This is Part I of a two-parter. In tomorrow’s post, James takes a look at what’s already being done to address the provocation he makes here – with an interview with one of the men who’s behind the TV turnaround.

Author: James Mitchell, Planner, BBH London (@jamescmitchell)

Imagine a bath with four very discrete taps: each tap is your access to a very particular supply of water; they cannot be mixed, and you may only turn one tap at a time. This was TV in the twentieth century. In this situation, the pipe and what it carries are basically interchangeable, and your view of a TV channel could be largely made up of the programmes it transmitted. And so, people watched channels – but this idea is crumbling. The perfect storm of several forces is occurring: the multiplication of channels (and the resultant drop in general programming standards), on-demand media via the net, time-shifting and recorded viewing.. they all mean when I go home tonight I’ll be watching nothing but Channel James. If you’re interested, tonight Channel James is probably showing a marathon of streamed Peep Show, a Radio 4 documentary on Russian spying, and my housemate’s bootleg of The Human Centipede. And if any of these things bore me at any point, I can sack the station’s controller and rewrite the schedule. I’m not watching channels, I’m watching programmes.

TV, yesterday. I like to think that the slightly menacing one bottom-right is Fox News.

Now, the ideas of media fragmentation are well-documented both in a commercial sense (see Accenture’s take) and a transmedia sense (I particularly love this piece by Scolari), but the discussion’s been largely focused on the problem as it relates to lost viewing hours. You know the sort of thing: channel frets that nobody will watch their big show on TV, so they move quickly to host it on YouTube with ads, and reclaim lost revenue in some form. And that works fine for any piece of blockbuster programming that people choose to watch. But we may be letting the obvious problem obscure the more dangerous one. No channel can afford to show amazing programming one hundred percent of the time. For every X-Factor, there’s an All-Star Family Fortunes. For every Lost, there’s a Dog The Bounty Hunter. And the thing that gets precious viewership to coast from the magnificent programs to the mediocre, the thing that gets those shoestring productions to overdeliver in advertising revenue, is a channel’s identity.

This situation is a big problem for channels that try to make a profit on other peoples’ content, because the basic model of business today is to buy/create a commodity and resell for cost price + the value of your brand. This doesn’t work if your brand doesn’t get a look in. I’m not even talking about advert-dodging here: what happens when people attach no value to your channel? There’s a thousand different ways I could watch an episode of CSI right now, and there’s only one factor that matters in my decision: the cost. Which means that the answer very likely ends in Torrent and starts with Bit. Whoops, I cut out the middleman. I never even met him. I’m sure he was nice, but whatever.

A channel. Remember those?

So, the role of channel as rebroadcaster is dying, or at least about to run out of profitability. And with that, the opportunities for a channel to define itself as a source of a certain type of entertainment die too.  Don’t get me wrong: TV’s primary purpose will be seen as entertainment for a long time to come, but multiplication of content and its sources mean that if we’re not careful, that’s precisely all it will stand for – vanilla ‘entertainment’, a goopy, grey mass, each provider pumping out similar treacle until CBS becomes NBC becomes Channel 5 becomes Al Jazeera becomes a DVD in a plastic bin, Seasons 1-6 for a tenner.

“Oh, I remember The Wire, it was great! What channel was it on again?”

“Hmm, I don’t remember”

Be honest now – do you?

If a universal quest for entertainment leads to homogeneity, could a modern channel adopt something else as its raison d’etre? Sure, the infrastructure of these places biases them towards entertainment distribution, but it hasn’t always been so: when Lord Reith signed the original BBC charter in 1927, he stated the broadcaster’s mission was to “inform, educate and entertain – in that order”. He might as well have added “by any means necessary,” and he’d have been straight on the cover of Ye Olde Faste Companye. Reith’s media-neutral statement was extremely forward thinking. Was it lofty to not make any reference to producing or broadcasting content back then? Perhaps, but remember this was the BBCs inception, the only time in a brand’s life cycle when someone is more likely to think “what could we do?” than just “what are we best at doing at the moment?”

Lord Reith, staring. Into the future, presumably.

There are a few routes back to relevance. There’s one particularly exciting one that I’m going to be sharing tomorrow – but it’s a big question that’s worth opening up to all: given what channels are and what they’re equipped to do, how do they rejustify a place in society?

Answers on a postcard, as they used to say.

Check out Part II tomorrow, when James interviews one of the men who’s behind the turnaround of TV, Darren Garrett, Creative head at Littleloud. Please stay tuned…