Improving the picture on your connected TV
Raymond Snoddy peers through the connected mist to focus on some key thoughts that might take us forward.
If there is one primary topic in the media world these days, other than have you seen the Duchess of Cambridge pictures, it is the connected world.
Over the past few years it has become a familiar theme. It was the main uniting feature at this month's IBC conference and associated Leader Summit in Amsterdam and discussed widely at the CTAM, cable conference at Vienna last week. There was also a sustained examination of every facet of the phenomenon at MediaTel's Connected Consumer seminar this week - and putting the emphasis on the consumer usefully emphasised that this debate has moved on and is now about much more than what television set manufacturers have decided to offer us.
Just like the old jokes are the best jokes, so old, or rather familiar, questions are absolutely the right ones to continue to ask until the answers are absolutely and unambiguously revealed. We have not got there yet although the outlines of the connected world - and the associated emerging buzz words "the second screen" - are starting to emerge from the mist.
MediaTel's quarterly Connected TV consumer survey provides useful benchmarks. Ownerships of smart TV's increased from 12.9% of respondents in the third quarter of 2011 to 15.7% now. It seems like a modest rise but when combined with changing habits of new television purchase - down from once every 10 years to every five to six years - you can see a strong trend emerging.
It really does become a reasonable proposition, as many are suggesting, that 50% of the television homes of Western Europe - with the UK probably in the vanguard - will have smart TVs or at least connected devices in some form by the end of 2015.
The old questions remain. What will consumers actually make of all the technological power being put at their finger-tips? Will it enhance the existing big broadcast brands or lead to the creation of a long tail of almost forgotten but much loved television programmes?
There is also the possibility that apps for the burgeoning number of over the top (OTT) operators like Netflix, LoveFilm and blinkbox will finally lead them to the sunny uplands though some will fall by the wayside. Or not.
At the seminar Damien Read of BT Vision noted that what the viewers really want are relatively modest - the ability to record programmes and the live pause function.
Author and consultant Michael Bayler provided a theoretical framework for trying to understand what is happening in the living room when the consumer is brought together with smart and connected devices. There are now two eco-systems working in parallel. There is a macro big TV system and a micro-system devoted to such things as social communication. The two may converge occasionally but actually there is very little overlap.
There may however be more overlap than Bayler acknowledges. A lot of the micro communication is linked to what is happening on the big screen though some programmes such as X Factor encourage such communication more than others. Indeed we heard that as much as 40% of peak time Twitter traffic is television related.
In custom research for IBC's Leadership Summit, Deloitte concluded that the most common use of full connectivity in TV sets is likely to be "a moderate increase in viewing of mainstream TV content catalysed by access to catch-up services and a wider portfolio of content."
What is clear though is that there is little appetite among mainstream broadcasters for spending much if anything on original content for the second screen. They believe, rightly, that the money should go to the first screen and anything else would be parasitical. The question then becomes an argument about which actually is "the first screen." For most people surely that will remain the flat screen on the wall.
Other take-aways from the seminar is that shock, horror the YouView box is actually a great piece of work. Cynical hacks like to go for the too little, too late, too expensive line of argument on YouView. Not so according to Nigel Walley who has put YouView through its paces at his iBurbia emporium in Chiswick. "YouView is the only proposition that has the five apps everyone wants. Smart TVs don't have these and do have many more we probably don't want," says Walley. The famous five he is taking about are of course the catch up services from the main broadcasters.
The great why doesn't BT buy ITV argument re-emerged, initially from the audience. Why indeed? It is still astonishing that no-one had the courage and the imagination - and you wouldn't have needed very much - to bid for ITV in 2009 when the share price slid unbelievably below 30p. Now it might take bids closer to Greg Dyke's heroic 130p a share effort to land the UK's leading commercial broadcaster and one obviously heading in the right direction.
BT will probably never make a move in that direction but in BT Vision they are clearly serious about television but 38 live Premier League games and library films and television programmes are unlikely to add up to a breakthrough.
And then there are the dreaded metrics - audience numbers to you and me. The more complexity you have with the connected consumer and first, second and even third screens the greater the need will be for reliable information. And we are clearly not there yet - or more precisely we will not be there when significant numbers migrate from the main channels - if they ever do.
As Jean-Paul Edwards from Manning Gottlieb OMD, who has been trying to divine the future these past 17 years put it, there was at the same time too much data and too little. Too much background noise, too little significant, meaningful data.
Here again the conclusion has to be everyone will have to live with increased complexity and continuing uncertainty for the foreseeable future. A gradually evolving BARB will continue to do the heavy lifting on television while failing to afford to be able to do everything. At the same time more targeted "metrics" will sprout alongside.
To the hopeful person who asked "can't we have a single body measuring everything?" the answer probably remains: In Your Dreams. TouchPoints will have to do for now.