Thursday, 16 October 2008

Time to bring back proper music television

Are Andy Burnham MP’s recent flirtatious comments about music on television an example of how far out of touch politicians can be from the industries that they represent, or is this the incisive intervention of a culture minister who is enough of a music fan to have a go? Was he really angling for a return of Top Of The Pops (TOTP) as some reporters interpreted? Surely not – that would be more than being just out of touch – it would suggest a tendency towards clumsy meddling.

Observing the industry’s response to the ultimate demise of TOTP a couple of years back was bleakly, sardonically amusing. This was like a music industry equivalent of a national wake on the scale of the death of Princess Diana. There was shock, grief but most of all a lack of acceptance. ‘How could the BBC has allowed it to come to this’? Music Week was awesome that week, especially a charming story about the BPI acquiring some rights to the TOTP brand. What were they thinking?

For a much more insightful review of the current state of music television you can read the Alexi Petridis cover story account in last week’s Guardian Film & Music (what a wonderful supplement this is for us lucky UK content fans – see my blog links). After spending a whole day surfing music based channels on mainstream TV (i.e. the telly itself not the internet version) and talking to a few wise owls in the production business Petridis dissected the current status quo succinctly as follows:
  1. There is actually more music on TV than ever before – just not during prime time.
  2. Subsequently, today’s music channels don’t feel like community viewing and they aren’t since viewing figures confirm hardly anyone else is watching.
  3. Pure music programming (i.e. excluding X-factor type formats) never pulled in huge audiences in the first place, with TOTP very much an exception to the rule.
  4. Music ‘television’ currently exists in a more invigorated form beyond the TV itself (i.e. online & mobile – an observation made by Malcolm Gerrie of Whizzkid).

It does seem that the last place to look for music shows is television, but only if you go to bed before midnight. Musically speaking, as a child of the 80s myself, there is no modern equivalent to The Tube (produced by Gerrie mentioned above) – a thrilling, edgy magazine show that not only showcased great music but delivered it with such swanky verve – ushering in the weekend brilliantly. But there is 4Music, Later With Jools Holland and Live from Abbey Road. Buried away deep on Sky Arts you can find the wonderful From The Basement, while BBC’s 3&4 are superb for archive music documentary. But the actual dedicated music channels – all 30 of them – are arguably all underperforming for their host networks these days.

The problem is that the majority of the target audience for these shows actually goes to bed before midnight. We’re beyond 30, we’ve got demanding jobs and kids and we are exhausted by 10.30 on a Thursday and a Friday night. It would be great to wind down with some quality music programming but we just can’t hang on that long. And the show line ups often fall a bit short to make that extra special effort don’t they? How often do major A-list acts crop up on the current crop of music shows?

We know from endless reams of research that the 18-24 year old audience are not watching telly but busy multi-tasking their way through a backlog of internet bookmarks, messages, texts, twitter feeds, downloads/uploads and maybe a touch of revision.

Basically, one has to ask: who are music television shows being broadcast to exactly?
We do have iPlayer of course and we have PVRs, so some of the target audience will get ‘round viewing music shows. But still, TV is not exactly a mainstream platform for new potential superstars that it once was.

But new platforms aren’t great for music shows either. The internet is actually more problematical for music than television is. Despite a recent glut of internet music TV destinations (,,, FabChannel, et. al. – some of them quite good) there are major barriers to the success of internet music television. There isn’t enough variety, depth and most critically, quality of content to go around. The reason for this is that these new internet based networks don’t/won’t/can’t pay decent prices for content. In short, there isn’t a working business model beyond promotion, yet.

As recently stated in a Deloitte research report (Loves Me, Loves Me Not, Perspectives on the UK Television Sector) “Until there is clarity over how the internet may pay its way, more and better quality content may not be forthcoming”. That’s absolutely true. It hardly matters that the internet actually surpassed TV this year as the biggest platform for advertising expenditure (according to Ofcom), because the individual destinations on the web simply aren’t rich enough to license, distribute or create the best content.

Here’s the supply-side problem in a nutshell: if you have a branded platform on the internet, it seems it’s not economical to pay good rates for high quality content, because your ad CPMs won’t cover it and you haven’t figured out how to make users pay. If you are a content producer, you can’t make content of the quality you want to if you can’t license it at a profit to the platform providers. It leaves a business in search of a model and a potentially massive audience without the content they would love to see. So we all have to get by on YouTube.

This analysis is all a bit sober and it doesn’t reflect my optimism for the future of music television at all. So let’s look at some of the possibilities.

First, the emerging live performance streaming business online. FabChannel and the forthcoming Love Live both represent lively new entrants in what must be seen as a promising sector. The previous supply-side barriers of technology (mainly bandwidth) and licensing seem to be coming down, the latter at least for non superstar acts. On the demand side, recent consumer research from Entertainment Media Research referred to the sector as ‘a potential goldmine’.

The real problems in this still nascent sector go back to business models. With FabChannel insisting on streaming being free, we may once again be setting too low a bar for what consumers are willing to pay to watch concert footage online. Relying solely on ad revenues simply won’t cover production costs be they £10k per hour at the lower end or ten times that at the high end.
Recent music releases in the theatrical sector have also been interesting. Last year VUE Cinema’s live, satellite fed showing of a Genesis concert in Düsseldorf (to multiple cinemas around the UK, broadcast in a unique high definition mix with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio) was an example of a new, much needed release window for music content. Though only valid for superstar acts (why Genesis though? Have you seen a more sedentary live act?) the idea of paying £10 to see a beautifully filmed, surround sound performance might be an attractive proposition for many music fans. I’ll be interested to see how the forthcoming Arctic Monkey’s movie release does.

Both online and theatrical platforms for music also make sense in the current economic climate. The looming recession is bound to hit the live sector hard and music fans may wish to get their live music fix in cinemas at a small fraction of the actual concert price. After all the live boom of recent times has not been about the art of performance as much as social drivers – the need for people to get together and party basically. If VUE, Odeon or other players can do something clever to meet these social needs, with great content at the core, they might crack open a new market.

But enough of niches, don’t we now have mass market technologies that favour music content both in the home on the sofa and out and about? Just about everyone has now invested in a HD ready widescreen TV – so can producers and networks deliver the content worthy of this new platform that gives audiences a much better audio-visual experience. The same goes for touch screen mobile. Ideal for music television, maybe not for screen size, but certainly for the combination of mobility and audio experience (watching a music video or live clip is far superior with headphones plugged in and the volume turned up – try it).

It seems to me we now have enough platforms for new music television formats – of the magazine type, music documentaries, films and filmed live performance. All that’s lacking is the content itself.

So maybe the UK culture minister is really onto something. TOTP is long gone, but we music fans deserve better than the current crop of music shows on offer. ‘Later’ is tired and the newer shows like Live from Abbey Road are just a little too high brow or lacking in really enticing line-ups. This is the perfect time for producers to come up with something new and exciting and for business thinkers to create a business model that can sustain itself.

Footnote - QUICK PLUG - The wonderful MUSIC TANK are running an event Tuesday 21st October at which i will speak about digital service development present, past & future - see links

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