Thursday, July 3, 2008

Regulators are out of their depth when it comes to the internet

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

  The media village. It’s a phrase we often use (conscious of its irony) to describe the close-knit and often incestuous community that’s built up around the media and entertainment business in the UK.

It’s a slightly self-deprecating description – perhaps a function of British reserve, a reluctance to trumpet success. But successful it is – responsible for £1bn in exports in 2006, and remarkably (given all the complaints over the level of US-sourced programming) – the UK is a net exporter or television content, with the Office of National Statistics showing a £100m surplus over imports.

This is something to be proud of – after all, US media companies, with their huge domestic markets, have an innate advantage when it comes to funding production. That British companies are more than holding their own is a real achievement – and a reminder of how increasingly international the media markets are.

The web-based media market has no such statistics published about its contribution to the balance of payments – but it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re a net importer, with MSN, Yahoo, Google and AOL mopping up a substantial part of the market in the UK.

The web media market is a truly international one, dominated by a few mostly US companies who have benefited from their huge domestic market size, access to receptive capital markets and little domestic regulation.

But whilst the UK TV industry has evolved to become a sophisticated international business competing on a global stage, it’s notable that regulators and legislators still seem to hark back to the village days.

Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport used his speech to the Convergence Think Tank last month to announce that the UK would be rejecting the EU’s directive allowing product placement on TV.

His concern was that product placement ‘contaminates’ programmes, and that "British programming has an integrity that is revered around the world and I don't think we should put that hard-won reputation up for sale."

What’s not clear is whether he thinks this is a commercial argument or a consumerist one.

Consumers need protection, the theory goes, against the exploitation of their attention. There should be a clear line between commercial messages and content, because implied endorsement that placement brings is untransparent and unethical.

Now, in between living the life digital and the life real, I watch TV from time to time – and it’s pretty clear to me that product placement is rife, both in UK and US-sourced programming.

We’re a bit more subtle in the UK (it typically goes under the guise of ‘set dressing’) but in the US they really go for it. Action series ‘24’ has Ford, Cisco and Apple, whilst American Idol has its judges sitting behind large Coca Cola tumblers and the contestants waiting in the Coke lounge.

Cheesy it might be, but nobody died. As viewers, we’re exposed every day to these placements when we watch American imports (although Idol pixellates the glasses), and nobody really minds.

The reality then is that we’re only actually ‘protected’ from product placement if we watch British TV – the rest of the time we’re fair game; and that renders these rules rather pointless.

On the commercial side, it’s surely the responsibility of the executives of these media companies to decide how they manage their reputation – not the culture minister.

So this pronouncement by the culture minister has little effect beyond hamstringing our domestic industry, taking away a source of revenue from them that helps them to compete in the global media market.

The idea that government would stand in the way of business in this way in the US would be unconscionable – Kangaroo would be celebrated; here, it’s referred to the competition authorities.

If we want to have a strong domestic base for our media companies (both in TV and online), regulation is going to have to catch up with the new world order, and see that the real threat both to businesses and consumers is what happens outside the village.