Inside an industry: television

Craig O'Callaghan examines the big business behind the small screen

"Holidays are coming. Always Coca-Cola."

Few things demonstrate the power of TV advertising better than the fact a Coca-Cola truck decked in Christmas lights is currently touring the UK. What started as a televised advertising campaign has now become both a tourist attraction and an annual indicator (if the arrival of cold weather and festive decorations wasn't enough) that the holidays are indeed coming.

The established nature of Coca-Cola's Christmas TV advert, seared on the minds of young and old alike, demonstrates the power of television. When people are watching, no other form of advertising has as strong an impact on consumers.

The only problem is that people aren't always watching. And if people aren't watching, soon the advertisers aren't going to keep paying.

You wanted a hit

There was a time when predicting the viewing habits of TV audiences was fairly straightforward. They were limited to only a few channels and their favourite shows could only be watched at a particular time.

Getting a mass audience to see your programme (and by extension, your advertising space) was as much science as it was art, and networks knew that the more people they had watching their show, the more money they could make from selling adverts during it.

Now, audiences can watch their favourite shows whenever they want, wherever they want, on whichever device they prefer, and can often skip the adverts completely. Not only do people have more channels to choose from, but they have more alternative methods of watching TV shows (Netflix, iPlayer, and so on).

This freedom of choice is great news for the consumer, but reduces the value of the majority of a network's advertising space as less people are likely to see it. The Coca-Cola advert mentioned earlier may be very well-known, but that's largely due to it originally airing in a different era.

When an advertising campaign looks to gain attention in 2013, it relies on the internet, as John Lewis's recent Christmas advert demonstrated. With advertisers unlikely to maintain their traditionally high levels of investment, networks are in need of alternative sources of revenue.

Us v them

While networks are faced with an uphill struggle, alternative television platforms such as Netflix are enjoying rapid growth, relying on subscriptions rather than advertising for their income.

Previously, these subscription services lured in consumers with a vast back catalogue of films and TV shows, superseding physical rental outlets such as Blockbuster. While this business plan enjoyed some success, it did little to attract TV fans keen to stay up to date with the latest episodes of their favourite shows.

Recently, however, these companies have made advances into maintaining a more current selection of shows. Breaking Bad became "can't-miss" television for seemingly the entire UK earlier this year, a development spurred on by the fact episodes were available on Netflix within hours of their US broadcast.

Before then, seasons of the show had only been legally available in this country on DVD a couple of years after their original air date. Netflix positioned itself as a cheap, easily available way to join in on the pop culture conversation, and enjoyed a rise in subscriptions as a result.

Netflix and other internet-based television providers have also begun to recognise the potential in creating their own programming, rewarding subscribers with exclusive access to new shows. Netflix's House of Cards launched to great fanfare earlier this year, and went on to become the first online TV show to win a Primetime Emmy.

Along with Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, House of Cards has helped to fuel further interest in Netflix subscriptions, making the package seem like particularly good value to consumers, especially as the service contains none of the advertisement breaks that traditional TV networks rely upon.

For every quarter of the last financial year, Netflix's revenues grew, making it an attractive proposition for investors too. Sensing opportunity, other online content providers such as Amazon are looking to enter the TV market too. It's little wonder that the traditional network behemoths are looking over their shoulders in fear.

The future of television

As with other media-based industries (music, newspaper), the traditional television business model is having to adapt to the impact of the internet and technological advances. To find out how the industry is likely to adapt, and what TV might be like in the future, we spoke to Todd VanDerWerff, TV Editor at entertainment website The AV Club.

Anytime viewing

The prevalence of catch-up services iPlayer and 4oD, as well as recording devices such as Sky+ and TiVo, already allow consumers to watch their favourite shows on their own schedules, either through their televisions or on a computer or tablet. In the future, however, this might become the only way to watch TV.

"I think it's inevitable that in twenty years all our TV will come from a computer or tablet device," says Todd. "There'll still probably be daily talk shows and sports broadcasts which will be on a schedule, but for scripted shows it will be a case of watching when you want to."

All things great and small

Although the industry is likely to tighten the purse-strings somewhat, big budget TV shows such as Game of Thrones are unlikely to disappear completely, Todd tells us. "We may be moving into an era where there are both blockbuster shows and smaller shows which scrape by. It's likely to be similar to the film industry where there are big films such as Avengers Assemble alongside smaller films which won't make as much money but will still attract an audience."

"We're already seeing a lot of cheaper TV formats, such as reality TV, game shows, or multi-camera sitcoms, which is the cheapest scripted format. The idea still needs to be exciting though, as too many similar shows and the audience begins to notice. It has to be something like the breakout hits from previous years such as Survivor or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"

A smaller industry

While the options for consumers are likely to continue to increase, the industry behind it is likely to contract and become dominated by a smaller number of stakeholders. "There will probably be a winnowing over the next ten years, to a smaller, sleeker group of companies," predicts Todd.

"I'd be surprised if Netflix, for instance, is owned by itself in a decade," he says. "Someone like Google or Amazon is likely to snap it up." As with other industries, those companies which are unable to cash in and find a buyer are likely to struggle to compete and will inevitably fall by the wayside.

Targeted advertising

Companies such as Netflix collate large amounts of data on their various users, in order to understand what they're watching and why. As well as using this information to decide what shows to commission (House of Cards, for instance, was partly the result of an algorithm determining what viewers would be interested in), this treasure trove of data could also lead to a rise in targeted advertising.

In much the same way that internet adverts are often tailored to an individual user, households could soon find their television adverts are customised in the same way. Been researching new cars online? Be prepared to be inundated with car adverts every commercial break. With more and more information being shared by people online, your television could even go as far as advertising cereals when it knows the box in your cupboard is about to run out.