This time last year I spent a fascinating day at the BBC with my colleague Paul Grainge interviewing members of staff responsible, in various ways, for BBC iPlayer. Whenever I interview TV practitioners the conceptual frameworks that they are using to make sense of the changing media environment always intrigue me. One such framework that was particularly striking in this set of interviews was the shift from ‘TV online’ to ‘online TV’. TV online referred to the practice of providing television programmes through the internet and was used to describe the video-on-demand (VOD) services developed by UK broadcasters over the past 9 years. These VOD services, such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD, were originally developed as ‘catch-up’ services that provided access to re-runs of linear broadcast programmes. The concept of ‘TV online’ is perhaps encapsulated in the tag-line for BBC iPlayer: ‘making the unmissable unmissable’. Here the VOD player is positioned as a service that prevents you from missing content broadcast elsewhere. As such, iPlayer is firmly situated as a site for accessing broadcast TV content online. By contrast, online TV was used by our interviewees to refer to television services that harness the increased interconnectivity of television and the internet to deliver programming in ways that cannot be provided by traditional broadcast television.
Of course, the relationship between television and the internet has encompassed much more than just re-running broadcast television programmes through VOD players over the past 10-15 years. It is now commonplace for broadcasters to have websites that enable broader interaction around their programmes and the past decade or so has seen many innovations in transmedia storytelling and multiplatform content which have extended television programmes online in a variety of ways. Multiplatform as a term, alongside its companion terms ‘360 degree commissioning’ and ‘transmedia’, suggests programmes and services that are developed across multiple platforms and distribution outlets. Multiplatforming, therefore, positions the internet as an extension of linear television – a means of multiplying the television programme through content produced for specific platforms (a website, an app, a mobile game etc.). Conceptually, online TV differs from multiplatforming and transmedia in three crucial ways. Firstly it is focused more directly on overall television services rather than individual programmes. Secondly it stems from a perception that the relationship between television and the internet is altering such that the internet functions as more than an extension of broadcast television services and programmes. Thirdly, the internet and television are not understood as separate platforms, but as intertwined in ways that have the potential to alter the very nature of the television services that we receive.
As such, the rhetoric of online TV speaks to a moment in which the internet is emerging as an integral part of providing television services, whether through a television set, PC, laptop, tablet or mobile phone. I explored the context for this in a recent blog for Antenna, and I hope you will forgive me if I borrow from that blog here. Ofcom’s annual Communication Market Report (CMR) offers a particularly useful overview of the changing media landscape behind ‘online TV’. At the end of 2014, 56% of UK households had a TV connected to the internet, either via a set-top box or smart TV, and 83% of UK premises were able to receive superfast broadband. 54% of households owned a tablet (up 10 percentage points on last year), smartphones were the most widely owned internet enabled device (present in two-thirds of UK households) and 4G mobile subscriptions increased from 3% at the end of 2013 to 28% at the end of 2014. (All figures taking from Ofcom’s 2015 Communication Market Report.)
Amidst increasing access to internet-connected devices, broadcast TV viewing remained robust, with just under 70% of the total time adults spent watching audiovisual content in the UK being dedicated to traditional live television. However, this did represent a decline of 12 minutes from the previous year and data from the UK ratings company BARB suggested that about half of this decline could be accounted for by viewing on catch-up, video-on-demand (VOD) and subscription services (such as Netflix).
Certainly, non-traditional viewing has risen over the past year; viewing of non-subscription catch-up services (such as BBC iPlayer) has increased by 26% and 16% of UK households now subscribe to Netflix. Meanwhile, smartphones, tablets and 4G are driving consumption of television content on alternative internet-enabled platforms, particularly among younger audiences, with 16-24s more likely to use a computer or smartphone to access VOD TV services than a set-top box and 50% of 4G users accessing audio-visual content on their mobile phones.
This is a complex landscape, with the changes in behaviour and access to technology varying by age group, location and economic status. What this landscape points to, however, is the increased interconnectivity between television and the internet. While this fast-moving environment raises significant difficulties for the regulation of public service television, it also presents broadcasters with a media landscape in which television is increasingly distributed and accessed online, whether through internet-connected set-top-boxes and smart TVs or through online services available through PCs, laptops, tablets and smart phones.
If this landscape provides a context for understanding the development of ‘online TV’ as a conceptual framework within the BBC, how might this rhetoric be informing changes to the services offered by UK broadcasters? Since we conducted our interviews a year ago, the three main UK public service broadcasters have all launched new versions of their VOD players. Each of these new VOD players is instructive of the ways in which UK broadcasters are responding to a change in the relationship between television and the internet.
The most significant change has come from one of the UK’s commercial public service broadcasters, Channel 4. In 2015 Channel 4 re-launched its VOD player (4oD) as All 4, positioning it as its seventh ‘channel’ and a central hub of its activities and identity as a broadcaster. All 4 replaced Channel 4’s broadcaster website as well as 4oD, effectively positioning the broadcaster online as a VOD service. Tim Bleasdale, Creative Director of the digital product design company Ostmodern, vividly described their work on All 4 as creating ‘a world where 4oD has eaten the rest of Channel4.com’.
