Television networks are dying in a flurry of reality

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Wouldn’t it be better if quality broadcasters embraced a future as publishers of quality rather than broadcasters of rubbish? John illustrates why broadcasters invent markets that suit their organisation, instead of inventing an organisation structure that suits their market.

It was encouraging to hear that one of the participants in Boss Swap, the new British TV series, had walked out prematurely. Our screens are filled with unreal reality shows, talent-spotting contests in which a microscope is required to spot any talent at all, and quiz shows that vie to see how rude a presenter can be to the contestants. But at least there are some limits to the humiliation people will endure for the chance to appear on television.

We are seeing the death throes of the television channel, that product of the technology of the 20th century, when it was difficult and expensive to deliver electronic signals to consumers. You could reach them only by filling the air with broadcast signals. But transmission was costly and broadcast spectrum limited. That is why we all had to see the same material simultaneously.

But traditional television channels are no longer special. Many more broadcast programmes, terrestrial and satellite, can be accommodated and the cost of gaining access to them has fallen. You can bring a video cassette or DVD into your house. And more and more electronic media are accessible through telephone lines and cable. The day is not far off when it will be cheaper to deliver electronic material than to distribute books, music or films. For spammers, file-sharers and bloggers, it has already arrived.

So the television networks – the people who choose what we all see – are losing the power they once enjoyed. Their future role should be as publishers, the electronic equivalents of the people who search out new authors, promote composers and bands, or finance and publicise films. In these industries, most novelties fail but some remain in demand for several years and a few become perennial favourites, making up the enduring repertoire of our culture.

Networks were vertically integrated businesses: they conceived, made, marketed and broadcast the programmes and controlled costs and revenues from the beginning of the value chain to the end. The functions of publishers are more limited. There is no more reason why publishing businesses should be involved in the delivery of product than there is for music companies to be hi-fi producers, studios to own cinemas, or writers to operate bookshops. Occasionally, some investment bank will see a deal or some strategy planner will think vertical integration is a good idea – hence Sony Music and Barnes & Noble classics. But the skills of audio manufacture are very different from those of promoting rap bands, and running a chain of book stores demands talents different from those needed to write Wuthering Heights.

That is not how most established broadcasters see it. Like most companies, they want to adapt the market to the structure of their organisation, rather than the other way round. So they are wedded to vertical integration and to continuing as broadcasters.

The transmission of the same material simultaneously to a very large audience is still a cost-effective way of distributing the Cup Final, a royal wedding, a presidential address, or the aftermath of September 11 2001. Everyone’s needs are much the same, and these are shared experiences. But there are not many events like those.

So broadcasters have responded by creating television programmes designed as news in themselves. The latest developments in a soap opera, sex in the Big Brother house and cheating on quiz programmes are not news of an elevated kind. But they are reported in the tabloid press and you need to see them to participate in workplace gossip or bar room conversation.

There will always be a few lonely people who send wreaths on the death of a soap opera character. But vicarious reality is a second-rate experience and the formulaic nature of these programmes leads increasing numbers of people to reach for the channel change button. To sustain interest, the formats must become more exotic, the events ever more bizarre. Would it not be better – for both the organisations and the viewers – if quality networks embraced a future as publishers of quality rather than broadcasters of rubbish?

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