The war of Watch

On-screen and online

For several years now, broadcast bosses have been tussling over what to do. The internet has always been a medium they’ve both embraced and feared in equal measure. But until recently, it has always been considered as a separate entity. The divide in management is often pretty high up. You either run TV or you run Online. Even ‘digital first’ strategies imply at least a second sibling. But the impact of those strategies means the flow of money and expertise is ebbing away from television. Where once leaving the medium would be considered a step down, now a move online is considered both progressive and future-proof.

The migration is entering a crucial stage. As it stands, the craft of television remains intact. But not all of its skills will be required for very much longer. The challenge is not making the move, it is to move while maintaining the standards that set it apart in the first place. But the shift to a younger, faster, often cheaper, more opinionated, less regulated rival is never going to be easy.

Meanwhile, the time is arriving when digital gets tired of its older partner. The days of the internet as a sea of words is long gone. First pictures shared the space, then video clips, now live events fill our timelines. Online platforms that initially considered themselves search engines, book sellers or social sites now all have a stake in television. Each can see the potential of moving pictures but each one has a different approach in exploring what can be done. And the war of ‘Watch’ has only just begun.

In Britain, the opening battle was won by television in a fight so preposterous, no one was entirely sure the internet even turned up. Sky (which has its entire foundations built on showing live football on TV) and BT (which bet its future on following suit) paid eye-watering sums to secure the rights to show Premier League games around the UK. The numbers were so big, in part, because the bidding was blind. Both companies knew they’d rival each other but neither could be sure an online platform wasn’t readying its own offer. So they bet big, but who knows whether they won. Even the winnings haven’t proved as profitable as they might have hoped. Audiences that previously seemed so loyal to football have stopped watching in such large numbers. As the inquest continues into why, even Sky has accepted the way we watch has been changed by the internet. A 90 minute symphony is beautiful, but the 3 minute highlight hit-single can sell just as well.

Meanwhile Facebook has gradually enticed newsrooms further and further into its grasp. For now, some of the bigger media ‘partners’ are paid to share their content. Live blogs, live press conferences, live events around the world. News bosses has never seen so many emoticons waving gently across their content. It’s enticing and exciting, especially as the instant demographic read-outs reveal the missing millions of younger people who’ve turned off (or more accurately never turned on) their television bulletins. Surely, they’ll reason, we must carry this on, even when Facebook’s money disappears.

But if the war for Watch is online, the internet’s biggest players are yet to properly gnash their TV teeth. Sure, Netflix has proved an audience will follow the content – and it seems a paywall is no barrier for their premium content. But essentially it’s offering is television online. The shift in viewing habits it has achieved will be blown away once the right platform arrives that properly harnesses the way we watch.

Consider this: a one stop shop that congregates all the content I want. An online set-top-box of every clip, video and live event that I could wish to see. Discursive when it needs to be, explorative and immediate. Instant translations, optional subtitles, directors commentaries or expert analysis at the push of a button. Google but with videos; SkyGo but more social; Facebook but less timeline obsessed; iPlayer that stretches beyond the BBC; YouTube but grown up. The technology exists already but as it stands, online platforms are working their way from words to watch, while broadcasters are stuck in their ways. Unable – or perhaps unwilling – to create an industry-wide platform, preferring instead to look after themselves and create online programmes that look much the same as the shows they’ve always produced.

But the viewers aren’t waiting. Television audiences are getting older. An entire generation is growing up that doesn’t understand its qualities because they spend their time online not on the sofa. Their loyalties lie with the brands they know. Now their parents have cottoned on and have started to do the same thing. And while some, like the BBC, have sought to bridge the gap, the focus is usually on the young people who started the trend, rather than the mass market now following behind.

So there’s work to be done but big prizes for Watch’s winners. As with every war there will be casualties along the way. Plenty – especially those long in the television tooth – will leave the industry altogether, taking their decades of craftsmanship with them. And just like a battle, there’s more to be achieved in peace and collaboration. But this is a war that is about to get interesting. And we’ll all be invited to watch it unfold.