The design of the All 4 online interface itself is based around offering viewers three differentiated experiences. ‘On Demand’ is the tab through which to access catch-up and archived programmes, including box sets. ‘Now’ is the place to watch live broadcasts, interactive formats, clips, new shorts and social media conversations. ‘On Soon’ showcases exclusive online premieres, promos and trailers, as well as being the place to set reminders and alerts. Far from being a catch-up service, All 4 attempts to collapse the boundaries between broadcasting and VOD. As Laura Slattery of The Irish Times argues, All 4 can be understood as the presentation of ‘all of Channel 4’s linear channels (Channel 4, E4, More 4), its catch-up content and its digital exclusives in one place – reflecting the fact that younger viewers increasingly do not differentiate between live television and video-on-demand’. Jonathan Holmesconcurs, claiming that All 4 represented ‘yet another sign that broadcasters no longer view online as an adjunct to their main mission, but as central to modern television’.
All 4 offers a clear example of a broadcaster re-thinking the relationship between online and television. Most strikingly its web presence is now dominated by the provision of video content, positioning Channel 4 much more explicitly as a broadcaster online. The All 4 interface also attempts to alter the television experience for an online environment, by mixing within one interface linear broadcast television (with the ability to watch live), the catch-up player (in the ‘on-demand’ tab), the PVR (through reminders and alerts) and interactive media. However, this is not simple convergence. At present the new All 4 interface does seem to emphasise viewing over interacting. Furthermore, it is not consistent across all platforms, with some subscription services offering a far more traditional ‘catch-up’ service that simply carries the All 4 branding.
All 4 does suggest, however, that it is no longer adequate to understand broadcaster VOD players as simply ‘catch-up’ services where broadcast television programmes are distributed online. To do so, fails to account for the ways in which they blend different modes of viewing in an attempt to appeal to the different ‘need states’ of television viewing. It is important to recognise, then, that broadcaster VOD services not only provide a mechanism to catch-up on broadcast programmes that have been missed, but also act as a site for accessing and viewing live and original programming. The UK’s free-to-air commercial public service broadcaster, ITV, noted in 2014 that over 25% of all requests to its VOD service ITV Player were to watch live TV and the interface now includes a ‘Live TV’ button amongst its permanent tabs. In this case, the distinction often made between linear and non-linear television breaks down as viewers use non-linear on-demand services to access linear broadcasting.
More controversially, in 2014 the BBC revealed its proposal to transform its digital channel BBC Three into an online-only service delivered through its VOD service BBC iPlayer. While this decision was driven significantly by the need to cut costs in a difficult political environment (as Liz Evans has discussed) it was also positioned by the broadcaster as a means of responding to changing viewing habits, particularly of younger audiences. Echoing much of the rhetoric around the launch of All 4, Damian Kavanagh (Controller, BBC Three) described the move as merging what is great about broadcast and digital in order to ‘give something of the digital world, not just in it’. Although the service has not yet launched, the BBC’s proposals for BBC Three online again focused around need states with the service positioned around two pillars: ‘Make Me Think’ and ‘Make Me Laugh’.
As with All 4, Damien Kavanagh has described this as an opportunity to combine the delivery of traditional television programming with different forms of content, from short-form to image-led storytelling and increased interaction from viewers. However, while the channel would have a dedicated home online, the BBC claimed in their proposals that the different kinds of content would sit within different sites online, with short form and digital content emerging on social platforms like Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and long form content appearing on iPlayer, as well as on broadcast channels BBC One and BBC Two. This model points to the difficulties of blending online and broadcast. Although VOD services, such as All 4 and BBC iPlayer can act as hubs for television content online, the BBC’s proposals suggest that there remains a distinction between digital-only content (described by Kavanagh as short form and digital) and broadcast content (understood as long form programming). Within the BBC’s thinking around BBC Three VOD services like the iPlayer seem to emerge as extensions of broadcast channels (a place to access long form programmes online), rather than as a site that can accommodate other forms of ‘digital-only’ content that might be better suited to social platforms such as Tumblr or Twitter.
In each of these examples, established broadcasters are attempting to respond to a television landscape in which VOD services sit alongside channels on our television sets and in which live broadcast programming is offered within the same online interface as on-demand and interactive content. This integration of online and broadcasting is unlikely to lead to the decline of live, linear television viewing, but it does change the relationship between broadcasting and the internet. When announcing the launch of All 4 David Abraham, Chief Executive of Channel 4, claimed that the future of TV lies ‘not with either linear or on-demand, but a creative and visual integration of the two worlds, blending the strengths of both into a single brand.’ While I am usually resistant to predicting the future, we can be fairly certain that, looking forward, television services will be provided through internet-connected devices. Within this context, the concept of online TV seems to me to be a useful one for thinking through what it might mean to attempt to provide a television service that is neither linear nor on-demand, neither television nor online, but an integration of the two.
Catherine Johnson is Associate Professor in Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her latest book is Promotional Screen Industries (Routledge, 2015), co-authored with Paul Grainge. She is also the author of Branding Television (Routledge, 2012) and Telefantasy (BFI, 2005) and the co-editor (with Andreas Fickers) of Transnational Television History (Routledge, 2012) and (with Rob Turnock) of ITV Cultures: independent television over fifty years (Open UP, 2005). She is currently researching the development of online television.