Programming under pressure

Our TV expert, Clive Crouch muses on what new legislation on product placement could mean for children's TV production and how new technology could change their watching habits.
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Having opened the debate last month on the funding issues facing the production of children's programming, OFCOM finally approved The Rules for Product Placement On TV (together with paid-for references to brands and products on radio) on December 20th last year.

This followed consultation managed by OFCOM in both 2009 and 2010. Over the previous three years, the Labour government had changed its position on product placement more frequently than a Lib-Dem in an average day. Labour was not alone in this respect: UK Stakeholder Trade Body ISBA (Incorporated Society of British Advertisers) also managed to make an about turn during the lengthy consultation process; serving to demonstrate its worthiness.

The amendments to The Broadcasting Code were released by OFCOM with the following statement: “The new rules implement changes to EU and UK legislation and are designed to enable commercial broadcasters to access new revenue streams, whilst ensuring that audiences are protected.” (Source: OFCOM Executive Summary 20/12/10)

News and children’s programming were never an issue for all the right reasons. What is really unfortunate is that there is no return path from the Government in terms of a subsidy to support this production sector, unlike in other territories. This serves only to compound the hit that this same sector took with the negative impact of the High Fat, Salt and Sugar legislation. (Other programme genres and some product categories are also excluded).

The industry and its dedicated catchment of advertisers strive creatively forward and continue to invent opportunities in the digital space.

Toyology.tv is one example of a company which is working really hard to provide an alternative platform for toy company product messages, led by Peter Jenkinson together with Jamie Rickers.

Kids Industries created a digital solution for its client, Glaxo Smithkline, building its own Aquafresh characters and storylines for children and mums.

We know that people are now watching more television, for which there are many contributing factors. And as we await the arrival in the mass market of internet TV sets (TV sets based on internet company software), the legislator, in the shape of the EU, may be about to hold up the progress.

Following the OFCOM announcement, the EU announced on December 21st 2010, an investigation into whether or not “Google is abusing its market dominance by privileging its own ventures in search rankings.”

We all know what that means – legislation has previously clipped the wings of other big corporations holding similar positions in other markets, which have not always delivered the expected benefits. By coincidence, on that same day, Google announced a delay to the launch of its Google TV sets, TVs with Google software, which let viewers surf the web directly from their TV.

For a company whose name has become a verb in less than ten years of operation, December 21st was not a good day.

Leaving Google to address matters with the EU, there is no doubt that IPTV has been slow to take off in the UK. This position will certainly progress when the BBC venture, You View, launches later this year.

So let’s return to our domestic market and examine further the technology opportunity that exists in the digital space.

Moving into 2011, one of many election pledges made was the promise of superfast broadband speeds of up to 30MB per second, or higher. In anticipation of this progress I purchased two dongles from different networks to get online access in a rural location, just six miles west of Diss in Norfolk.

After installing the kit, followed by an extensive search, I soon realised that Morse code would have been more effective, as I could find no signal.

My search in Norfolk for an online network was taking place just 70 miles north of Chelmsford. Given that the Essex town was responsible for sending out the first ever UK radio broadcast in 1920, I somehow felt that now, 90 years on, we had let the great inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, down. In a big big way.

Subsequent research from a very helpful OFCOM and its study of communication trends, established that just 0.2 per cent of UK households have superfast broadband of 30MB, which just happens to be the lowest level of penetration of any developed nation. To put that into perspective and name just three other countries, Japan has 34.4 per cent, Sweden has 12 per cent and the USA has 7.1 per cent.

The good news is that the cavalry is on its way over the countryside hills of the UK in order to connect rural areas to superfast networks. BT’s roll-out of its Infinity broadband package and Virgin’s extension of its cable-offering amount to this ambitious rural roll-out.

To sum up the progress, that same OFCOM study estimates that the UK will have the highest proliferation of speeds over 30MB per second in Europe, by…. ooh… 2015.

For the record, but sparing you the tedium of the numbers, the UK lags behind in superfast mobile networks. There is, however, a logical flow of improvement with forthcoming spectrum auctions relieving pressure on mobile data networks.

The most significant improvement will be the auction of the 800MHz spectrum, which is currently used for analogue TV and becomes available after the UK’s digital switchover (DSO) is complete.

The awareness of DSO is very high among consumers and that conjures up a vision of what 800MHz means as if we can touch and feel it.

Either way, it certainly enabled me to keep the faith when researching this business.

To maximise the benefit and realise the huge opportunity that the digital space will provide, we all have to keep the faith in the technology development; obviously at the expense of election pledges or at least until the next ones.

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