Has Sky changed TV forever?

On 5th February 1989 Sky Television launched its four-channel package. This year the company celebrates its 25th anniversary – and how far it has come in that time! The satellite market was slow to grow initially, and amid mounting losses Sky Television merged with British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990, to become British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), the name it still holds today.

So what has the broadcaster achieved over the last quarter century? How has Sky helped change our viewing habits, and will TV ever be the same again?

I’m a recent convert to Sky; the package they offer of fibre optic broadband, telephone (the infrastructure supplied by BT), and satellite TV, with more channels than you can shake a stick at, is an alluring one. They are a canny lot at Sky – definitely a clever move to combine hardware and software.

Technological innovation, often led by Sky, has certainly changed the way we view TV. The Sky Plus Box has led the trend of self-scheduling – now, more than ever the power is with the viewer, we can pause live TV, rewind, fast-forward to miss out the commercial breaks, and decide what we want to view and when we want to view it. The importance of the physical Schedule is ever diminishing.

Catch up TV has been successfully copied by Virgin, and services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD, carry out much the same function for the terrestrials. Ironically, other new technologies, like social media, and particularly Twitter, run counter to the self-scheduling trend. There is absolutely no point tweeting about a show you are watching a week after transmission! The ability to record series quickly and easily, changes the way we consume TV. We’ve seen the rise of box-set bingeing, the phenomenon of buying a DVD box-set, usually a drama series, and watching multiple episodes in an evening: now we can do the same thing, via our Sky Box or similar, without ever having to buy the box-set!

Sky continues to innovate technologically, they have worked closely with the BBC in developing interactive TV, and they more than any other UK broadcaster have invested in 3D technology, although the jury is still out as to whether this will have the impact they hope for. To my mind television is a two dimensional medium, and I cannot see 3D becoming the norm, particularly for high volume, low cost TV, and factual output.

So, how else has Sky impacted on the industry? One of the largest cultural changes has been in the value of sports rights contracts, an area where Sky has invested massively – arguably resulting in the Premiership becoming the richest league in Europe. Sports rights are certainly valued more now than before Sky became a major player.

This means that not only do Sky devote more hours of coverage to cricket and football than the terrestrials used to, but now terrestrial broadcasters also value their rights more highly, and subsequently often now provide more airtime to the sports where they do hold the rights. There are of course threats – BT Sport is actively competing with Sky and trying to lure away subscribers with cheaper deals.

One of the most exciting things about Sky, is their vision of the future. They are ambitious, and have big plans – plans to expand into areas of production, outside of News and Sport, where they have tended to concentrate, and into entertainment and drama. They are investing in new studios at their Isleworth headquarters, and are up-skilling their staff, in order to produce a broader programme slate. And that can only be good for a television industry that has seen contraction in recent years. Sky are one of the few broadcasters in a position to give staff contracts to workers, in an era where being freelance has become the norm.

This investment in the future is further demonstrated in the Sky Scholarship placement scheme: a partnership between Sky and the School of Media at Birmingham City University. Each year Sky select three BCU Media students to complete a two-week placement down at Isleworth. The student who performs best is presented with a healthy cheque and the promise of future work. The relationship works extremely well for both organisations, and particularly for the students, and has led to a number of BCU Media graduates being currently employed by Sky.

So what has Sky done for us in the last 25 years? Well, they’ve changed the way we watch TV, they’ve changed what we watch on TV, and they will continue to change the industry going forwards. The way we consume television has certainly altered since Sky came along in 1989 – but the often heralded death knells of television as a medium seem a long way from being true, in large part due to producers and broadcasters like Sky!

All hail Stampy – the future of playful entreprenuership

Joseph is more widely known at Stampylongnose and over the last week he finally made his presence known in the mainstream with some appearances on the BBC. By and large the focus was on money, how he makes it and how much he makes. Whilst coy about the latter he has plenty to say about the ways in which he turns the millions of eyeballs viewing his videos into cash.

In short, he lets YouTube do all the hard work.  In fact he was clear that: “there’s no business knowledge needed at all.” The point at which his income from online advertising was outstripping the minimum wage from working in a bar, was the moment he joined the hallowed ranks of being a ‘YouTube Entrepreneur‘ (rather than a ‘Minecraft Entrepreneur’ as labelled by the BBC’s caption). Joseph’s, accidental, narrowly-focused success is precarious – his channel was briefly and inexplicably banned by Google – but it represents a trend whereby the ways in which success with digital happens is multifarious and seemingly unpredictable.

