At the recent CES show in Las Vegas, YouTube’s chief business officer Robert Kyncl forecast online video will overtake linear TV by 2020. Netflix boss Reed Hastings has said that all viewing will be online within 20 years. The prognosis for linear TV is grim. Or is it? We asked the industry.
For Peter Higgings from Naked and Afraid producer Renegade 83, the writing is on the wall for linear TV. “It’s dying, but slower than many people expected,” he says. With timeshifted, binge- and on-demand viewing increasingly the norm, traditional channels have reason to worry, although demographics mean linear isn’t going away any time soon.
Viacom International Media Networks president Bob Bakish says: “Contrary to popular perception, linear TV is proving resilient and viewers are watching more TV than ever before. There is without a doubt a generational shift underway in how TV is viewed – increasingly, we see a shift towards on demand versus scheduled viewing; more binge viewing of multiple episodes of a series, and a migration from traditional TV to multi-screen viewing. In short, the viewer is in control of what, when, where and on what device they watch. But, while all of this is going on, we still see the vast majority of viewership accruing to linear feeds.
The pie is getting bigger, the VIMN boss add: “The extraordinarily rapid take-up of new connected devices, particularly tablets and smartphones, by mainstream consumers has served to increase TV consumption, not reduce it,” he says. “Importantly, young audiences are not switching off; in fact, TV still holds huge social currency with this audience when integrated with sophisticated digital strategies designed to drive engagement and linear tune-in. In short, TV is not dead, it’s just being consumed differently across many more platforms.”
Ian Jones, boss of Welsh-language free-to-air broadcaster and linear channel S4C says there is a generational shift: “A whole new generation is growing up in a world where an entire series can be watched in one sitting,” he says. “People don’t want to wait to see the next instalment, and the effect of this is spilling over to linear TV.”
Jones adds that despite this, linear is, today, still the way most people watch TV. “The TV schedule is still an important part of the industry, as a over 90% of the audience continue to watch in linear mode,” he says. “The test will come for schedulers when today’s children and teenagers grow into young parents, and the older generation who are more used to scheduled TV, pass on. The market will evolve and EPG access will evolve into other forms of accessing linear forms of TV.”
The point about demographics is echoed by others. “Today’s audiences are more demanding than ever,” says Christian Baumard, CEO of France-based producer and distributor Kabo Family. “However, I don’t think this signals the demise of linear TV as such, for two reasons: Western audiences are getting older, and those with solid viewing habits aged 50-plus tend to watch what they like among what is offered and linear TV is part of it. Secondly, multimedia groups and TV channels have the resources to pick premium programmes and projects.”
The incumbent channels and platforms that are mostly linear also have deep pockets he adds. “Multi-media Groups and TV channels have, backed by the financial power to reach a mass market, the resources to pick premium programmes and projects,” he says. “A primetime broadcast from a major linear TV channel gives a program the chance to become a big ‘event’ reaching a wide target audience.”
Digital hipster brand Vice is among those betting that linear TV remains relevant, and in partnership with A+E is rolling out traditional TV channels, having announced the launch of Viceland in the US.
The what you want, when you want it benefits of streaming are oft-touted by execs and there are certain types of programming for which linear still trumps streaming. “Linear is not dead or dying but changing,” says Chris Hilton, head of Australian prodco Essential: “It increasing focusing more on event television: news, competition reality events and must see drama.
Sports, events and news remain then, remain the preserve of linear, although there is now a mixed ecology, and viewing is spread across different devices. “Linear TV is not dead in the slightest, but is evolving in the way that TV has continually changed since its very inception,” says Greg Beitchman, news channel CNN’s vice president, content and partnerships. “However, the mass reach via the TV is still there, but enhanced by a presence on every imaginable screen. Yes, you will have breaking news bites on your mobile, but linear TV still delivers a real-time experience available nowhere else.”
He adds that the linear and non-linear are not separate worlds and feed into each other: “Content from linear television is what has and continues to feed non-linear platforms, which in turn presents an opportunity for ‘traditional’ media companies to reach new viewers,” he says. “It is imperative to recognise and embrace this new environment, and to look at our business through a bold, new lens.”
Lucas Bertrand, boss of on-demand specialist MoMedia agrees that linear and non-linear are working together, for the time being at least. “Linear channels are enhancing their non-linear offering, and it’s great to see,” he says. “It is still the main box in homes. It will be interesting to see in 15 years, with the digital natives turning into young adults, where the market for linear is. We still have an aged and ageing population for which linear plays a huge part of consumption alongside non-linear viewing.”
Despite Reed Hastings’ prediction of the end of traditional TV, others at the forefront of the on-demand revolution say it is early days for these services. “Despite all the excitement around SVOD services in 2015, non-linear television is still very much in its infancy,” says Karim Ayari, CEO of Vivendi’s German streaming service Watchever.
Another exec with expertise in the digital world adds there will always be people who want content served up in a traditional, linear fashion. “With countless viewers who see television as a lean back experience and want to be programmed to, I don’t believe linear TV will ever fade out completely,” says Gina Brogi, 20th Century Fox, executive VP, worldwide distribution, pay TV/SVOD. “However, this is a challenging time for linear TV channels in that viewing content on a linear basis is declining. Equally, it is an exciting time where viewers can watch content when and where they want to watch it, and not feel like they’ve missed out.”
For Simon Cornwell, boss of John le Carre prodco The Ink Factory, linear is still the place for news and sport… but its ends there. “For everything else, linear television is an outdated paradigm,” he says. “Why should we be forced to watch things at a time that a broadcaster decides? It’s just rude!”