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Idealog—in the ideas business

Lovin’ screenful

TVNZ describes its five-year strategy as ‘Inspiring New Zealanders on every screen’. Six succinct words, three to say what and three to say where. It announces the arrival of a new era while reminding staff to stick to their knitting too. Bravo.

That was penned was in 2006. Has it worked? Well, TVNZ is on many screens: smartphones, computer screens, tablets, FreeView and, most controversially, its Kidzone and Heartland channels exclusively on Sky.

But if launching on Sky’s pay-platform is the only way to make a new channel profitable, then TVNZ is in poor shape.

Sky is under technology attack. Chief executive John Fellet has done an admirable job of reading the tea leaves, and he must enjoy keeping safely clear of the political tomfoolery that so often engulfs TVNZ. But like all broadcasters, he’s vulnerable to a more threatening trend of recent times—disintermediation—and competition from some other companies that also want to be on every screen—like Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Jobs and Forstall on stage at Apple events

At an apple event In March, Steve Jobs boasted that Apple had 200 million customers in its online stores. By June, senior VP Scott Forstall could count another 25 million

Apple provides the shining example combining its licensing muscle and App Store—which Apple says has already paid over US$2.5 billion to app developers in its short life. Apple claims 225 million customers in its ecosystem. Google, Microsoft and other ambitious rivals like Amazon and Sony are chasing hard. They’re all prepared to invest to be a player in delivering digital content and software to devices and to the home. And if you have a message or content to share, they’ll look after the storage, delivery, billing and updates, and may even give you a hand with your marketing.

Apple will bring the App Store to the living room. When it does, companies that currently supply exclusively to broadcasters like Sky and TVNZ will have a new potential client—you and me. What will that mean? Well, I’m just a casual follower of rugby league, but I’ll always make time to watch any game featuring Benji Marshall. I don’t get that chance often, as I’ve chosen not to pay the $88 a month it would cost to get Sky with high-def sport. There’s an opportunity here for the NRL to sell its product to me directly. I might pay, say, $20 a month for the privilege. Even after Apple or Google or whoever takes its 30 percent, the NRL will be doing nicely from the deal.

There’s a catch, though: I don’t merely want the TV experience. I want live games, plus on-demand access to past games. I’d like some extra content, too—like play-by-play views and stats. I might even pay more for truly advanced features like custom viewing angles. And I want to be able to watch it on every screen—an app on every device I own, all covered by one subscription.

This isn’t a geek’s dewy-eyed scenario—it’s already happening. In the US, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have their own streaming websites and dedicated apps on Apple TV and PlayStation. Two bucks a week will get you a subscription to MLB; an extra $20 a year is enough for extra features like camera options. To borrow from another industry’s jargon, the new model is content as a service.

Sky isn’t resting on its satellite-delivered laurels. It’s launched iSky for computers, and might develop its own client for Apple TV, Google TV and the others. But moving from a platform provider to an application on someone else’s platform is precarious, and Apple’s ability to licence content across the planet hints at a much tougher future for local broadcasters and aggregators.

For the rest of us, it’s a great time to have something to sell. Xero, for example, now sells its software through Google’s app store. The first issue of Idealog was published five years ago; it wouldn’t have occurred to us then that Idealog could be a dedicated application running on people’s phones, let alone on a tablet. Now we’re questioning just what it means to be a magazine—or a broadcaster, music label or a software developer.

The trick is to leverage these new platforms to sell something more—more personal, more interactive, more compelling. An icon on a home screen is potentially far more valuable than, say, 30 seconds in the news hour.

I want to see Idealog on every screen, and Xero wants to see its software there too. But the implications are there for most industries. It allows our primary producers, for example, to bring gate-to-plate tracking right into their consumers’ hands. Primary TV anyone?

I’m curious to see what TVNZ’s next strategy will be, but the on-all-screens mantra has plenty of life in it yet—and this time it’s for the rest of us.

Originally published in Idealog #34, page 100

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