New Broadcast Technologies and the Producer Viewer Relationship


Stuart Nolan (UK)


New broadcast media technologies are changing what we understand to be “TV” and the ethical cultures of the organizations that produce it. In order to discuss the changing relationships behind this deceptively simple statement this paper draws on research into how viewers are using the new capabilities of TV, as well as the motivations of the TV content producing organizations developing these capabilities.

As Roger Silverstone argues, “We need to think of television as a psychological, social and cultural form, as well as an economic and political one.” TV is not simply a delivery mechanism but rather it can be understood as, a technology, an industry, a media, a cultural institution, a subject for academic study, and a personal experience. Its intrinsic nature alters its content in many ways. In documentary reporting, television alters the political and professional structures by which we create “news”. TV puts forward, enforces and reinforces social ideals of individuals, family, nation and the world. When we watch TV we feel as though we belong to what Rath has called an “electronically constituted society”, where TV is as much a mediator as a media.

It has been suggested that we live life as though we are on TV and the fact that this feeling no longer surprises should tell us something. More startling is the assertion that we have in fact gone beyond the situationist society of the spectacle in which life, including ourselves, becomes content for TV and in which, to use Baudrillard’s phrase, “You no longer watch TV, TV watches you (live).” Going further, Baudrillard argues that the medium and the message are no longer even discernibly separate and that we are witnessing “the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV”.

Against this theoretical background how are new technologies affecting those organizations involved in producing TV? Digital Television (DTV) dramatically changes the relationship between the producer and the viewer and, when combined with a Europe wide liberalization of the market, a relaxation of regulation, and confusion amongst regulators trying to form policies that encompass the new capabilities of DTV, leads the TV producing industries into new and problematic areas.

This paper will consider how the changing relationship between viewer and producer brought about by new media technologies has begun to affect the producer organizations notions of what TV is and consequently their notions of responsibility towards the viewer. The corporate ethics of a media organization is largely based on its perceived relationship to the media consumer. The discussion will compare and contrast the changing perception of the producer-consumer relationship by discussing two very different broadcasters. The BBC is looking to new technologies to fulfill its Reithian role to educate, inform and entertain while competing on more commercial platforms. The cable company NTL is struggling to maintain its core service provision approach while moving into new areas as a content producer.

Interactive TV that allows viewers to choose their own news feeds is changing the aims of the news producers who are asked to format stories in smaller segments and for a variety of platforms. This is true to a lesser degree of other genres such as documentary and the paper will consider how the BBC is changing as it has to develop content for multiple platforms. While the BBC cannot charge for broadcast content beyond the license fee, it can charge for content sent to individuals, to mobile phones for instance. This lure of new revenue streams puts the BBC in a dilemma as it tries to balance its role as a public service with a need to innovate.

Commercial broadcasters are also tempted by new revenue streams from adult content as conditional access systems have to some degree moved the moral burden of protecting minors from unsuitable content from the regulators and broadcasters to the viewer.

In additional to traditional broadcasters moving into new ethically problematic areas there are a number of new broadcasters, the cable companies and Telco’s, who until recently based their business on simple carriage of data but now see themselves as content producers making anything from games to educational applications. These companies lack the ethical framework that has developed, over the long history of TV, in the corporate culture of traditional broadcasters and are less constrained by what many in these organizations consider to be outmoded notions of public service, decency and taste.

Using the ongoing debate on convergence in European DTV regulation as a framework these broadcaster’s changing attitudes towards three controversial areas – privacy, advertising, and gambling – will be discussed.

The ability to track the viewers habits combined with customer management systems (CMS) and AI based user modeling raises issues of privacy and we have already seen legislation changes in California due to suspected invasion of privacy by a DTV company. The viewers are no longer seen by the producer as a mass market of unknowns but as a mine of useful demographic and psychographic data of great value to direct marketing companies.

Technologies such as Personal Video Recorders, which allow viewers to skip adverts, and Video on Demand combined in an increase in subscription have begun to reduce the importance of advertising to broadcasters. Although this is a minor effect at present a number of new uses of DTV – chat, email, games, shopping – are predicted to compete with advertising for the viewers attention. This has begun to shift the content producers attention from making popular content that satisfies the advertisers target demographic to seeking ways to monetise their content directly through voting, games and direct merchandising.

In the UK, the Budd report has broadened the scope for Interactive TV gambling and gaming and large parts of the revenue generated by broadcasters such as BskyB come from viewers betting on sporting events or paying to play games in the hope of winning a cash prize.