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Irritate viewers at your peril

21 Aug 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Irritate viewers at your peril

UK broadcasters must play a cautious game if they want to stop viewers looking at the Netflix menu, writes Ray Snoddy

This week’s report that the Government is prepared to consider allowing the UK’s mainstream commercial broadcasters to carry more advertising per hour as part of the fight-back against the international streamers is intriguing.

It comes just as the scale of the streaming threat comes into focus, as Apple TV+ has made it clear it plans to preempt the launch of Disney+ in November with an early launch of its own.

The streaming challenge, and its likely affect on viewing figures, begins to look very real at a time when television advertising is already under pressure from a faltering economy hit by everything from international trade wars to uncertainty caused by Brexit.

In such circumstances it is surely praiseworthy that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is, amidst the current political turmoil, apparently prepared to consider trying to do something to help the likes of ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

There are a couple of obvious problem with the issue – to what extent it is likely to happen, and even if it does would it be counter-productive?

It’s August, and some of the broadcasters Mediatel News has spoken with even seem to have been taken by surprise by talk of “consultations”.

At this stage it may be something of an early thought rather than a definite plan to mess with the long-established Ofcom rules on TV advertising - an average of seven minutes every hour and eight in prime time up to a maximum of 12.

But assume for a moment that there is an intention to liberalise the rules - would it actually help anybody?

There is no God-given law of nature that says there should be no more than an average of 8 minutes an hour in prime time and it is more restrictive than European regulations – although that may be about to become less relevant.

The merit of the present situation is that it appears to work – that viewers on the whole are prepared to accept the present informal deal - the current level of advertising in return for high quality programmes.

The fact that the status quo may represent a benign, acceptable balance is illustrated by the row that breaks out when broadcasters push their luck – within the rules – by littering ads around a particular programme such as Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off.

At one extreme American network television is close to unwatchable to British eyes because of the frequency and intrusive nature of the advertising.

There is little sign that anyone wants to go down that route.

If the Government is intent on appearing to help, although it is far from clear what Government that might be, the answer could be a modest increase in flexibility on broadcasting minutes which broadcasters would then be wise to ignore.

The issue is however a symptom of a larger more serious battle against the international multi-billion streaming organisations whose business model is primarily based on subscription rather than advertising.

With no ads at all on Netflix it would be verging on the crazy to alienate viewers to top commercial dramas or entertainment shows by upping the frequency of ads – quite apart from devaluing the currency.

Another sign of stress in the existing broadcasting system caused by streamers and changing patterns of viewing came with the news that the BBC plans to increase external advertising of its programmes to around £100 million over four years.

The BBC has always advertised its programmes and broadcasting personalities in addition to in-house, on-screen promotions and currently spends an estimated £15 million a year on advertising. The increase to around £25 million is significant given the financial restraints the Corporation faces but very necessary to try to reach the alarmingly large numbers of young people who do not watch BBC channels at all.

Only 56 percent of 16-34 year-olds watch BBC television across a week, down in a year from 60 percent – a trend that could accelerate unless something is done about it with the arrival of more streaming services.

Plans to increase the number of in-house promotions between BBC programmes could be more problematical and hold the same sort of danger for the Corporation as increasing the frequency of ads on ITV.

Irritate your viewers with too much on-screen promotion at your peril. At the very least the danger is that viewers will use the opportunity to have a look at the Netflix menu.

The biggest boost to the power and influence of advertising could be about to break in the next few months with the expected launch of a more than £100 million multi-media campaign to prepare the UK for a No Deal Brexit, which polls show a majority of the UK population do not want.

This could be the trickiest and potentially politically controversial public information campaign since the tombstone AIDS ads of three decades ago telling people not to “die of ignorance.”

To some the approach was seen as overly alarmist, though it was certainly effective in getting attention.

This No Deal campaign could be the absolute opposite – having the effect of appearing to normalise a truly extraordinary situation.

The first problem is when to deploy such a campaign. Go too early when the Government is at least still giving lip-service to “negotiations” and the public is likely to shrug it all off and ignore the message.

Conversely the message, if not precisely calibrated, could lead to panic buying and stockpiling.

Leave the launch too late and the complex series of messages on everything from food supplies, medicine, travel and fuel could become stirred into a general sense of panic and uncertainty.

The Advertising Standards Authority has no sway over the honesty and decency of political advertising or party political broadcasts or what appears on the red buses during referendum campaigns - though maybe it should.

But if the Government were to use public funds for a public information campaign that veered into the realm of political propaganda that surely would be a different matter.

Between now and October 31st it might be a good idea to keep a closer watch than normal on what is being advertised in your name.

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