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Friday, 9 August 2013

TV's not going away, it's going digital

As digital marketers, we are aware of the importance of television as a medium in India. Clients will always put their (often limited) spend first on TV which still reaches out to  the maximum number of people. And in fact, while we wait for digital medium to gain critical mass, one of the common refrains we hear is that 'TV will not go away any time soon.'

That's absolutely true. As the largest screen in the household, and a fabulous delivery mechanism for family entertainment, TV will definitely not go away. It will simply go digital.

The process begins when you are able to connect your television to the internet. It helps to have a so-called Smart TV but it's not really necessary - a gaming console or even a Tata Sky set top box can serve the same function. So can the recently launched $35 Google Chromecast, which cleverly plugs into the HDMI port to deliver an internet-ready TV screen. And if you are ready to mess around a bit, you can even connect your existing PC and a wireless keyboard. The biggest hurdle to digital television is already overcome. We do not need to change the software. We can use existing hardware. 

After internet connectivity comes the next step - content. Digital content for television is not a new concept, even in India, which has lagged behind in broadband connectivity. It's nearly 8 years since MTNL launched IPTV/ triple play broadband services, which simply never took off. And this is a moot point. Many people say that lack of broadband penetration and cost of access will prevent TV from going digital. If that was the case, then MTNL's reasonably priced service should have found more takers. Why did it not? It was the content offering that was not alluring enough. Creating a digital package which mirrored the way television works was not a compelling reason to shift. Incidentally, IPTV faced the same fate globally, not just in India.

Let's look instead at Netflix - a new age content provider, not yet present in India. Movies and serials are at the heart of family entertainment. Netflix caters to this need as a purely internet based streaming service.

Netflix sees a 30% uptick in usage during the summer season when families and kids are on the move for holidays. The company has attempted to take advantage of this by offering Netflix Families, a URL with streaming basics for new users, and a list of kid-friendly videos that can be accessed on the site, categorised in an interesting way - for example, there is a playlist for people waiting at the airport! This is purely a mobile play. But by making itself relevant where TV cannot be accessed, Netflix will definitely create a pull. 

And they have a diametrically opposite strategy that benefits you if you watch Netflix on TV. Recently, the company re-introduced an old feature which allows individual users in a family to create separate profiles, so  that recommendations can be better tailored to suit their needs. If you are a large TV viewing household, this brings obvious benefits. 

But it's not Netflix that is pushing the most to turn TV digital. That distinction goes to Google. The company which built Android OS almost only with the view to building the next generation mobile ad network. It's unlikely that Google will sit back and let anyone else take dominance of the first screen in the household. And being Google, they have tried persistently in multiple ways. Google Fiber to bring cheap, superfast, unlimited internet access to your house. The aborted Google TV OS. Chromecast. On the content front, the re-imagined YouTube with paid channels. 

We have seen traditional 'big media' including record companies and publishers, getting undermined, or being forced to re-invent themselves in the digital era. And the next wave of change will impact media channels, who will have to contend with more flexible, distributed, digitally-powered ways to access content, made available at a customer's fingertips. It does not matter whether they entirely replace the current paradigm or no. The availability of choice is in itself enough to create fragmentation. Time spent on your TV browsing the internet, is time taken away from watching channels. The change will start on a small scale. Newer innovations that faciliate faster download, storage of content and customization, will accelerate the pace.

Baby steps towards a digitally powered TV era are already underway. MTNL has recently launched a high-speed (10-20 mbps) broadband internet (Fibre-To-Home) service, which is getting a good response at least in Mumbai from builders and existing housing societies. Tata Sky's new HD Digital Set top box allows you to download on-demand movies, both free and paid, using your internet connection, and view it the the next day. 

Sure, TV is not going away. But the day may not be far when the 'saas' and 'bahu' figures can be clicked on to figure out which designers made their clothes and jewellery, who cut their hair, and to 'like' their performance. Digital TV is a reality.