The ‘Let’s Play’ genre (very much not an instructional game walkthrough but an irreverent, humorous, literal playing of the game) is niche but is viable enough to sustain income for a growing number of specialist companies as well as individuals looking to earn income for themselves or others. Whats more, games companies are increasingly seeing it as a viable form of promotion for their titles rather than an infringement of copyright.

There are two lessons I think we can take from likes of Joseph Garrett/Stamplongnose et al (see also Amy Lee). Firstly, as an educator, it’s a reminder that I know nothing about the career destinations of students in the digital sector. It’s too unpredictable. All you can do is point at the things happening and perhaps research into such phenomenon. But it tells me that the last thing I should do is advise on the kinds of jobs that students might end up doing. Better perhaps to focus on the possibilities for income generation rather than the more narrow skills/roles discussion that we tend to accentuate.

Secondly, it strikes me that Joseph represents the antithesis of the self-consciously hipster, start-up culture that frames the ways in which we tend to think about digital entrepreneurship. Joseph’s success comes from his fandom and from the everyday nature of game-playing. There’s no business plan, no investors to please, no red trousers to wear.

In my children’s eyes Joseph Garrett is a legend. But a normal one who does the things they do. Now they understand how he makes a living from it – from the thing he and they both love doing – I hope he’ll continue to be a visitor in our house for the foreseeable future.

Rewind Media: A brief review of key digital developments in the last year

To identify the kinds of people who might appear in this year’s Media Power 20 (MP20), it’s worth rewinding through some of the issues and themes of the last year in digital media. So, in no particular order and by no means comprehensively, here’s a subjective take on some of the most interesting developments of recent times.

To Transmit or Stream, that is the question

As we were going to press (as they used to say) with this post, news broke about the decision to move BBC Three from the transmitters to the iplayer. Those young people are all online, you know. Telly is so yesterday. But is it? From smart TVs to second (and third) screens and dedicated YouTube TV Channels to Netflix, we’re in the middle of that long talked-about convergence.

Privacy

The Snowden revelations of last year, in particular around the practices of the NSA in the States and our own GCHQ, have brought the issue of data privacy into even sharper focus. The big players in the digital sector have responded to consumers and governments, but could the focus on data privacy and greater awareness (not to mention fear) among online users also open up new opportunities?

Mergers and Acquisitions

Hardly a week goes by without some mega bucks deal, from Tumblr to WhatsApp. Digital M&A activity has been keeping the legal and financial sector busy and creating headlines with numbers where most of us struggle to work out how many zeros are needed. As well as more consolidation, we can surely look forward to yet more startups in the digital space.

Internet of Things

Not a year goes by when someone doesn’t predict that it’s going to be the year when the internet becomes as ubiquitous to ‘things’ as mere humans. But far cleverer and more knowledgeable people than me suggest 2014 really will be THE year. Not even fridges serving up spam attacks can stop it now.

3D Printing

No, I don’t fully understand it. In the same way black holes and the theory of relativity cause excessive brain scratching. I need Maggie Philbin in the Tomorrow’s World studio to make me fully enagge. But, it must be one of 2013’s most important developments – BBC’s Newsnight did a demo.

Wearable Technology

Along with those clever printers, Google Glasses must be one of the most quoted pieces of emerging digital hardware of the last year (outside phones/tablets/computers). Will 2014 see them launch beyond the elite few? Overall, wearable technology is going to figure strongly from now on, even if every invention doesn’t necessarily catch on.

Cloud Computing

You knew that Cloud Computing had really arrived as a mainstream concept when “cloud computing pioneer” Piers Linney took a seat in the Dragon’s Den. Better data organisation, access through multiple devices and emails in the cloud are things many of us now take for granted. The outlook is certainly becoming cloudier.

Mobile

Accessing the web on the move is now tipping the balance compared to desktop browsing and downloading, which is making providers in many areas rethink even harder about how their content is presented and consumed on both smartphone and tablet devices. Responsive design and geo-targeted content are bound to be trends which grow and provide more opportunities for digital entrepreneurs.

Social Media

For every story about the rise of the Internet of Things, there’s usually one about the imminent demise of Facebook. The social media giant has other ideas – and the growth of new services does not mean the fall of others, just consumers using different services for different uses or connections. Advertising on social media and private social media were two of the more notable other developments in this space last year.

