John De Mol is not a name those outside the TV business associate with revolutionary change. In fact let's be honest, if you're not Dutch or in the TV business, you may never have heard of him. But De Mol has already changed your viewing habits forever. It's worth getting to know his plans.
The BBC is better known and it too is contemplating the future. Here's how they see the future.
Many top executives in television in Europe, and probably in the USA too, owe their careers to John De Mol. Whichever country you're watching from, you're going to hear a great many people take the credit for launching, producing, commissioning or otherwise bringing Big Brother, and its many derivatives, to our screens.
Commissioning executives and executive producers in the reality TV genre, creative directors of independent production companies, awards committees who hand out BAFTAs and Emmys — few shun the possibility of being associated with a reality TV success.
It is the enduring genius of Dutch business that a man like De Mol is happy for these guys to take the glory while he pockets the cash; when he sold the production company he co-founded with Joop Van Den Ende, Endemol, the price tag was over $5 billion.
That puts DeMol in the front rank of media entrepreneurs, gobally. In 2005 De Mol founded a new TV channel Talpa.tv. It operates in Dutch and its first major coup was buying the broadcasting rights to Dutch premier league football. That, though, is not exactly a creative step — some would argue nor was Big Brother.
Though Talpa has provided De Mol with a channel for a variety of new reality TV shows, it has become clear that filling a whole channel even with low cost content hardly constitutes a strategy.
Although he is able to sell programme formats to other TV channels once they've proven their worth on Talpa, you can see that he's got the bear of broadcasting bosses off his shoulders only to be faced with the lion of a schedule that needs filling.
In the on-demand world, you might describe that as a wrong turn. At Cross Media Week though, De Mol rallied the audience to a new vision of the content future.
De Mol's was the best attended session of the conference. It was standing room only. Except he didn't say very much. In fact what it came down to was one message. In the future all projects will be cross-platform projects. There will be no TV programme that is not a web or mobile or print project.
Did the BBC fare any better in the business of surprising an audience? In a time when Linden Labs are creating a new world, when xolo.tv are providing the European ads market with the funky vidcast, and Mary Hodder's Dabble is becoming a magnet for creative people seeking content sharing and exchange for new content products, when a guy and gal can break the Technorati top 100 with three minutes of drivel a day, when YouTube, MySpace, and Bebo came from nowhere.
The BBC sees the future in four ways:
- Content will become increasingly atomised, ie taken out of the long from narrative.
- The BBC will increasingly host content — for example from viewers contributing to TV and radio programmes.
- The BBC will become an aggregator, its Radio 1 website already acts as an aggregator of bands' music.
- And they will venture into new domains like Second Life.
Here then we have two of the most creative, established, and powerful media organisations in Europe saying very little. In fact what's remarkable about their contributions was the lack of contribution.
In both cases we might start to raise fears — if the BBC is to be an aggregator what does that mean for all those people trying to set up aggregator businesses? What about hosting — should that really be a job for a public broadcaster? Is Demol just going to become a Murdoch clone?
The reality is these large organisations have no clear idea of where they're headed. Their strategy is to see what other people do and then follow. It's a pretty poor strategy but it's also one that has practical issues attached.
The main quesetion it raises is: what stops large media organisations from innovating?
In newspapers we know it's because they simply don't yet believe they need to invest resources and decision making powers into people who understand mixed media environments. They believe if you know newspapers you know media.
The nature of television though is it is a mixed media environment, and we can assume there are people in these organisations who understand what's going on. I have to confess myself puzzled by their lack of edge. Could it really be they just don't feel compelled to innovate?
Or is there another barrier preventing these organisations turning their powerhouse resources loose on the future of content? My own observation in recent weeks is that the BBC, over recent months, has consistently failed in its core objectives. Its news and current affairs programming is not only outdated in subject matter, it has lost sight of, and the ability to implement, its core journalistic values.
In successive weeks the BBC has broadcast programmes that lack core objectivity checks, like searching for a second opinion, using two or more sources of authority, overtly displaying core journalistic values. The programmes included one last night on child abuse by priests and previously one on financial kickbacks in soccer.
In neither case were experts or insiders who knew and could explain the case of the subject of those programmes interviewed. Basic rule of journalism: let the accused have a say and make their case strongly.
While the BBC struggles to rediscover its core skills of course De Mol launched his new empire with a very old trick — live sports.
I'll venture an opinion only on what's happened at the BBC, for now. In British Broadcasting for the past twenty years, more and more content has been sub-contracted to independent producers whose first priority has to be economic sustainability.
At the same time the BBC has driven down the cost of programming. That means an independent producer has less money to make programmes but still wants to make a profit, taking even more money out of the actual programme.
Resources are made up by employing people who want to be in television rather than those who have outstanding journalistic skills. Yes, runners, researchers and other staff who will work for nothing or for very little. In contrast the BBC rewards managerial staff highly.
[... employers rely increasingly on new intakes of inexperienced workers, backed up by freelances and small independent businesses. The problem for employers is that there may be little quality control in these arrangements. Journalism's traditional values of integrity, accuracy and balance take a back seat, while there is no guarantee of competence underpinning the work of freelances and independents. -- Extracted from a report by the UK National Union of Journalists.]
That in turn has a double impact. Journalism-led programmes increasingly do not ring true. But at the same time there is no groundswell of talent looking for alternative forms of expression.
In my view many European broadcasters face the same problem — they've driven talent out; like newspapers they've ignored key areas of skills development, and now when they need to innovate they're stuck. In the world of new media what will sink them are the sins of the past twenty years. They have no real idea of where to go from here.