Opinion: DTG Summit raises big issues, including TV's entrenched way of thinking
This year's DTG Summit was ready to tackle TV industry challenges head on - but you can't solve a problem with the same mindset that created it. Editor Neal Romanek weighs in
The 10th annual DTG Summit was held yesterday at Kings Place, London. The DTG was formed in 1995 as a professional organisation to oversee the development of the digital TV marketplace. The DTG has been central in advocacy, collaboration and technological development in the UK television sector – with repercussions across all of European broadcasting.
This year's Summit was built around the theme, “Re-engineering for tomorrow’s TV consumer: turning a fragmented market into a global opportunity”, and the day’s discussions grappled seriously with the woes facing the UK TV industry – one of the central ones being the gradual dissolution of the British industry into the single massive soup of global broadcast.
This fragmentation, in which traditional national broadcasters dissolve like melting ice caps, desperately trying to maintain integrity on increasingly high seas is happening across many industries, not just TV. The wholesale rearrangement underway has yielded both tremendous opportunities and disheartening challenges – sometimes both simultaneously.
A theme winding through virtually every panel discussion at the DTG Summit was the hand online technology has had in reshaping everything from workflows to audience behaviour. And as at every single broadcast conference I’ve attended in the last year, Netflix and Amazon hung over the proceedings like a cloud. Interestingly, Netflix and Amazon are rarely ever at these broadcast conferences. They give the appearance of being occupied with more important things than mere TV.
Freeview held a workshop, inviting post-it comments on issues affecting free-to-air
Collaboration, not competition
The session “What threats does the UK media & tech industry face?” addressed these issues in a frank, open way, with media consultant Alex Pumfrey taking aim at the British government for its newly released white paper promising greater government control over the BBC.
The issue of the sluggish approval of new standards was seen as an ongoing issue. Moderator Nigel Walley asked the question point blank of CTO Simon Fell of the EBU: “Does an organisation like the EBU have a place in such a fractured landscape?”
Throughout the discussion, Fell gracefully allowed himself and the EBU to be a good-humoured scapegoat for the slow rate of tech evolution. But organisations like the EBU have to spin many plates, operating across territories with very different agendas. The very purpose of these trade organisations is to find consensus – which takes time. And time is not plentiful in an industry moving at the speed of IT.
Fell did express regret at the proliferation of HDR standards which are holding up progress on adopting a format that many hope will breath new life into the broadcast industry. There are a dozen or more proposed HDR formats, some of which are virtually indistinguishable, and the EBU’s thoroughness is a handicap in coming to a decision. Meanwhile individual companies dash ahead proposing their own standards.
Fell emphasised that establishing a common standard for all would allow forward movement by both broadcasters and technology companies. He urged cooperation: "The problem with standards today is everyone wants to be the winning platform. But with people supporting an open platform everybody wins. I do wish we could more quickly decide on standards. It's delaying our time to market and giving an advantage to Netflix and Amazon."
Fell also said that the proliferation of streaming outlets and apps was unsustainable, pointing to Amazon’s release this week of yet another proprietary video player.
“Every broadcaster has developed a player or a different app for every device. By collaborating we could save a fortune.”
Channel 4’s Orpheus Warr countered with an uncomfortable observation: “It’s hard to have open standards when the biggest red button on the remote says ‘Netflix’.”
Changing your mind
Despite the anxiety over change, delegates seemed eager to look at new ways of seeing their industry. Web psychologist and host of the Guardian’s weekly tech podcast, Nathalie Nahai, ignited imaginations with her talk “What digital consumers want from media technology”.
She invited the audience to rethink how they were approaching content and to not take anything for granted, pointing out that something as simple as selecting a dynamic thumbnail for an online video makes a measurably big difference in viewing rates. She also reminded everybody – something I think I knew, but had never explicitly articulated– that the most popular content on YouTube is not video – it’s music.
Nahai suggested content owners use exiting platforms – like YouTube - rather than designing their own apps. “If you build it, they won’t come,” she quipped.
The content industry – and, as a result, everything else up the chain from it – is consumer driven in way it has never been before, and broadcasters ignore this at their peril. Nahai cited a statistic that 81% of millennials expect companies to make a commitment to good corporate citizenship and that attention to these kinds of wants is what will make a difference in the long run. “TV is very much alive if you make it a social, cultural experience.”
I have to say something about the subtitles
The DTG Summit was run with accessibility in mind and included large monitors on either side of the stage which ran continuous live subtitles of the conference, panel discussions and all. And these were flawless live subtitles. Flawless live subtitles of panels of four or more people talking over each other.
The subtitles were so impressive that during one of the Q&A’s, an audience member asked, off topic, who was responsible for the subtitling. His question appeared on the screen, and directly after: “I’m just a stenographer” – which elicited laughter and applause from the delegates.
It turns out the great subtitling wasn’t executed by any high-end TV subtitling tech, but by London company My Clear Text, who specialise in high quality on-site and remote speech-to-text reporting for deaf people. It’s founders, Elaine McCarthy and Orla Pearson trained at the only full-time stenography course in Europe and have been members of the BBC Access Services team.
Diversity of ideas
An overarching message that came out of the Summit was that collaboration alone – sticking together like penguins on an iceberg - won’t create the next generation of TV, not unless there is radical – disruptive – action. Large engineering-driven industries like broadcasting are by nature risk averse, but risk-taking – dare I say, daring - is going to be the quality that allows a business to survive into the next decade. And those game changing companies that were not at the Summit, but which everyone was talking about, are prime examples of what daring, combined with technical expertise, can accomplish.
I sat in on the DTG Annual General Meeting at lunchtime, where some of the organisation’s business was voted on, including the election of officers. Among the roughly 40 DTG voting members who attended, registering their opinions with raised red voting cards, I didn’t see one woman. And there were virtually no women on panels - Alex Pumfrey and Nathalie Nahai being the two exceptions.
The argument that women are not that attracted to engineering or technology sectors has never held much weight for me. What could be true though is that a industry – any industry - will start institutionalising the mindset of its members and begin to repel anyone outside that mindset. If everyone you hire in your company is an Arsenal fan, Chelsea fans are going to have a hard time coming in, no matter what your company policies are on inclusion.
A surprising number of people seem to accept this tradition that the broadcast technology industry is dominated by men as just a slightly amusing and embarrassing fact of life. There are initiatives and outreach for greater inclusion. There are conference topics that focus on the role of women or others outside the traditional infrastructure, but the makeup still doesn’t change that radically.
I don’t think the issue of an ageing all male industry is entirely about sexism. I think it may also be a symptom of an entrenched way of thinking and working. It can also go against human nature to embrace something different when we’re already feeling under threat. When the future looks dangerous, our more primitive instincts cry for us to go back to what worked before - also to choose to work with people who are like us.
Actively incorporating diversity – of experience, knowledge base, culture, education, ethnicity – within an organisation is not some fluffy-headed exercise in liberal box-ticking. It’s a hard-nosed, intensely practical approach to business.
What will take the TV industry forward is not more flexible technology, it’s more flexible thinking – and action with it. And if you don’t believe there’s power and growth in diversity, just ask the Internet.
You can read further coverage of the DTG Summit next week at our sister site, TVBEurope.