Tom Goodwin: TV’s wonderful digital video future

Tom Goodwin is the New York-based executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media. A self-styled industry provocateur and commentator on the future of marketing and business, Tom's column provides a monthly take on how the industry will be shaped going forward.

The more we call it TV, the more we limit our imagination to what is possible.

We talk a lot about the pace of change in the world but, largely, we kid ourselves that we need to change to keep up and no industry has changed less and more begrudgingly than TV.

In order to ‘modernise’ what we have seen is the TV industry has taken its content, stuck it on a server, and, well, that’s it. There’s no masking the obvious - It looks like it wishes it didn’t have to change. What else could they have done? Have any large TV companies embraced the world outside their own nation? Have any got stuck into interactive formats? Embraced shorter content? New types of ads or funding?

Has anything actually changed despite a world growing up with no concept of what TV is? I speak a lot at TV events and people talk like YouTube doesn’t exist, phones don’t exist, Netflix is never mentioned, let alone come to accept that the very notion of TV is now undefined. Is it a screen? A quality mark? A distribution technology? Is it defined by the length of the show? When does TV become a video or even a movie? Nobody knows.

The more we call it TV, the more we limit our imagination to what is possible. The moment we see it as ‘quality video’ instead is the moment we may start to rethink advertising and in a way that works better for everyone.

I’m not entirely sure who looks more incompetent these days, TV companies who excel at making great TV and their fumbled reluctant attempts to understand how to deliver TV in the digital age, or tech companies with vast audiences and rich data, who seem to be absolutely awful at making decent TV. The whole scene looks like some crappy third round FA Cup match on a waterlogged pitch, it looks like people are trying hard, but it’s almost as if nobody wants to win.

There should be clouds of tension gathering before an almighty thunderstorm. There should be a war on the horizon, the future of the industry that across traditional content, digital content and advertising is worth around a trillion dollars a year globally, should be fraught with tension, yet the efforts look well funded but hopeless.

From Snap Originals to Facebook Watch to Instagram TV to YouTube Originals to several mobile operators efforts, it seems when digital media and platform owners think of TV as a way to make more money from ads than display ads, they suddenly become incapable of commissioning good content. The might of Amazon seems decent at the time-shifted video but it has failed to either make or stream competently. Apple seems reluctant. They all make TV seem like it’s an oddly difficult industry to crack.

TV companies meanwhile have either not got the talent to develop their offering into the digital age, or negotiate the rights, or are paralyzed by fear based on what happened to the music industry 10 years ago and would opt for a steady predictable death.

The paradox that’s keeping TV execs happy enough to not do anything is that the fewer people that watch TV, the more scarce it becomes as an advertising property and the more valuable it becomes. Our collective love of the Internet keeps us morosely indentured for hours, which means more inventory is created, which means as inventory tends to infinity, costs tend to zero.

The thing that nobody seems to get is that we artificially talk about TV like it’s different to video, we assume that words like linear or broadcast or phrases such as network TV or over-the-top (OTT) mean anything. An industry obsessed with its own divisions and problems, unaware for consumers today the notion of TV channels is arbitrary as is when the show is on or how it gets to them.

Within 10 years virtually all content will be digitally supplied, everything will be streamed. New screens will soon proliferate, the smart mirror, the cars huge navigation console, the huge digital photo frame, the smart speakers' screen, and in this world we have wonderful new opportunities.

For years we bought against shows as a proxy for audiences, but soon ads can be served at a household or user level, ads become inserted dynamically into feeds, and could be in theory dynamically created and optimized. Larger data sets over years will allow ads to be placed around richer combinations of data, time of data, weather, size of the screen, time current show viewed for, whether the person is moving, where they are, this creates the concept of buying against contexts.

These screens all allow ads to be interactive, ads can now have new calls to action; “add to basket”, “add to my Alexa shopping list”, “save location to maps,” “send coupons to a friend”. We can do more and voice can be a new augmentation layer to provide a more natural connection between devices.

Ads can be shorter now, they can be served sequentially, brand building ads can create multifaceted arguments to push people down the funnel and more performance-based ads, perhaps served on other screens, can complete the process.

We make several bad assumptions about this world, we assume people won’t want their data used to help make ads better and I’m not sure this is true, I think many wouldn’t mind ads for things they more interested in. I’m bombarded by ads for erectile dysfunction and mesothelioma class action lawsuits but I’d love to see nice cars or hear about a new business bank account. But we also assume personalization is the ultimate goal and I’m not sure this is valid. It’s much more about avoiding irrelevance that hoping to win me over by knowing my name. Brand building needs wastage.

But more than anything else we assume the land of TV becoming video is bad for everyone. We assume programmatic is deflationary, that retargeting will annoy us, that lower CPMs will result in ads that will be like the horror of digital display. We assume we will lose our jobs.

What we have should be the opposite. Scarce attention well rewarded, well respected and a whole new canvas, new tech and new data on which to make a form of video ads that work for everyone and we’ve never seen before.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.