Four things Australian TV broadcasters should do to keep their audiences

Rodd MessentWith the ratings battle of 2012 officially over, Rodd Messent lays out four ways FTA broadcasters need to adapt to the new viewing habits of consumers.

2013 is shaping up to be a massive year in the Aussie free-to-air TV industry. Online ad revenues are expected to overtake free-to-air TV ad spend. Pay-TV competitor Foxtel is aggressively seeking to improve its subscription numbers by pursuing content deals like its recent exclusive one with HBO. There’s even talk of a consortium of channels launching a Hulu-like aggregated service to try and compete.

The standard individual broadcaster response seems to be to race to launch a fuller suite of web and mobile apps to meet the demand for viewing content at home and on the go (the ABC’s lovely iView currently winning). However, meeting demand for content on connected devices isn’t enough.

Unless Aussie TV networks start to think and act in truly user-centric terms organisation wide, the barriers to desperately needed service innovation will remain. Here are four things they (or a consortium of them) could do to become better user-centric companies:

1. Organise their businesses around the user

Being a user-centric business isn’t the same thing as being an audience-centric one. It’s about recognising the interactions a person has with TV content these days are either using or heavily influenced by connected devices (e.g. second screen apps) and reorganising the business to create user-centric representation across all departments and all the way up to senior management. Unless the business is committed to doing this, user expectations risk not being met as entrenched teams continue to think in broadcast centric terms and the digital department only an extension of content delivery.

For broadcasters like Channel Seven and Channel Nine, having effectively outsourced their digital teams for catch-up TV to Yahoo!7 and NineMSN respectively, the best bet for transitioning to user-centric organisation is paradoxically through an aggregated service. As a separate entity unencumbered by reporting structures and competing visions of individual broadcasters, user-centric organisation in an aggregated service could be formed much more successfully – just like Hulu in the US was successful when it became its own entity rather than continuing as an internal start-up (the model NBC initially put in place).

2. Stop thinking about audiences

Instead of thinking about audiences, I find it useful to think of TV content as the object of an ongoing, global conversation among different sets of participants: like the producers, cast, channel and a community of fans. Fan users expect to participate in an ongoing social dialogue about content from the moment it is released anywhere in the world and, in the case of live TV, actually with the content. Communities of users can then be built around stages of the content lifecycle.

Despite being a non-live drama, the ABC’s early release of Dr Who via iView is a great example of thinking about content in this way. By making the episode available only a few hours after it aired in the UK, the ABC was able to capitalise on the interest of the show’s core fan users who in turn created buzz and attracted additional, mainstream users to the broadcast event – even several days later.

3. Focus on discovery and personalisation.

With an increasing supply of available content from multiple sources, users now need more help than ever to find the sorts of stuff they like. The ideal content discovery process includes a form of personalised search, recommendations from a user’s social graph along with an overview of what the broader community is doing and thinking. Recent entrants in the Aussie market like Zeebox (a social program guide app) are great steps in this direction, however there are greater opportunities for these types of experiences – like the ability to change the channel via the app itself and discover more than what’s creating the most conversation (such as community sentiment).

4. Design for a continuous experience between preferred devices

Pretty soon content will become ubiquitous across connected devices. With that, users are going to start caring more about a continuity of experience between their devices rather than sheer availability. SBS on Demand’s playlist is a good, early example of such continuity in the Aussie market. Users can add shows to their playlist, sync the playlist between their devices and receive alerts when new episodes are added – all of which keeps them in the SBS experience and drives additional viewings. Exploring further possibilities for these types of features (e.g. like pausing an episode on one device and picking it up where you left off on another) are going to become critical in retaining users.

Big changes to the Australian TV broadcast industry have been happening for a while, but now more than ever it’s time to seriously start organising for the shift by putting users first. Content may still be king, but focusing on the context in which users discover, view and review it has become the key to understanding how it can best be produced, distributed and monetised.

  • Rodd Messent is vice president of strategic consulting and user experience at Kit Digital, a video technology company.


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