PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

The Time Bandits of Sky
March 2002 

So, broadband (AKA ADSL, which is only broadband in comparison to something very narrowband, during a thin time on a narrow day) is available to 97% of the UK population? I don’t believe it, as Victor might say.

And when a “BT spokesperson” announced this to an audience of City IT managers recently, they all jeered Meldrew-style, as one. So the spokesperson adopted the sheepish look of one who was spinning away as frantically as these modern times seem to require, when the truth just won’t do. Jo Moore would have been proud.

So why do the telcos and cable companies suggest that the uptake of broadband has been slow? Well, the popular response is that the £40/month fee is too much. In fact, everyone says this the price is the limiting factor, and only that diehard surfers are willing to shell out. So let’s look a little closer as this aspect of the market economy.

What persuades the punters to part with £40 a month? The present answer appears to be “not a lot”, in terms of passive home entertainment.

Let’s be very simplistic, all commercial media exists to do just one thing: flog advertising. Is it in your interests to use your precious leisure time to pay to watch commercials..? So if there was a better way to consume entertainment, would you use it..?

Although lots of people (traditionally) carp about paying £112 for a TV license, millions of households are now paying £350+ pa to Sky, and demonstrably watching less TV, according to recently released annual viewing figures. There isn’t 3 times as much time to watch TV as before, many programmes that get taped are never watched because the tapers don’t have the time to watch them; and on the whole the quality of programming is very much of a muchness.

Dare I say it, but the BBC seems to have been getting its act back together now it is once again being lead by a bruising broadcaster and not a rather vain accountant; and ITV has been caught on the hop by the increased availability of better-targeted media. It must be my age, but I can generally watch BBC from 8pm until midnight every night and feel like I’ve got my money’s worth.  But when I watch anything but movies on Sky, the too frequent and too long ad breaks drive many viewers straight to the zapper, and many fail to return. So here’s the deal – you are already paying through the nose to Uncle Rupert for Sky, and then he has the effrontery to steal 15 minutes an hour of your time to shove commercials at you. If it really costs him that much to run Sky News, please save the money and cut down on the commercials; BBC News24 is a much better service now (after a dodgy start) – and it has no bloody commercials.

I’m so outraged by this blatant theft of the one commodity that is truly irreplaceable – time – that I’m making it my life’s work to devise a technique to route around those services that not only charge for the programmes, but also have the brass neck to charge for the commercials.   It would be handy to take the keys to the cash register away from the subscription gatekeepers, and hand a range of options for charging back to the broadcasters – maybe even the programme makers. Heavens, I think I’ll call this “video on demand”, and I will deliver it across broadband connections to consumers.

However, UK cable TV services that notionally have the means to operate a “sort of” VOD are having a torrid time, and NTL in particular is the subject of much morbid speculation concerning its future at this time. Much of the trouble stems from the fact that the NTL network is a hotchpotch of various acquisitions with incompatible infrastructure.  The customer service aspects of providing such a complex phone and TV service are raising a many chuckles at BT, who know what customers are all about over many years, and are only too happy to suggest to disenchanted cable company users that there is no harm in being “reassuringly expensive”.

Maybe Sky has rumbled that it’s only got a short time to make hay before the punters can actually get a viable home-based broadband “on demand” pay for what you consume service, and then the viewers will surely choose to reclaim precious leisure time that is being surreptitiously stolen by commercials..?

So the question then becomes, if you watch 12 hours of commercial TV a week, what would you pay to get back those 3 hours stolen by the commercials? How much is your time worth? Is your time worth £4 an hour? Employers offering their staff this much will be banged up for minimum wage irregularity. Complain!

Would I pay 20p an episode to watch a 45 minute show that would otherwise be padded out with 15 minutes of commercials..? I think I probably would, and best of all, it would require me to think more carefully if I actually wanted to watch it in the first place. That’s 200 hours a month at a £40/month subscription rates. I couldn’t possibly watch that much TV, could I?

The commercial broadcaster will argue that the advertising subsides the cost of programme making. Well, the BBC turns out a lot of obviously quite viewable content for around £10 a month, without commercials.

If I was a commercial TV baron, I’d be getting the brown trousers pressed and the bicycle clips ready. If they think that “times ‘as been ‘ard” this year with the drop in advertising revenue – which itself is seeking every more accountable and targeted outlets, like those available to broadband users – they might have yet more alarming moments ahead.