Don't read TV's last rites yet; and headline hysteria

02 May 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
Don't read TV's last rites yet; and headline hysteria

The current travails of the TV market may be many and varied, but are they enough to summon the spectres of doom? Of course not, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: why headlines are god.

Oh dear. Despite myself, I laughed when I saw this piece in Ad Age under the headline “TV may actually die soon”.

I’ll leave Bob Hoffman to do the skewering of the argument.

But like Mark Ritson, I have read so many pieces of this ilk - more in recent years, however - that I can hardly be bothered with them anymore.

As you can see from further down this column, I have a thing about bad headlines, and apart from being just plain wrong, this headline is idiotic on several other levels.

The word ‘may’, for one; I suppose TV ‘may’ die, but this leaves open the possibility that it may not. So that’s a cop-out.

The word ‘actually’, for another; what purpose does it serve? Does it reinforce the likelihood of death, or not? Cop-out #2.

The word ‘soon’. One person’s ‘soon’ is another’s eternity. This year, next year, sometime, never? To borrow from the Smiths...’How Soon is Now?’. Cop-out #3.

Here are two useful tips when you see an article like this.

One, articles with cop-out headlines are worth diddly squat.

Two, before you read such a piece, go to the bottom and check out the author’s credentials. If they’re from some dip-shit new-media outfit and you can’t understand what they do, ignore it. As the saying goes, to someone with a hammer, everything is a nail.

In the case of the Ad Age piece, the author is one Shelly Palmer who, in his own words I assume, runs “a strategic advisory, technology solutions and business development practice focused at the nexus of media and marketing with a special emphasis on augmented intelligence and data-driven decision-making.”

I haven’t the first idea what this means and nor, I suspect, does he. From this I infer that, the more advertisers spend on TV, the more redundant his hammer. If you come across him in the future - ‘soon’, as he would put it - run a mile.

But given the current travails of the TV market, certainly in the UK, I expect to see more headlines of this type. Things are currently a bit off. In March ITV reported its first fall in ad revenues for seven years. Last month, Sky reported ad revenues down 3 per cent in a market down 8 per cent.

Brexit, pre-election nerves, rising inflation…the reasons may be many and varied. Is it enough to summon the spectres of doom? Of course not. And we wait to see whether Google and YouTube’s problems blow any extra revenue TV’s way.

As luck would have it, two documents making the robust case for TV are currently circulating. One is Thinkbox’s ‘A Year in TV Report’; the other is Barb’s annual viewing report.

Thinkbox may start from a less objective place than Barb, but both reports are longer on fact than they are on assertion, and readers can read the facts - non-alternative facts, if you like - and assess them accordingly.

The overall narrative suggests a small decline in live and 7-day viewing, matched by larger increases in 8-28 day viewing.

And here’s a random(ish) selection that, for me, make the case for pronouncing TV alive and well.

Apart from one stat, I’m sticking with audience figures on the old-fashioned basis that money follows eyeballs and time spent.

- 86 per cent of TV viewing is live

- Adult impacts increased about 1 per cent in 2016 to 885bn

- Standard viewing (live+ 7 days) is down just under 2 per cent vs 2015. But total screen time is up 0.1 per cent, and 8-28 day timeshift viewing up 5.8 per cent

- Standard viewing time per day (live+7 days) is 3.32 hours, four minutes less than 2015 - and four minutes less than 2006. But it is down 30 minutes on 2010 (accounted for, I think, by a mix of growth in viewing on other devices and more viewing in the 8-28 day timeframe)

- 16-24s watched 2.18 hours of TV on a TV set in 2016, down 1.5 per cent. But TV accounts for 56 per cent of their total video consumption

- 25-34s total screen time is up 1.4 per cent, led by a 6.4 per cent increase in 8-28 day viewing, and tempered by a 3.1 per cent decrease in live and 7-day viewing

- And the exception stat...last year saw 837 advertisers new to TV or returning after five years away.

They obviously see something that the likes of Shelly Palmer doesn’t.

Hysteria and the headline

Anyone who works with me knows that I am a bit of a headline fascist. Headlines are god, I believe. A good headline pulls the reader in, sets the tone and, crucially, delivers on the promise.

In the ongoing struggle to stay on top of industry events, I subscribe to an awful lot of trade press newsletters. Every morning they clutter my inbox, calling out for my attention. The number one weapon is the headline.

By default, I’ve become a connoisseur of the bad and the ugly, the plaintive, the desperate and the hysterical. The good...sometimes I even click on those.

A couple have caught my eye in the last week or so.

This one - from Marketing Week - has an air of over-the-top hysteria and is also, well, just on the verge of being hysterically funny:

Really? Who knew innovation was close to death.

Is it ill? Some terminal disease?

Or has someone - the word police, say - imposed a death sentence on it?

How close to death is it? Is it imminent, in which case has the funeral notice gone out?

Or is it, as we all are, dying in our own time?

I’m also troubled by the use of the word ‘must’. As far as I can see, there’s no ‘must’ about this. It might be nice, but it’s not essential.

Yet the trade press is always telling us we ‘must’ do this, or ‘should’ do that. It’s like having a finger wagged in your face. If I was a marketer I’d be sick and tired of being told I must do this, or should do that.

In fact there’s nothing too wrong with the article itself - it’s quite restrained, and makes the entirely reasonable point that we, as an industry, have lost sight of what innovation really means.

Anyway, moan over. Of course, I’m well aware that I’m setting myself up for a fall with the headline on this column. Getting it right every week is a constant battle. But shoot me if I ever descend to hysteria.

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