Native Advertising

The interplay between brand owner, publishers and other content providers and digital consumers is becoming ever more sophisticated. Where trust and loyalty converge come opportunities which often prove more fruitful than traditional forms of advertising or PR. For news and beyond, BuzzFeed has certainly disrupted convention.

Your talent, their profits – the political economy of silliness

One of the greatest joys about the Internet is its continued silliness. Specifically, the ability of user-generated silliness to often be more successful than carefully crafted, professionally produced content.

The academic John Hartley has noted (in an essay in Jean Burgess’ very good book on YouTube) that the Internet “is the means by which ‘bottom-up’ (DIY consumer-based) and ‘top-down’ (industrial expert-based) knowledge-generation connects and interacts.”

But who wins as a result of this interaction? Hartley, to a degree, sits in the optimistic camp, whereby user-generated online silliness is in fact a useful form of identify formation and citizenship-shaping activity. Better this than traditional media citizenship whereby we learn how to behave through the often staid output of public service broadcasters.

And it’s clear silly citizenship is popular. By way of example, 25 million people have watched Isaac’s carefully choreographed lip dub marriage proposal to Amy since it was uploaded in May 2012.

But silliness is also lucrative, probably not in this case for Isaac and Amy, but for the record companies the who own the music the lip dubbers lip-sync to. A recent report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has identified the importance of user-generated content on YouTube as an increasingly important income source.

The report notes how: “Google’s ContentID system (and other systems used by other platforms) has made it easier for rights holders to differentiate between video types, allowing the streaming of non-official user-generated content such as mashups to be licensed and monetised, rather than removed for infringing copyright.”

Francis Keeling, the global head of digital business for Universal Music Group, has claimed that fan created videos are outstripping the income they derive from official music videos.

Christian Fuchs is one of many academics whose position sits counter to Hartley’s ‘silly citizenship’ argument. Fuchs argues that such participation “would be better understood in terms of class, exploitation, and surplus value.” In short, we joyfully make our lip dub videos and mashups for free without realising that we’re being exploited as free labour, making profit for the ‘man’.

No matter what either academic camp thinks, it’s hard to see the trend for the creation of such silly fan created content declining. Our desire to create and share is hardly likely to abate, but the increasing adeptness of systems such as Content ID to auto-detect copyrighted content means that the financial gains from your creative endeavours are accrued elsewhere.

Ten Things You Need To Know About The Future

I often go to conferences to talk to audiences about exactly this sort of thing.

Although I usually speak about something specific, like the film Tortoise in Love or Droplet, I always try to catch the opening speeches and am amazed at how the same topics always come up. If it’s not about how we’re all communicating using our mobiles, it’s about the rise of YouTube stars or how Google Glass is going to change everything.

I’ll confess to a small amount of satisfaction when I heard that Google Glass was being put to bed. Of course it wasn’t going to change everything. Listing the technology products we may or may not use is an unimportant part of thinking about the future. It’s far too easy to assume that in two years’ time, everything will have changed whereas in fact, the things that are important rarely stop being so.

So I thought I’d list some of the things that are essential, and will continue to be essential to running a company as far ahead as I can stretch my imagination.

1. Human contact

Working from home is great when it means you can get on with things without being distracted. But nothing beats a face-to-face conversation. At Droplet we use an instant messaging system to talk to each other instead of email, but we talk on the phone in teams every day, and as a whole company every week. We encourage people to talk rather than type if it’s important or difficult. Some people prefer to have as little human contact as possible but that doesn’t work when you’re leading a team. Especially when it comes to explaining the vision for the company and talking about what the goals are.

2. Sleeping

Our brains are fine coming up with fast answers to things we’ve come across before. But if it’s a really important question, like “what’s the best strategy?” or “what will people think of our new product?” then it’s the time when we’re not consciously thinking about something that can be best for reflection. An increasing amount of research is confirming how important sleep is for processing the things we’ve thought about during the day. “Having a nap at lunch time” and “taking regular breaks” are on my personal list of New Year’s resolutions.

3. What Motivates Us

The first time I saw an RSA talk with this title based on a talk by Dan Pink (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc), I became a convert to the idea that higher rewards lead to worse performance. If you need an example then look at the banking industry. Human beings are more complicated than this, and the tech industry is particularly bad at understanding how people work. That’s because some of the skills you need at the heart of a tech company are sometimes at the extreme end of the personality spectrum.

