The challenge of staying on-air

Are broadcasters helping or hindering consumers to tune in?

Radio and TV is a complicated business, and for a medium that used to ‘just’ have to worry about a transmitter network, today’s world means keeping on top of lots of endpoints - places where your content and channels end up.

Of course, the need for wide distribution is now an issue for everyone in the media sector. If you’re a musician are you on all the streaming platforms? If you’re a podcast are you listed on all of the apps and directories?

One of my day jobs is being part of a team that looks after a lot of DAB distribution through our MuxCo network. We look after hundreds of radio stations, broadcast over a hundred transmitters. It’s a network of many elements and many things that can go wrong. We’ve been doing it a long time, however, so when there’s a problem we have a pretty good idea of what (or who!) has caused it, and can get it fixed pretty quickly. Sometimes though, there’s just some outliers that are hard to plan for, as Arqiva found, when one of its key transmitters burned down last month, knocking out Freeview for a million people (and affecting our radio customers too).

Some of the broadcast networks had another issue on Saturday night as a fire at play-out provider Red Bee Media knocked out some key systems.

The aftershocks were still causing some problems yesterday when Channel 4, half-jokingly tweeted:

That’s all well and good, except for poor Louise, who replied…

Part of the issue for consumers and broadcasters is that there are so many destinations, it’s hard to to easily communicate alternative options. Do you have Freeview, cable, satellite? Have you got an internet connection, have you got a connected TV?

It also doesn’t help that there’s often network-specific issues too. “Oh yes Madam, that is right, you can Chromecast BBC One, but can’t do it for live TV on Channel 4”. “No, I’m afraid ITV2 isn’t available in HD on Freeview”.

I was reminded recently of a speech that Tony Ageh, one of the architects of the BBC’s iPlayer, gave at The Story conference. He says an important thing:

One thing I would say about the iPlayer is this, and it’s a genuine appeal to you all. The iPlayer is flawed. It’s actually wrong. It’s a lovely thing, and I’m sure you all enjoy it. There is something wrong with it. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.

It’s only got BBC programmes on it. This is the first significant piece of technology the BBC has ever developed that only the BBC uses, and that’s not its job. The purpose of the licence fee, the reason why we’re funded in this way, is because we’re supposed to be of value to everybody in the whole industry. It’s meant to be a universally applicable tithe, fee, fund that you enjoy paying, because you know that everything is better as a result.

Therefore, the iPlayer should be unbundled. Imagine if there was a radio that only got BBC programmes. Bonkers, right? Televisions that only showed the BBC, it’d just be crazy. The idea that there’s a piece of technology that only shows BBC programmes is wrong. I would urge you all to campaign to say to the BBC, ‘Unbundle the iPlayer and let everybody else use it,’ because that’s what the licence fee is for. It’s for us to develop technologies that are universally applicable, that benefit everybody.

Of course there was, back in the day, a desire to do an element of this - Project Kangaroo - which would have brought all the main broadcasters together. It was vetoed by the Competition Commission 12 years ago.

Indeed, The Telegraph last week reported that the main broadcasters have recently got together to talk about combining their catch-up services. Whilst ‘competing with Netflix’ is the obvious driver, there is a benefit for broadcasters in trying to simplify for consumers where to get the material they want.

There’s some of this in FreeviewPlay and Freesat, where broadcast TV is partly united by an EPG that goes backwards, integrating catch-up. It’s still though a bit confusing, and bouncing consumers into six differently branded on-demand experiences is perhaps not the best way to make things simple for the consumer.

Perhaps the recent merger of the companies behind Freeview and Freesat, alongside this new internet project will fix some of these things.

What the TV companies have basically learned is that Netflix, Amazon and Comcast are a much bigger issue than faffing about with internal infighting between themselves. To compete - for audiences, for buttons on remotes, for interest from platforms - they need the scale of working together.

Oddly, in the broadcast radio world, the UK (and now much of Europe) has this ‘working together infrastructure’ already established through Radioplayer and Radioplayer Worldwide. Providing a home for the best broadcaster audio feeds and metadata on one side and then working on integrations and apps on the other. It’s a good place to help radio get in the places it needs to be. It’s also something that works the best when everyone’s involved.

Also, importantly, it provides a consistent and understandable consumer experience. If you’re listening on something from Radioplayer you know you’ll get the same stations together in the same place, with the same functionality.

At the moment though, the pendulum is probably swinging to broadcaster-specific executions - the BBC Sounds and Global Player’s of the world. Whist, of course, there’s lots of benefit for broadcasters owning their stack - from analytics to special advertiser executions - I wonder sometimes whether the corporate need is put ahead of the consumer one.

Is splitting ‘radio’ over a load of different apps - on mobile, smart TVs and smart speakers, the perfect way for that sector to thrive in the future? If TV is going the other way, is radio missing a trick? How much are stand alone apps driven by corporate ego?

Partly this struck me over the last few weeks with Google Home seemingly getting worse and worse at recognising and playing radio stations. Radio stations are noticing it too:

Firstly, it’s important to remember that Google doesn’t really care. Radio isn’t at the top of their list. If an FM transmitter goes off, Arqiva notice, work to fix it and a Northern chap from Emley Moor calls you up. Even if it’s 3am. The smart speaker manufacturers aren’t so bothered. Also having hundreds of different radio station apps on these devices, working in different ways, doesn’t help either.

The radio sector needs to realise that the duff consumer experience from Google, Alexa and co, exacerbated by the group’s balkanised executions is bad for radio as a product (as well as for their stations).

Perhaps it’s time for them to remember why they started to work together in the first place? I’d have thought the Spotifys were over the moon with radio spending (and duplicating) all of this time on their own apps - whilst they get on with providing a consistent product to millions of audio consumers across the world.

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