More Disruptors For TV’s Attention

Modern marketers face the struggle of ever-fragmenting ways of getting in front of consumers. Television needs to accept that reality. Its advertisers need to use it in concert with other platforms, particularly social, and that will inevitably siphon off some of its advertising revenue. But TV still has the power to play that orchestrating role if it’s not too belligerent or myopic to pick up the baton.

Television isn’t going anywhere, but it is going everywhere.

That dynamic — that the TV industry must constantly be thinking of other platforms where it might live — was reinforced for me this week at the Collision conference in New Orleans. Collision, I should explain, is a mashup of tech, marketing and media minds cartwheeling through one of the most frenetic, energetic conference agendas I’ve ever encountered.

It’s an eclectic convocation, whiplash-turning between space travel, sports doping and artificial intelligence in the space of an hour alone, often floating into regions of imaginative possibility too airy to discuss here. But television, or more precisely video, did make several notable appearances in the discussions, and those were more tangible, immediate and worthy of discussion here.

First, Neal Mohan, the chief product officer from Google’s YouTube, was on hand to talk about the platform’s next major frontier — the living room — a move that’s of obvious relevance to broadcasters as yet another disruptor to be aware of.

YouTube’s desktop and mobile versions are a staple of many consumers’ daily use, but Mohan shared the surprising stat that it has a 100% year-on-year growth rate in living room usage, which is to say via OTT apps on devices like Apple TV and Roku.

“Those session lengths for the living room are longer than any other platform we have out there,” Mohan said.


YouTube already devours the snackable video content market, but it’s licking its chops looking at the long, full meals that broadcast and cable enjoy, and it wants some of that.

To that end, Mohan was touting YouTube TV, a product launched just a few weeks ago “that combines the best of broadcast and cable television with the best of YouTube” for $35 a month.

“We think there’s great content out there, but we wanted to build a television experience that was truly built for this century,” Mohan said. For YouTube, that means access to subscription content while also having a social component, video on demand and user personalization.

Subscribers to the service will get access to all of Google’s machine learning technology powering video recommendations, DVR functionality in the cloud and use across six different accounts per household. The service is also designed to work seamlessly across different devices.

It’s the kind of move that ought to make ATSC 3.0 planners stop and take note as they roadmap viewer interactivity as a years-down-the-line prospect. The Google/Facebook arms race is bringing that functionality to television in the present tense. Consider what happens if YouTube plants the flag firmly first, comfortably habituating viewers into their platform before the broadcast industry itself gets a chance to catch up.

Another dynamic that surfaced at Collision was bots, those little, AI-powered, interactive programs that users converse with in Facebook’s Messenger app. News organizations such as Quartz and The Guardian have been experimenting with these bots for over a year now, playing with the idea of turning the news into something more of a conversation than a one-sided narrative.

Messaging apps — and the bots within them — have been much more of a sensation in Asia than in the West so far, where the use cases range more widely, including transactional uses. Stan Chudnovsky, Facebook Messenger’s head of products, spoke of fact-finding visits there where “people are using it way more to talk to businesses. That gives us a window into the future and helps us solidify our strategy.”

When Facebook talks about its developing strategy, all media would do well to lean forward and listen closely. In the case of Messenger, Chudnovsky says its ambitions “are to facilitate the connection between people and businesses.”

Translation: Facebook is looking to ramp up its use of bots as vehicles to cultivate potential consumers, say, having one answer basic questions about solar panels for a user doing research on them. The bot cues that consumer up for a more substantive interaction with an actual seller shortly down the line, cultivating leads.

Why does this matter to broadcasters? Given Facebook’s domineering success with local advertising on digital, this is yet another front on which it can provide a consumer utility and capture more local ad dollars in so doing. For those early media entrants into the bot space, it might be time to fire up the imaginative engines on monetization potential there before Facebook fully intermediates itself.

Collision also dove into the emerging realm of voice and what’s next for the voice-enabled home. Steve Rabuchin, VP of Amazon Alexa was there to talk, in part, about a new integration with smart-home vendor Ecobee. But most interesting was the peek behind the curtain around Amazon’s voice-recognition technology efforts that he offered.

“We believe the next big phase is voice,” Rabuchin said. “We’re investing heavily in that.”

How heavily? Rabuchin said that Amazon has thousands — yes, thousands — of people currently working on natural language understanding.

Consider this for a moment alongside the conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with futurist Amy Webb. She urged broadcasters to grab a seat at the table with the companies developing this voice technology before it becomes a repeat of what happened with the development of the commercial internet. In that case, media sat on the sidelines as the infrastructure was built, relegating them to a catch-up game that has left their business and distribution models roiled if not outright ruptured.

It wasn’t lost on me that Rabuchin’s comments came as the E.W. Scripps Co. announced its own entry on to Amazon’s Alexa platform, joining WRAL Raleigh, N.C., and a small but growing group of media companies launching voice iterations of their news products.

Putting television into such voice-enabled, smart home devices is a good first step. An even better one would be for broadcasters to work collectively to join the tech companies leading the infrastructure development underneath it, something the NAB or the various ATSC 3.0 consortia might look to add to their agendas while there’s still a chance.

Finally, I’ll leave broadcasters with an optimistic note from this millennial-oriented conference where legacy media could seem, at times, to be antiquated.

I happened to be passing one stage as David May, chief marketing officer at AIG, was asked whether television advertising had become simply irrelevant for his business.

“It is a myth,” he said. “TV is not dying. It’s changing, but myths are incredibly powerful.”

The more nuanced truth, he said, is that the modern marketer faces the struggle of ever-fragmenting ways of getting in front of consumers. “The challenge is how do I orchestrate across those,” May said.

Television needs to accept that reality. Its advertisers need to use it in concert with other platforms, particularly social, and that will inevitably siphon off some of its advertising revenue. But TV still has the power to play that orchestrating role if it’s not too belligerent or myopic to pick up the baton.

At the same time, as Scripps showed this week, TV has to keep thinking of new platforms on which it can live. That may be a voice-enabled speaker or inside of a YouTube app. The destinations will continue to proliferate, but as long as TV is willing to travel, audiences will keep finding it.

Michael Depp is TVNewsCheck’s special projects editor. His column on the nexus of old and new media will appear regularly. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Matthew Castonguay says:

May 8, 2017 at 5:20 pm

TV broadcasters do have a pretty good history of experimenting but in my experience there has been a failure to truly commit/invest. The analogy I use is that we put fuel in the launch booster, but when liftoff is achieve dand it’s time for the second stage, the tank is empty. YouTube is a good example…the tools have been there for some time to build “channels” and significant audiences…and meaningful revenue. But it takes investment…in many cases mostly people…to have a shot at breaking out. It takes focus to build a successful YouTube channel, and that means someone at the station has to come in every day with the success/video views of the YouTube channel as a first-order concern, not just something to get to when things are slow. Some groups have headed down the path of investing in start-ups that are “digital-first” and there’s nothing wrong with that strategy, but at the same time I believe there has to be deeper commitment to building out the legacy franchises on a multiplatform basis. The returns aren’t instantaneous so it takes patience but strategic bets will pay off. Moreover, I believe it’s an existential issue now.