Input 2011

Anton Burggraaf, Ochre Moving Pictures

The future of television lies in the balance, we are told. Nervous voices whisper doomsday prayers in the corridors of TV power. Anxious families wait for the end of appointment viewing. TV set makers strategise about migrating to tablet manufacture. The end of the world as we know it?

Pure fantasy, say the cream of public broadcasters at Input 2011. The annual festival-cum-conference, held in May in Seoul, South Korea, is a gathering of the world’s top commissioning editors and public broadcasters. They meet each year in a different world capital to celebrate the best in non-commercial television believing that “television should be public service in the public interest” and that “access to the most honest, innovative, provocative, courageous and challenging broadcasting is a universal fundamental human right.”

But the rules of the game are changing, rapidly. Twenty-first century content consumption is neither single source nor linear and broadcasters are increasingly finding themselves playing catch-up. Commercial broadcasters are blessed with revenue streams and risk appetite but public broadcasters are often weighed down by policy, issues of accountability and financial constraints.

So what exactly can public broadcasters do? Can they engage a web audience in the same way they do TV viewers – when the average web attention span is a few minutes? Can public broadcasters keep producing product that reflects their integrity, and services their mandate? Will they survive the onslaught of pay TV?

Jennifer Lawson, US senior vice president of Television and Digital Video Content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) maintains a bright future for non-linear public broadcasting.

Speaking at the Input Media and Leadership Summit, Lawson dismissed the prevalent notion that public broadcasters are not capable of expanding into other platforms. “This is already happening in CPB programming with cross-platform, multi-platform, platform-specific and mobile apps forming part of commissioning strategy,” she said. More recently this has included third-party funded initiatives (such as the Sesame Street mobile app).

Many speakers at Input 2011 agreed: people are still watching TV (research shows there is a marginal decline). It’s just that they have changed the way they consume it. Viewers are simultaneously on Twitter, checking email, doing online searches and updating their social network site(s) as they watch. There is a conversation that happens alongside traditional consumption.

Watch Anton's slideshow of images from Input 2011:

The rise and rise of pay TV has been a thorn in the public broadcaster side. Pay TV programming is generally more attractive: it is often escapist, there is more variety and the digital add-ons have proven their worth. But compulsory global migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT) in the next few years offers public television a lifeline. Whereas public broadcasters have previously had to fight for channel space in a cluttered and oversubscribed frequency band, new digital technology means they can get transmit five channels where there was just one.

Korean, Australian and Japanese channel CEOs detailed their strategies for change in this regard.

Kim In-Kyu, president of KBS, this year’s Input host, announced that Korea will have completed the switchover to DTT by December 2012. (The Geneva 2006 Agreement has set June 2015 as the date when countries can use frequencies for digital without guaranteeing neighbouring countries from interference.)

KBS has also invested substantially in N-Screen. Hold your breath … This emerging technology allows you to watch content seamlessly on different devices such as smart phones, PCs and TVs. Cloud computing technology means you can start watching a movie on your house TV set and then carry on watching it on the bus on your smartphone from where you left off. The N-screen offering will also include hybrid services, simultaneous viewing and VOD.

Watch a demonstration of using N-Screen for educational purposes:

ABC in Australia is similarly ready for DTT with their Freeview offering. The Freeview tagline is “more for free”. This is clever marketing because it capitalises on what is really just a standard compulsory shift, and re-images public broadcasting (“free”) using pay TV language (“more”). ABC Director of TV Kim Dalton sees local content as the driver. Dalton: “Local content creates cohesion and it is imperative to use it to expand our service to the public. The erosion of national content – that has an authentic Australian identity – by international inferior on-line content is of great concern to us.” He echoed sentiments that this would require increased investment. Delivery quality local content is by nature expensive. This is the real challenge then.

Naoji Ono, vice president of Japan’s NHK, used recent events in Japan to highlight NHK’s commitment to its mandate and the use of technology to assist in times of national disaster. Technically assisted by 460 remote cameras and 14 helicopters, the broadcaster also used mobile media and Twitter to alert the public and cover the unfolding events. The timeline speaks for itself. A major earthquake warning on 11 March was issued by Japan’s Meteorological Agency and NHK put the message up on viewer screens in two seconds. Within a minute and a half, they cut from a live parliamentary broadcast to rolling coverage of the unfolding catastrophe. The public broadcaster’s role has meant a considerable number of lives were saved.

So much for high level future talk, what is happening on the ground? Where is TV content going and how is it being generated in the public space? How are online and broadcast working together?

There were many examples of interesting new developments: media cross-pollination, simultaneous origination and platform migration, many that happened by chance or by organic drift. It is clear that there are major shifts afoot.

There is the fabulous Rebecca & Fiona (Sweden), a blog about two wannabe DJs that hit mainstream TV but was commissioned for the web from startup by SVT. The show was so successful that the girls are now touring with Sweden’s most popular female star, Robin.

Goa Hippy Tribe (Australia) is a fascinating web documentary and Facebook project by SBS Online. The project is a personal tribute and an archive for the Goa hippy movement of the 1970s and is (still) being realised entirely through Facebook. It is a totally fresh view on the way a film can be created, broadcast and how an audience can be built. Another SBS Online project is Immigration Nation, a site that documents immigrant stories and that spawned a film that dissects the White Australia Policy of the 1950s.

Then there is The Soccer Girls (Denmark) is a web series about a group of 13- and 14-year girls in a Danish soccer team that also made it onto TV after its success on the web.

So, despite the negative missives coming mainly from new media junkies, television seems to be doing what it does best: evolve. As Jennifer Lawson neatly summarised at Input, “When colour came along TV followed, when television came along radio kept going. That’s what we do. We move without the times.”

Anton Burggraaf writes in his official capacity as executive producer of Ochre Moving Pictures. He is attending Input 2011 to present SABC1’s Relate, which was selected from over 300 submissions. His trip was fully sponsored by the National Film and Video Foundation. This report appears on the Ochre Moving Pictures facebook fan page http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/OchreTV

  • This article originally appeared in The Times. Read it here.