.

    His new book rails against the conflation of the network and the platforms/services that sit on top of it. When people use the term ‘internet’ they’re probably referring to a specific form – a search algorithm, a peer-to-peer platform, a transactional site, a content stream… – but making generalist claims, whether in support or opposition.

    So the discourse has become so imprecise, and ‘internet’ is now a lazy, unhelpful catch-all term. It dooms to failure any attempts to umderstand its separate models, let alone transport those models into other realms (the Pirate Party, for instance).

    And it has created an endlessly mutable internet ideology that makes it impossible to attempt any reasoned criticism.

    Woolly concepts hinder effective policy making. His call, like yours, was for greater specificity. And I agree with you. Threach allege of the convergence we’ve long predicted is the need for more precise delineation between concepts, whatever we’re business we’re in.

  2. tessalps

    I think it’s a bit rich to describe our definition of TV as a ‘mistake’, Matt. By all means have your own definitions, but that is what they are, your personal interpretation. We always make a distinction between TV (the content) and the TV (the device). And in our view ‘broadcast’ is not a business model but one specific one-to-many form of distribution, unlike any IP form which s essentially one-to-one. There are at least 3 business models in broadcast TV: licence fee(or tax), subscription and advertising.

    All TV is video, but most certainly not all video is TV. If we had to define it I guess we’d say ” professionally produced and curated linear audio-visual entertainment viewed personally or domestically”. That separates it from films viewed theatrically (cinema), video gaming and video poster sites like a moving escalator panel. As you say there will be more and more video about but it won’t all be TV. Our definition is led by what ‘normal’ people call it and they know it when they see it. You might be interested in a piece of research done by Essential for Ofcom looking at this very issue to help inform their decision about the scope of ATVOD. It’s on the Ofcom website.

    I think it’s interesting that new entrants use the word – Google TV, Apple TV- to denote something of higher quality than just video. So TV is a very elastic word but at its heart is professional quality content. Our reports use the industry standard metrics of BARB. BARB is evolving and by the end of the year will report on all TV viewing in-home on any device within 28 days of broadcast. That still won’t cover all TV, not even all broadcaster content as the archive viewing goes beyond 28 days, but it is what has been decided collaboratively (all broadcasters, advertisers, agencies) because in the end they have to pay for it.

    • mattlocke

      Hi Tess,
      I was very careful to say that the mistakes were in *other people’s reports* on the Thinkbox report, not in your report itself. Thinkbox are producing some fantastic stats and analysis, but too often people writing them up use generic terms without being clear about the definitions.
      I am being very pedantic about this, but I think its important. Music and Publishing both missed emerging audience behaviours around their core products because they didn’t recognise these new behaviours as being part of their industry. ‘TV’ is still overwhelmingly ‘broadcast TV’ for most audiences and the industry, but this is changing, and if we’re not careful, we’ll miss seeing emerging behaviour changes because they didn’t fit our traditional understanding of our industry.

  3. tessalps

    By the way, I thoroughly applaud word pedantry, so I am not decrying your attempt to get clarity. Language is extraordinarily important for understanding. We still find people calling the PSB channels ‘terrestrial’ and the non-PSBs ‘digital’ when all TV broadcasting in the UK is now digital. And we try not to use the words ‘digital’, ‘internet’ or ‘mobile’ ourselves; the first because it causes great confusion (digital broadcast TV or online & mobile TV?) and the latter two because they are simply not specific enough. Mobile ok, but mobile what? So we’d rather refer to search, or social media or email marketing. All of these are, at some level, competitors to TV advertising, but the ‘internet’ itself clearly is not.

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