The Future of TV in Canada: Digital Convergence and Alternative Platforms

The following is a guest post from Trevor Doerksen, CEO of Calgary’s Mobovivo – a digital media company focused on the challenges Broadcast and Media companies face in marketing and delivering premium content to audiences on alternative platforms.

The new Canada Media Fund, to launch the last week of March, is driving television funding requirements towards alternative-to-broadcast distribution. A core mission of the fund is to support convergence between new and old media. So, what is alternative distribution anyway?

Since the alternative-to-broadcast distribution requirement was announced by the Canadian Heritage Minister a year ago, comprehensive industry consultation has taken place and a new language around television and storytelling has emerged.

Trying to make sense of the requirement, the TV industry has begun using words and phrases like: platform, device, streaming, download, microsite, entitlements, social engagement, user-generated content, app, monetization, white-label, transcoding, mobisode, interactive and so on.

And it seems nobody can decide on common terms. No easy task, as even Apple’s product branding is confusing – “is that an iPod, a Touch, or a Classic?” And it’s getting more difficult. Consider the iPad – it seems to be a cross between a laptop, e-reader, iPod Touch (not the iPod Classic) and iPhone without the phone.

Of course, we know stories are distributed and communicated. Well scripted, high quality, professionally produced stories are distributed – people will always pay for access to compelling stories. Casual, brief, shocking, funny, emotional stories are communicated – and audiences will pay for access to be part of the communication.

The iPod, iPad and iPhone are, of course, one (or five) alternative-to-broadcast distribution opportunities for the television producer. One (or five) of how many? Which will qualify under new guidelines? Which are profitable? What about rights, copyright and territories? Do distribution windows apply? Where is all the advertising money? Do people pay for content? What about streaming on Facebook – is that an alternative-to-broadcast strategy? This is what an industry undergoing significant change sounds like.

Then of course, there are online services or alternative distribution platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – three of the most popular websites in the world. These sites have proven to be powerful communication tools, and can’t be overlooked as key marketing tools. However, they are unproven when it comes to the sustainable distribution of premium content. Recognizing the difference between successful creative marketing tools and sustainable distribution strategies is very important.

When it comes to distribution of stories, nothing fundamentally has changed. Consumers purchase access to media. People pay for cable, magazines, newspapers and music – no matter the format. This has been the case since free over-the-air broadcast was replaced by cable and VHS was replaced by DVD, then Blue-Ray, then digital download.

So perhaps then, nothing is new. Well, not quite. There are a lot of options that fragment the marketplace and our lives. Households don’t have one record player or television. They have devices in every room and in their pockets. This is not new, just more fragmented.

As for creative marketing strategies, many musicians and producers have learned that engaging community and “being interactive” is hard work. Managing communities on YouTube, mySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and a website seems like as much work as directing a feature film – and it never ends.

Understanding the difference between technologies suited for distribution and technologies suited for marketing is key to taking advantage of fragmentation and disruption in the marketplace.

To understand alternative-to-broadcast distribution, producers and broadcasters need go no further than file-sharing tools to determine which distribution formats are popular. They will realize that there is no illegal trade in webisodes. Short clips may be there, but nothing compared to the popularity of full programs. They will see that both streaming and downloading premium movies and TV shows are extremely popular. They will notice there are several hundred programs to transcode videos from one device or format to another. In addition, they will notice that not only is a lot of this illegal, it is extremely complicated to search, download, transcode, and sync a video to your device. Despite the complications, doing so is extremely popular.

As an industry, we must make it easier, not harder, to purchase access to media for particular devices and favourite mobile and web destinations. This is what the Canada Media Fund should help the industry achieve.

A creative marketing strategy requires that television producers continue to do what they have always done – give people something to talk about. They need to engage with community by seeding the conversation with their shows, ideas, themes, experts, actors, and so on in a sustainable way. This is only possible if producers embrace the communications power of innovative new technologies, and provide the means for audiences to join conversations about their stories. Communications and marketing drive distribution and distribution feeds the overall strategy towards sustainability. Winning creative marketing strategies recognize that the human desire to communicate is fundamental.

The Canada Media Fund will ask the industry for proposals that bring great made-in-Canada stories to the world, supported by sustainable and innovative made-in-Canada solutions for marketing and distribution. Creative marketing plans leverage cost effective and powerful communications, social networking, and user-generated content tactics. And the alternative-to-broadcast distribution plan earns money by taking advantage of the numerous ways people choose to view TV.