Convergence - the final frontier
To the Emirates stadium today for a government think-tank session on digital convergence
. Today's - rather grandly titled "What is Convergence?" - is the first in a series of events where Whitehall will apparently attempt to piece together some sort of coherent government overview on the mysterious future of the digital world.
Many of the great and the good from the media, hi-tech industry and academia were in attendance, with representatives from the Beeb, ITV, Orange, AOL, Five, Channel 4, the CBI, Guardian, Newspaper Society, Sky, O2...etcAndy Burnham MP
, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport kicked off proceedings with the usual Nu-Labour speak about the importance of "open markets", diversity and putting consumers in charge etc. According to Mr Burnham, it was important that the think tank wasn't just seen as "insiders talking to insiders" and stressed the importance of including young people in the debate.
A surreptitious glance round the room confirmed there was no-one there under the age of 30, so quite where the input of the "born digital" generation will come from is anybody’s guess, a point picked up by the platform.
Oh, and the findings of the think tank "might or might not" form part of new legislation...my guess is that it probably wont unless Murdoch wants some more favours.
First up in the panel session was the chief executive of Ofcom Ed Richards. He felt that the changes brought about by convergence will bring "disruption" - not only to the media industry but to consumers as the wider media tries to adapt to the digital future. Of course, most NUJ reps would argue that this has been going on across the media for years already, with many hard-working journalists trying to make the best of hair-brained and ill-thought-through schemes to move into the online world drawn up by starry-eyed bosses who don't fully understand the technology...
BBC Director General Mark Thompson spoke about the success of the new iplayer
application, with more than two million users since the launch on Christmas Day 2007. However, while evangelising about the brave new world, Thompson also defended radio broadcasting as being central to BBC output and also stressed the need for "outstanding content" as central to digital delivery...
Neil Berkett from Virgin Media told the group that, last Sunday, his broadband customers had downloaded the equivalent of 313 million MP3 tracks in data. Sunday is apparently the busiest day for downloads. (Thus confirming that most UK broadband users are now finally learning to switch off Last of the Summer Wine and instead go on You Tube to rerun that video of Star Wars Kid
of Orange moaned about how relatively cheap fixed term broadband was for consumers in comparison to the actual cost of providing the service and support. Damn us savvy customers for going for the cheapest deals! Presumably Orange will either be upping their prices or pulling out of the broadband market. It could be the latter - as Marc predicted that, at an indeterminate point in the future, there would only be three broadband providers for the UK - most likely BT, Virgin and Sky...
He also, rather depressingly, spoke about the popularity of the "Buff or Rough"
feature on the Orange website as being one of their most popular developments. (Maybe they hadn't been around during the height of the "Am I Hot Or Not"
craze all those years ago...)
The most lucid contribution of the day came from Nick Bertolotti - Investment Fund Managing Director from Credit Suisse. He effectively said what we had all suspected - that the city was "scared of convergence" and that the UK was already "behind the curve". Brands were less important in the online sphere and the established large media companies were under threat from smaller companies, therefore threatening investment etc.
His advice to the media bosses? "Build up the brand. Build up the content side." Ironic that it should be the most overt profiteer on the platform that comes out with what the NUJ has been saying for years about media companies investing in good quality content...
The best contribution of the day came from the floor - Jackie Devereux of the Community Media Association
. She picked up on the theme that had come from the platform all morning - that the "individual" was key to the convergence debate. She challenged the notion that the "born digital" generation (anyone under 23) would forevermore be locked away alone in darkened rooms in front of a screen addicted to the net, noting that peoples priorities change as they get older and we don't all stay aged 16 for ever. Amen.
She also pointed out that just because we could now individualise our media consumption, this would not alter the fact that families would sit down and watch a TV show together...a refreshing antidote to the prevalent idea of the day that we would all become anti-social slaves to our handheld devices in years to come.
Finally exposing the elephant that had sat conspicuously in the corner all morning, Devereux made the most valid point of the day that the digital divide is still huge, with almost 50% of children at some inner city schools not having access to a computer at home, along with the scant availability of quality broadband services in poor areas...one for the powers that be to ponder as they attempt to make sense of the rapidly changing digital environment.
I managed to make the NUJ positions during the "break out" discussion group about the very real dangers facing existing media, particularly for local paper staff and freelances, because of the rush online and the need to train all journalists to work across platforms. I also banged the drum for quality content - and the need for all online news content to be managed and produced by experienced and trained professionals. Whether or not these points are taken into the "final cut", remains to be seen.
Labels: convergence, journalism, journalists, multimedia, national union of journalists