4. Who to work with

Finding the right people is the single biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career. But it’s also the most important thing that a smart investor will try to understand. Even if you’re like me and you hate using assessment tools, they’re an important way of testing someone’s real abilities in a short space of time. If you don’t have a clear description of what you’re looking for in someone then you won’t know when you’ve found them, or if it’s working out. It’s important you can get on with the people you hire. But it’s more important for everyone’s sakes that they’re the right person, in the right job, at the right time. Having a brilliant person in exactly the right job but at the wrong time in our business journey has been one of the hardest challenges I’ve had to face.

5. Selling

You can have a bad product and still succeed. But even the best product in the world will fail if you can’t get people to buy it. Selling is a hugely undervalued profession and yet without it you’re stuffed. I am a salesperson because if I’m not pitching the product itself to someone I’m selling an idea to the team or the vision of the company to an investor.

If there was one thing I could get better at right now it’s thinking more slowly. Thinking more slowly means you think of more factors, you think through the outcomes more thoroughly and you make better decisions. It’s something both my most recent business partners have been superb at. And they are two of the smartest people I know.

Tips on becoming a social media marketer

Passionate about helping companies utilise social media to reach their target markets and engage with their audience, she is one of the speakers at this year’s #RethinkMedia conference at Birmingham City University and has been awarded ‘Birmingham Young Person of the Year’ (2014)  along with a ‘small business’ award at the Venus Awards.

What advice would you give to someone looking to use social media as a business tool for networking and entrepreneurship?

Remember the name of everyone you meet and add them on LinkedIn with a message to say ‘hi’. Don’t spam them with group messages, instead make sure every interaction you have with them is personal and adds value.

Social media is a relatively new platform for communication, where do you see the trends in digital communication.

So far we’ve seen a shift from lengthier pieces of text to extremely short videos and pictures or memes, which ties in with people’s attention spans getting shorter.

We’ve seen that people continue to share more and more about things you’d think they would keep private! Finally, we’ve seen marketers and people who use social media to communicate appreciate that they need to fight hard for people’s attention online (hence clickbait), then content platforms (Facebook) responding to this by developing algorithms to penalise content that isn’t as interesting as the headline suggests.

Who knows that the future holds!

How can someone start building their skills as a social media marketer/expert?

Keep up to date with the changes on each social media platform and think carefully about how you could apply them to companies that you know or work with.

Also, keep up to date with what the brands you know and love are doing on social media. Notice the content they send out, who they talk to, the campaigns they run. Research big brands and small brands and pick up ideas to adapt and try out.

What is the hardest part about your job and what is the most rewarding?

The most rewarding part of my job all comes from positive feedback from clients. Clients come to us to be the experts in social media so it’s important that we develop our knowledge of the field to suggest new approaches and then carry them out.

The hardest part of my job is a secret. I’m working on it!

Twitter’s Dilemma: Is Longer Really Better?

Every time a popular social media site announces a change, their users seem to throw up their arms in horror. When Facebook announced additions to their ‘Like’ function in 2015, it was branded the ‘Dislike’ button and warnings about loss of users followed. Twitter is no different. First up, they changed the star for ‘favourites’ into a heart. The cheek of it.

Now, they are hinting at longer Tweets of 10,000 characters. Does that undermine the very essence of the 140 character micro-blogging experience? Will the longer length simply make it just another blogging platform?

Twitter has a problem. Over the last year its growth has slowed down considerably and had little over 300m active users in 2015. Well below expectations. Compare that to WhatsApp, the messaging platform that is approaching 1 billion users.

Celebrities and their audience have mostly left Twitter to go to Instagram. Perhaps they are simply driven by narcissism but it’s very telling that four of the top ten Instagram accounts are from the Kardashian clan. Twitter though, seems to have become the place for politician’s indiscretions, journalists tweeting their own articles and the middle class moaning at brands over service failures.

The slow growth of the user base is just one part of the equation. Since its initial public offering (IPO), Twitter has had to become more profit-driven. For the micro-blogging site, that means advertising, but it has not managed to deliver the expected revenues. Although it has grown, their advertising remains a bit-part player to Facebook’s highly successful offering. That has been reflected in their share price, which has been in decline since the IPO – the inverse trajectory of Facebook.

