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In a connected world, what do we now mean by 'television' and 'radio'?

05 Jun 2013  |  Richard Marks 
Richard_Marks

We are headed towards a digital future with just three media - video, text and audio - delivered across screens of varying sizes, yet 'TV' and 'radio' still have very strong connotations. So how should we change our definitions in a connected world? Richard Marks of Research the Media investigates...

What's in a name? It's part of human nature to define and give names to things, but in the multi-dimensional world of media it's increasingly difficult to classify media services and brands. They don't fit into neat pigeonholes any more.

It was easy when a type of media was synonymous with its delivery platform, with each neatly named after the way it was delivered; a TV set, a radio, a newspaper, a poster. However now that the media are decoupling from the platforms that spawned them, where does that leave our cosy labelling system?

In two weeks' time I'll be speaking at Mediatel's upcoming 'Connected Consumer' Conference. The event reflects that, just as television has outgrown the TV screen, the connected screen in your living room is also delivering far more than just television.

The future is indeed a 'connected' one, but it always infuriates me to see - even now - headlines proclaiming that something called 'the internet' has overtaken or will somehow kill 'television'. It makes absolutely no sense to say that.

The Internet is a delivery platform, television is a medium: apples and oranges. In reality we are headed towards three media - video, text and audio - delivered across screens of varying sizes, from a smart phone up to IMAX digital cinema screens with all screen sizes in between.

Nonetheless the words 'television' and 'radio' in particular still have very strong connotations. Is a Vine video of me typing this article 'television'? Most sane people would argue not, with there being some implied quality threshold. Yet if I 'hilariously' spill tea into my keyboard, and that clip is broadcast as part of 'You've Been Framed' with a Harry Hill commentary on primetime ITV, does it magically become television?

In the few months some American observers have used the label 'T/V' (Television/Video) instead of TV to widen its remit. However this feels clumsy to me and also perhaps a way in which all video, regardless of derivation or quality can somehow muscle into the definition.

Television may be spread across different platforms now, but I think most people know they are watching 'television', regardless of what screen is delivering it. However what of news content?

I am certainly hearing great things about Newsworks, the butterfly born from the Newspaper Marketing Agency. It certainly makes sense to drop the words 'paper' and 'print', and focus on Newsbrands.

This acknowledges the decoupling of the medium and the platform and Newsworks is well placed to help us understand how these news brands transcend their physical forms. However the pedant in me wants to ask - exactly who should join this body?

Let's argue that in ten years' time there are no physical 'paper' newsbrands, only news services offering a blend of text, video and audio. Should news brands like ITN, BBC, Al Jazeera and Bloomberg therefore be Newsworks stakeholders right now? They are after all news brands in the competitive set.

The fact that the current stakeholders all have ailing physical forms at the moment is something they have in common but will become increasingly irrelevant to anyone but etymologists.

If I switch between the Guardian, the BBC and Huffington Post sites I get a mix of video audio and text to keep me up to date. I may know the legacy of these names but to younger generations they are all 'newsbrands'. Indeed, just recently I heard a teenager claim indignantly that they did read a 'newspaper' - the BBC news site.

Newsworks as a concept is also fascinating as it raises a possible alternative media classification in which we abandon video/audio/text altogether and instead organise by genre.

So should there be a Sportworks and a Soapworks? Probably not - there are particular major digital challenges facing news as a genre that make Newsworks essential, in terms of how news gathering is funded going forward, in particular the balance of firewalls and advertising. However I do wonder, as news steps out of its silo, where does Newsworks stop and ThinkBox begin?

'Thinkbox' is a cute play on words, but the presence of the word 'box' in the title does imply solely a world of TV boxes and Set Top Boxes. Is a wafer thin Smart TV really a Box? Is my iPad a box? I know I am being overly literal, but it is clear from their mission statement that Thinkbox aspire to help us understand television (the medium - not just television, the box) across all platforms, including online.

Thinkoutsidethebox doesn't exactly trip off the tongue though. Again they are doing great work - like the recent Screenlife project - and it's probably too strong a brand to change now.

However, like Newsworks and 'newsbrands' I would be fascinated to know what exactly is their definition of television itself and who does or doesn't provide such content. Or to put it another way, what would the response be if Netflix asked to join Thinkbox or ITV News wanted to join Newsworks?

'Radio' arguably remains a much clearer definition. Unlike television, which has gradually having to come to terms with the growing impact of non-linear since VHS arrived in the 80s, radio has always had a non-linear competitor, since it has coexisted with the music industry.

For more than half a century the content it plays had mostly been freely available 'On Demand' - from demanding the new ELO seven inch at your local Woolworth in the 70s through to Woodkid downloads from iTunes today.

So arguably we have always had a much clearer idea of what radio is; a medium whose linear narrative is its very strength. The term may sound a bit 'old-fashioned' and is indeed named after the original delivery vehicle. However perhaps, as with television, the challenge is not to rebrand but to imbue the name with new and correct meaning.

So I'd argue that the terms television and radio are still relevant, but we have to be clearer in how we define and use those terms, to understand and encourage others to understand that they are now media not just platforms and try to use the words in a correct, device neutral way.

Above all, we should appreciate that headlines such as "will mobile overtake television?" are like asking whether a car will overtake petrol. We should challenge this sort of reporting at every turn and ask the perpetrators to clearly define their terms.

However, for this to happen the newer digital players will also have to play ball and understand that television, radio and news brands are not legacy media, to be crushed on the wheel of 'the Internet' but the source of most of their content in the first place.

@RichardMlive

Richard Marks is the Director of Research The Media. Find out more here.

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