The Viewing Report

What’s in a name?

26 April 2016

Torin DouglasTorin Douglas, Independent media commentator

Forgive me for quoting Shakespeare, but on the 400th anniversary of his death, everyone else is. And in this digital age, BARB is just a fat finger away from the Bard.

The BBC, which can never resist an anniversary, is launching a Shakespeare Festival, with Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant and 21 emojis “to introduce the Bard to the texting generation”. The cartoon faces will be linked to 250 quotes including, inevitably, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in a project called ShakespeareMe.

The move has prompted accusations of dumbing down from some educationalists. But it also highlights the blurring of the lines between television and other forms of content and delivery (to use two jargon names that will never smell as sweet as real English).

What, these days, do we mean by television?

Is BBC Three television any more, now that it has forsaken the box in the corner of the room for the box on the desk and the laptop, tablet and phone? Surely the answer is still yes?

And what about other video content viewed over the internet? Netflix? Amazon Prime? YouTube? BT Sport? OTT? IPTV? They may not be broadcast television, but surely they’re all television?

Recently, a media storm broke out about a “landmark change” in children’s TV viewing habits. “Young people are spending more time online than watching TV” said the 2016 Childwise Monitor report.

The story was prominently reported on Radio 4’s Today programme, Radio 5 Live and BBC Breakfast, which tweeted: “Does this sound familiar? Young people are spending more time online than watching TV”.

For the team at Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial television, this was like a red rag to a bull. They started tweeting in response: “Please stop positioning the future of TV as broadcast vs. online – the broadcasters ARE online, they’re on any screen anywhere…”

So is it time for the broadcasting industry and bodies like BARB that serve it, to define what they mean by television in the age of the internet?

The internet propagandists won’t do this: they have been claiming for years that “TV is dead”. Yet arguably the reverse is true and TV, in all its forms, is now driving the growth of the internet.

For many years, we knew what we meant by television and radio. They were broad terms which included the electronic media used to transmit sound and moving images; the sets on which viewers and listeners received them; and the programme services and content. But then the internet pushed TV and radio into the same space as newspapers, music, films and emails, causing chaos and confusion.

The BBC, in a moment of modernist myopia, decided to abolish the terms television and radio and rename its two main departments Vision and Audio and Music. As its media correspondent, I had to add half a line to many reports, explaining that the Director of Vision was the person in charge of television (and not, by implication, the Corporation’s futurologist).

Arguably, television in all its forms is now driving the growth of the internet. 

The BBC wanted to reflect the fact that it was creating audio and video content for delivery via the internet rather than the airwaves. But renaming the departments was wrong. Radio Times has listed television programmes for over 60 years, but it doesn’t keep changing its name to reflect the latest delivery system.

In one of the first and most popular moves of Tony Hall’s regime as Director General, he brought back the departmental names Television and Radio.

Shouldn’t all broadcasters now reclaim those words, and define what they mean by them? How about “programme services for viewers and listeners”?

It may not be totally straightforward. BARB can now distinguish and measure radio listening via the TV set, which could cause a little confusion.

And, separately, law-makers have been trying for years to define the differences between broadcast and online content, since the European Union began amending its Television Without Frontiers policy to reflect the new world.

But it’s not that difficult. Giving evidence to a House of Lords committee in 2006, Martin Stott, then Channel 5’s deputy head of corporate affairs, said “if it looks like television, feels like television and smells like television then it ought to be regulated by television”.

More recently, the law firm Dentons used a similar phrase, as it noted a trend “for the courts to look beyond technical differences between innovative and traditional broadcasters and distribution platforms, and instead focus on the service offered to viewers.”

As BARB’s Project Dovetail starts bringing together the old and new delivery systems, shouldn’t we be clear what it’s measuring? Television.

Torin Douglas

Torin has been reporting and analysing media issues for the business press and broadcasters for over 40 years, most notably on our screens as the BBC’s Media Correspondent. In our opening essay, he considers the definition of television in the internet age.