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With the possible exception of the popularisation of the motor car, it is impossible to name a modern day invention that has had a greater impact on the everyday lives of the general public than television. It is hard to conceive of any contemporary Westerner that has not come into contact with it on a regular basis.

Television’s cultural dominance

Not only did the twentieth century see television establish itself as the dominant cultural medium, but the whole concept of peering into a screen, whether for entertainment or practical purposes, has become so cemented in our collective consciousness and daily experience, that anyone that claimed not to engage in this behaviour, would not only be viewed as eccentric beyond belief, but also would be highly unlikely to be believed by the majority of people.

Certainly for many people some of the most memorable moments of their lives were shared through this medium, and television has certainly traditionally been the way that major world incidents have been communicated to the masses. Earth shattering incidents of significance such as the human race walking on the moon for the first time, the assassination of President Kennedy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, were all conveyed to people graphically through television.

An event such as 9/11, which a number of people as a proportion of the world’s population witnessed directly, is etched indelibly into our individual and collective crania, precisely through the images that we have all consumed from television. We understand 9/11 not through direct experience, not through a holistic analysis of the issues and context related to it, but through a mediated, partially subconscious and selectively recalled series of broadcasted images.

This cultural power of television has enabled the TV set to become the centrepiece of living-rooms all over the world, and more recently the high-definition telescreen – whether coming in the form of the traditional television set, a personal computer, mobile phone technology, or increasingly in urban landscapes beaming commercial advertisements into the ether twenty-four hours a day – has become a permanent fixture in all of our lives. Ironically, the rise of the latter, has led to television’s predominance, not being completely overcome, but being challenged by similar mediums that offer a flexibility and interactivity that has not been associated with television; much as the convenience of television led directly to a decline in cinema attendance.

The fin-de-siècle of television

In accordance with this, it is frequently suggested that the early years of the twenty-first century are witnessing the fin-de-siècle of television as we experienced it in the twentieth century, where viewers will no longer tolerate the concept of scheduled programming that has to be consumed at the convenience of broadcasters, rather people will consume their media as and when it suits them. IBM recently produced a document entitled “The end of television as we know it”, which begins by acknowledging this very issue.

“Today, audiences are becoming increasingly fragmented, splicing their time among myriad media choices, channels and platforms. For the last few decades, consumers have migrated to more specialized, niche content via cable and multichannel offerings. Now, with the growing availability of on demand, self-programming and search features, some experiencers are moving beyond niche to individualized viewing. With increasing competition from convergence players in TV, telecommunications and the Internet, the industry is confronting unparalleled levels of complexity, dynamic change and pressure to innovate”.

While IBM clearly have a vested interest in this, the document is also acknowledging a cultural paradigm shift that is already affecting the lives of people who could by no means be described as technophiles. With the very real threat of audience share declining, broadcasters have had to embrace the concept of “TV on demand”, with a centrepiece of satellite and cable subscription packages being the ability to write television programmes to a hard drive for consumption at a more convenient time.

Moving with the times

What this means for the future of television is that the medium will have to move with the times in order to stay relevant. TV still has a huge place in the contemporary cultural landscape, but it is being challenged by YouTube and Twitch and Netflix and myriad other streaming services. Viewers are now seeking out the content that they want on their terms, and television can no longer occupy the culturally dictatorial role than it once occupied.

The fragmentation and balkanisation of both viewing habits has ensured that digital advertising spends are increasing, as companies seek attention away from the traditionally predominant television set. This year, eMarketer forecasts that 31% of U.S. ad budgets will be spent in digital and 37% in TV. It seems inevitable that these figures will tip decisively in the direction of digital in the near future.

What television requires in order to thrive is a sustainable business model which satisfies advertisers. And this means embracing a multi-device world, and one in which the average person will no longer be willing to be tied to the TV guide and viewing schedules. While this may be viewed as a threat by those running the traditional television industry, it should instead be viewed as an opportunity.

Multiple touch points

As TV over the internet continues to evolve, there's a huge opportunity for programmers, distributors, and advertisers to work together in order to deliver a flexible and absorbing model that works for both viewers and advertisers alike. This may be a challenging prospect given the number of screens, devices, mediums and viewers involved, but the result could be a multimedia experience which grabs people and achieves a whole new level of engagement.

Advertisers and marketers now have the opportunities to reach people across numerous touch points, and once this is truly understood and embraced then the quality of content, audience engagement and commercial message can ultimately be improved significantly.

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