Making TV pay — access to content in the digital age

 Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones season one Credit: HBO
28 Nov 2012 12:00:00.000

UK television viewers are reluctant to pay for TV content, expecting access to high quality programmes on platforms such as the internet, smartphones and tablets for minimal cost, according to research from The University of Nottingham.

And despite having access to myriad ways of watching content, viewers are still following ‘traditional’ patterns of consumption — watching television on different platforms, but during the well-established primetime periods. There is also a lack of value attached to digital ownership, with a reluctance to pay for digital copies of programmes as alternatives to traditional DVDs and box sets.

Viewers are also happy to access content via illegal means. The price of cinema tickets and DVDs, along with the practice of ‘windowing’ — the restriction of access to programmes such as Game of Thrones across different territories — were seen as legitimate reasons for downloading TV illegally through torrent sites. 

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New delivery and access models — from services like the BBC iPlayer to apps which allow content to be viewed on phones — have transformed the consumption of film and TV in the UK. Connected Entertainment UK — a study carried out at the University’s Department of Culture, Film and Media — examined how viewers interact with these ‘connected viewing services’.

The research was carried out through the Media Industries Project at the University of Santa Barbara’s Karsey-Wolf Center, which runs projects looking at digital distribution. The funding comes from Warner Brothers’ digital distribution arm.

It found that free catch-up TV services from established national public service broadcasters — such as the BBC iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4OD — were, unsurprisingly, the most popular sources of online viewing in the UK. Over the decade 2001 to 2011 the combined audience share of the five main television networks (BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) declined from 80.5% to 53.7%, but, per month, the iPlayer averages over 140 million requests for television programmes and 4oD attracts an average 43 million video on demand views. The success of iPlayer and 4oD suggests the parent broadcasters have proved particularly successful in transposing their brands to the online environment and developing new audiences. Consequently, public service television continues to represent a strong and enduring ethos in the online universe that is winning audience trust and loyalty.

But is this adherence to the cultural institution of free and universal access that drives public service broadcasting in the UK influencing the reluctance to pay for content?

“The iPlayer and 4OD are both services that articulate the public service ethos. The concept of free and universal access is ingrained in the way that we consume entertainment,” said Paul McDonald, Professor of the Creative Industries at the University. “Couple this with the philosophy of the internet — freedom of access to information — and you have a structure where it is unsurprising that viewers are reluctant to pay for content that they feel they are entitled to.”

“The challenge for the big entertainment producers and distributors is to understand how consumers access content and what they would be prepared to pay for — and in what formats,” added Dr Liz Evans. “Forays into ‘cloud access’ to film and TV content through providers such as UltraViolet have made little impact so far in the UK. Advertising-supported services like 4OD work for TV content, but might not work for film. In the meantime, the appetite for content is such that people will continue to download content illegally.”


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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has 40,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘the world’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking 2011.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fund-raising campaign, will deliver the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news

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Prof Paul McDonald, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 3273,
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