Hard News by Russell Brown


Telecom and TV

I don't mind Telecom's decision to rebrand as Spark. I'm sure people will get used to it and that, with a few million marketing dollars in play and a carried-over logo, it won't take long. I'm not nearly as keen on the name of the forthcoming television service: ShowmeTV.

It looks clunky as text. Should the "m" in "me" be capitalised? Should there be a space before TV? What are people going to call it in coversation? But mostly -- was it really not possible to come up with a name that didn't trample on the brands of two existing and closely related New Zealand companies who already make television?

I guess they were looking for something that implies choice -- "show me this" or "show me that" -- as you might if you were setting up a Netflix-like service, which Telecom/Spark says it is. But there's already a Netflix-like service, Quickflix, which is well-run but hampered by lack of access to programme rights and by New Zealand's devil-take-the-hindmost approach to competition law.

Moreover, Sky says that it, too, is preparing a Netflix-style service. And Sky has the programme rights to do it, while Spark will be coming fresh into the market with its $20 million. If there is a bidding war for marquee House of Cards-style programming, I don't expect the free-to-air networks will stay in it long, because drama (and New Zealand drama especially) isn't really getting them the audiences they need.

If you look at the daily ratings, some fictional programming sneaks into the top fives, but it's mostly news, current affairs, obs-docs and reality formats. These seem to be the future of prime-time free-to-air TV, not least because they attract the whiteware-buying demographics the advertisers need.

The time-shifted ratings, however, are different: they're stacked with dramatic titles -- and the numbers are much, much smaller. This is the market, I suspect, for a premium subscription service -- people prepared to take action -- but unfortunately, most people who time-shift do it via MySky PVRs. They may be hard to dislodge.

It might have been different had Telecom been able to  negotiate not just a "Netflix-like" service, but an actual Netflix-branded service. It made that kind of best-of-breed play last week by announcing the bundling of Spotify with all but its cheapest mobile services. But as Dylan Reeve makes clear in a great post headed Television, Regions, Rights, and the Internet, music is not the same as televison.

But here's the thing: there's low-hanging fruit out there. Local webseries are being made, they're even being funded by NZ On Air. But most people still don't have a good way of watching web video on their televisions. Why not aggregate the best stuff, run live feeds from events and shows, do all the things that television has become too risk-averse to do? And if you have $20 million upfront to spend on content, why not spend a little of that on production? It's a long game and you're not going to win it soon, so why not take the chance to experiment with new talent, ideas and kinds of television?

The great irony of the current broadcast TV environment is that the government has contrived a state where there's not enough broadcast spectrum to allow it to meet its own policy commitments. Community television either can't afford a full presence -- which means paying Kordia for both terrestrial and satellite service -- or literally cannot obtain spectrum on which to broadcast, as was the case for Triangle/Stratos in Auckland last year. The promise of plenty after digital switchover never came true. Sure there are issues with massively multichannel FTA TV sectors, but that kind of looks like a problem that would be nice to have.

The room to be had is now either online or in dedicated IPTV services over fibre. It could be interesting. But for that to happen, someone's going to have to take the punt and do a little more than just what everyone else is doing.

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