So, Twitter needs to do something. Like all social media sites, it has always been evolving. At first it was driven by users – retweets, @mentions and the hashtag are all products of this. More recent initiatives, such as the ‘heart’, polls and Moments have come from within the business. But are longer tweets the right move for Twitter? It should mean more time spent within the site, and that is the key to developing ad revenue – something that Facebook understands well. In, turn by appealing to advertisers it could help to reverse their declining share price.

But what about their users? The complaints about the changes are in part, a reflection that their audience cares about Twitter. However, some commentators have suggested that it is part of an identity crisis – Twitter doesn’t know what it is any longer. But this could be a bigger challenge for Twitter – longer Tweets go against a broad trend towards shorter and message based content.

Snapchat is a good example where social media is heading. The ten-second life of pictures and videos hascaught the imagination of 200m+ users. In Sept 2015 the app had 6 billion video views per day – that’s a 3-fold increase in 7 months and rapidly approaching Facebook’s figure of 8 billion views per day.  The fact is that from content to our attention spans, everything’s getting shorter – as a Microsoft study found.

Certainly Twitter has to evolve but the answer probably doesn’t lie with longer Tweets.

Podcasting is perfect for people with big ideas

In the face of conflict in the Middle East, the flow of refugees to Europe and the violence associated with Islamic State and other militants, there has never been a more important time to talk about human rights. And talk about them is what I do – not in a lecture hall or at conferences with academics, but in a podcast series. Let me explain why.

I have worked as a political scientist for 25 years, focusing on human rights problems such as the struggle for citizenship rights in Latin America and the relationship between inequality and human rights violations.

I am part of a wide network of people dedicated to producing sound evidence on human rights, and my work has been communicated through articles, books and reports. But I am limited in my ability to reach the people I would most like to engage and influence – those who do not have an academic understanding of human rights but might benefit from finding out about it.

There is a new breed of academic who understands this and is committed to bridging the gap between academia and the real world. Many blog, actively seek media coverage of their research and appear on radio and television to shed light on the issues of the day.

However, not many academics are podcasting and I’m not sure why. Podcasting is a great means of communication: it captures the human part of knowledge creation. We can hear academics and practitioners talk about what they do, why they do it and why it matters, in their own words.

Podcasts are certainly growing in popularity. Recent figures show that 1.7% of the time Americans spend listening to audio is devoted to podcasts, and that 15% of Americans – around 39 million people – had listened to a podcast in the last month. And the UK is catching on fast. In late 2014, the BBC announced record figures for podcast downloads of its programmes.

This is why, after experimenting with a few podcasts for my own blog, I decided to launch my own series, The Rights Track, in which I interview interesting people about their research and work in the field of human rights.

The wonders of modern technology mean it’s possible for me to interview my guests over Skype, so it doesn’t matter where they are in the world. My producer Chris Garrington records our calls using something called ecamm Skype Call Recorder.

She edits the podcasts using a very simple set up – a MacBook Pro and its free audio editing software Garage Band. I record myself at the same time using a lapel mic into my iPhone, and then send Chris the audio file, which she edits it in with her recording of our guest. Once that’s done she adds a jingle, a voice introduction and back announcement and our podcast is done.

And if you want to record the interview yourself, rather than using a producer, you can use a set-up similar to Chris’s – it doesn’t have to be expensive at all. For anyone interested in giving it a go, there are some great online courses, such as Colin Gray’s Podcast Liberation.

So far, the experience has been excellent. We have already covered a wide range of topics – including civil and political rights protection, the role of NGOs and the difficulties of measuring the prevalence of torture – and future podcasts will examine economic and social rights, the use of repression and police violence and how systematic research helps in legal advocacy.

For me, the podcast format is like a fireside chat – it allows listeners to hear experts discuss their work in their own voices, and allows the experts to express themselves more freely than in the usual academic forms of dissemination. We have even been able to work in questions from social media to provide real-time responses within our podcasts.

Funding came on the heels of other impact-related projects on human rights. I had some money left over for a pilot project of six podcasts and won a grant from the Nuffield Foundation for the full series. The Economic and Social Research Council also has funds, and many research-intensive universities have Impact Accelerator Award programmes that support these kinds of projects.

I hope more academics will recognise podcasting as a way of reaching out, sharing, communicating and discussing their research and what it means for the real world.