Dawn Airey on Broadcasting

In this 400-channel universe, each and every viewer is king
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The Independent Online

I'm as guilty as the next media executive when it comes to banging on about whether or not there was ever a golden age of television. But such discussions typically address the merits of individual programmes only.

Far less discussed - let alone understood - are the changes in audience behaviour and expectations brought about by advances in broadcast technology.

In our lifetimes, thanks to the increased availability of broadcasting spectrum, we have witnessed a steady progression from an era of benign paternalism, when viewers gratefully received whatever the BBC/ITV duopoly served up, to one of a plurality of viewing choices in the multichannel era, to the current digital age where one's evening viewing is increasingly one's own personal domain.

Ofcom observed the effect of these trends on viewers last year in the first phase of its review of public-service broadcasting. It found that younger viewers had become adept at navigating their way around the vast terrain of the 400-channel universe, and, consequently, they now devote less than half of their viewing to the main terrestrial offerings.

Another marked effect of the introduction of devices such as personal video recorders and video on-demand services is that we've started to transfer the loyalties we once had to channel brands to individual programmes. If I have recorded the whole season of CSI on my PVR, regardless of whether it airs on Five or Living, the box effectively becomes my very own CSI channel.

This trend towards the "particularisation" of viewing will only intensify as television becomes increasingly available beyond the box in the living-room.

It makes sense, when we're at the office or on the move - when we have only minutes or seconds of leisure time rather than hours - to want to watch the particular part of the programme that we enjoy the most.

Already, Orange has developed special channels devoted solely to snippets of Big Brother and Celebrity Love Island. And in the States, Fox has produced a series of one-minute episodes of its series 24 exclusively for broadcast on 3G phones.

Yet, while broadcast networks fret over viewers becoming more ruthless in their viewing habits, the end result of particularisation, perversely, could be that people end up watching more television, not less.

Not only are people able to watch the segment of the show they like best, they will be able to share it directly with friends and colleagues, much as we do today with images and clips sent via e-mail.

The challenges and the creative possibilities for broadcasters in this, the age of particularisation, are endless.

And, let's not forget, one of the biggest media properties of 2005 emerged not from the bowels of Time Warner, Sony or, indeed, News Corp, but from the imagination of a teenage computer enthusiast in Sweden.

It is one thing to be overtaken on the information superhighway by the likes of AOL or Microsoft. It's another thing entirely to be outclassed by an annoying animated frog sporting pronounced genitalia.

The future looks brighter for Five

Despite the acres of coverage detailing the final sell off of Five to RTL, one important element was curiously overlooked - the fact that this deal marks the final passing of United Business Media's interest in commercial broadcasting.

UBM still retains a sliver of a stake in the ITN news service, which ITV is expected to buy, but it's a far cry from the late 1990s when the company's founder, Clive Hollick, bestrode the media world like a colossus: as an inky-fingered press baron in charge of Express Newspapers; one of the big three ITV players through his Meridian, Anglia and HTV franchises; and the second largest shareholder in Channel Five.

Yet despite such a portfolio, UBM's broadcasting investments always looked odd when set against the company's core business of trade magazines. To his credit, Clive was always the first to admit that he viewed his TV interests purely in commercial terms. He certainly didn't invest in Five to sate his passion for on-air content. This is the man, after all, who called in the lawyers when executives at Five, including myself, dared to ask for extra money to buy a package of films from Warner Bros. We were never completely able to persuade him of the need to spend more on better programming to attract more viewers and more money from advertisers.

Expect all that to change now RTL is in the driving seat.

Greg Dyke is away

Dawn Airey is MD of Sky Networks and former chief executive of five