I’m currently sitting in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, waiting for my flight back to London after a couple of fun days at the IBC Conference, mixing with the tech community. I’ve only ever attended IBC twice before – across twelve or so years – but it never ceases to amaze me by its scale (at least twelve exhibition halls and over fifty thousand attendees) and also its consistency in constantly claiming the death of everything in the wake of the great god Digital. It was only last year that one of IBC’s keynote speakers – ex Channel 4 Chairman Luke Johnson – was predicting the imminent demise of broadcast television.
Except this year felt a little different.
I had been invited to be part of the connected television debate. The motion was that “connected television will make traditional channels irrelevant”. You can guess which side of the debate I was asked to take!
My first instinct was that it was a set-up; surely –given all the evidence – nobody still believes in this death-obsessed replacement narrative any more, do they? Then I remembered it was IBC. Along with my debating team mates – John Honeycutt of Discovery Channels and Nigel Walley of Decipher – I prepared my arguments convinced it was a lost cause; I felt a bit like George Osborne before he presented the Paralympics medals.
But then a strange thing happened. Our session chairman asked for a show of hands before the debate got under way, to establish the benchmark opinion on the topic. To my amazement, far more hands went up to signify the traditional channels will maintain their position, about 3-4 times as many as those who thought the traditional channels would become irrelevant.
In true IBC tradition, we didn’t change many minds; when the post-debate show of hands was called for, almost exactly the same people voted for exactly the same propositions. However, when asked who gave the most convincing arguments, the vast majority voted for our team. I can honestly say, that was the first formal debate I’ve ever won in my life!
It was made easier by our opponents, who seemed to focus their argument on the hypothesis that everything is changing so of course the traditional channels must fall by the wayside, with no firm evidence to support their case, other than “the internet figures are going up all the time”. This is something I have been constantly frustrated by ever since I started to make a career out of defending television – the world of digital, despite being so data-rich, relies so much on this tired and redundant argument; X is growing so it must replace Y. It has a similar feel to it to that famous paean to wishful thinking – “if we build it, they will come” – that infected so many new media business plans before the first dotcom crash.
Our surprising victory wasn’t an outlying blip, either. In all of the other sessions I attended, there was a tacit realisation that digital innovation will have to work within the existing eco-system, rather than as an alternative. TV didn’t appear to be seen as the great enemy any longer, but as a potential business opportunity that could best be realised by working with the main broadcast players rather than against them. And, as with most eco-systems, the whole will almost certainly be greater than the sum of the parts, and digital can be used to enhance rather than compete with ingrained, valued human experiences.
So, hats off to IBC and here’s to a future where the traditional will co-exist with the new and we can concentrate on growth rather than the battle for world domination. This may be the start of the process leading to such debates finally becoming irrelevant.