Digital UK chief: ‘Don’t believe Silicon Valley OTT hype’

Jonathan Thompson, Chief Executive of Digital UK, the body which supports digital terrestrial TV in the UK and provides operational support for the Freeview DTT platform, has suggested that Silicon Valley’s view of the broadcasting sector is based on “flimsy evidence and half-truths”, warning of the risk of wrong public policy decisions being made as to future content strategies and networks.

Addressing a meeting of the Broadcasting Press Guild in London, Thompson, a former Director of Strategy of both Media Regulator Ofcom and UK public service broadcaster Channel 4, accepted that TV is changing and that much of this change is driven by services such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon. “But new technology alone cannot dictate the future of television. If it did, we’d all be watching 3D TV,” he remarked.

“As an industry, we are in danger of getting carried away in forecasting how these changes will play out and that risks slewing important decisions about the future of one of our most important sectors,” he warned, noting that 20 years ago, it had been predicted that the arrival of digital television would lead to the fragmentation of audiences to the big main channels. “It didn’t turn out that way, with that same handful of channels still attracting more than half of all viewing,” he observed. “We should learn from that and be a bit more sceptical about some of the big claims we hear about OTT leading to the death of broadcast hype.”

“We should be less willing as an industry to adopt the Silicon Valley view of the world based on flimsy evidence and half-truths. We should be wary of big claims when coupled with a lack of transparency over audience figures and instead focus on real-world evidence of what viewer are actually doing,” he advised, adding that even the much talked about millennials who have fully embraced the on-demand world are still watching more live TV that anything else.

According to Thompson, all the evidence points to a blend of viewing behaviours and technologies for the foreseeable future and we should be planning content strategies and networks which will meet that need, suggesting that although the latest TV technologies were transforming choice and flexibility, that were not doing so for everyone. “For example, our research suggests that around 18 million people in the UK have little or no grasp of what on-demand TV is or how to get it. This is a missed opportunity and needs to change if we want our sector to deliver for everyone and realise its true potential,” he declared.

He said he “passionately” believed that free TV has an opportunity to play in maintaining consumer choice and providing the foundation for new services from the likes of BT and Sky, suggesting that just as the launch of Freeview was a catalyst for broadening access to digital TV, Digital TV had embarked on a “new and ambitious” strategy to extend the reach of on-demand to everyone with its Freeview Play hybrid platform, which brings together free-to-view DTT and catch-up services in a range of TVs and set-top boxes. “Freeview Play has the potential to become the core component of most, if not all TVs and set-top boxes in the UK and in doing so, to transform the viewing experience for millions of people,” he concluded.

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