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The Myths of Convergence and EPG Prominence in a Divergent World

Ed Hall, Managing Partner

For two decades now the digital revolution has been driven in part by one word, for most of us this word was a Holy Grail. It was a Shangri La for entrepreneurs, digital angel investors and public markets – the word was Convergence.

Thinking about it, at one point before the 2000 Tech Crash I was even a director of a company called Convergence. The business principle seemed clear, that the models for content distribution would tend towards a single model, or pipe, or platform, and that investment in the winner of that race would be akin to spotting Microsoft in the late 1970s.

15 years' later we have Triple Play and Quad Play, platforms that promise access to multiple sources of entertainment, phone companies and smart TVs offering music services, movies, foreign language content and news, and a dazzling array of HDMI enabled dongles and sticks to insert into my TV. Yet people are still talking about convergence as though there is the remote possibility of me ever using one method of delivery for the majority of my digital services.

I think it's becoming clear that the Digital Convergence Emperor has no clothes. I am currently a customer of Virgin Media, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Vodafone. I have access to films and music through Google Play on my Samsung phone, which is also trying to sell me content. My Chromecast allows me to watch TV from Film-On's app overseas even when I'm not supposed to, whereas TVPlayer which I also use does not. I have music from several services, and I think I might even have signed up to the BBC's music service that launched via iPlayer (which I also signed up to). My Freeview Play TV in the country is great, and I use Now TV in London more than Virgin because the iPlayer app loads faster.

As time passes, the individual apps and platforms and USB sticks seem to me to be diverging faster and becoming more specialist. We advised a major adult broadcaster some years' ago on the launch of a 'porn-stick' to separate the access to that content physically as well as though digital barriers. I suspect that I won't ever buy a Hollywood movie from Spotify, or listen to a Robbie Williams album through Netflix. I suspect the future will require more HDMI sockets not fewer, and user interfaces will become more diverse and content specific, not more generalist and converged. Sky Q is interesting as it tries to move into that one-EPG-fits-all world, and I'm not sure it does so with total success. James Parnell talking about EPG prominence is an intriguing throw-back to a confident age where we thought consumers would head to the same starting place to find their content, but that's increasingly not how the world works.

On a major platform you can see how demanding prominence might work for the big beasts in the room: but as a consumer I am using Freeview, Sky, Freesat, Virgin, Apple TV, Now TV, Chromecast and a Firestick, and that's without talking about YouTube and Google Play on my phone. Can the PSBs seriously intend to demand a dominant position on all these platforms? Surely it must be deeply unfair to suggest the prominence argument should only apply to the larger platforms, why should Sky have to promote iPlayer when Google does not? And what of content-first services such as Netflix or iStore? Should they have to list BBC programmes in search algorithms before more commercially-produced content?

At what stage does my search history or use of apps on a platform outweigh the arguments for a PSB's offering to trump what the system knows about my own viewing patterns? A truly big data-rich user interface will be driven by my own viewing habits and smart personalisation, not by the 'rights' of a public service broadcaster to populate my screen.

As commercial content owners look for strategies to reach consumers they will no doubt raise questions about the new revived EPG prominence debate, but I can't see a world in the next decade where consumers head back to one or two major pipes for their content. In reality Sky Q makes no sense without Netflix just as Apple TV made no sense without iPlayer, yet as fast as one converged deal is closed, another aggregator, dongle or virtual service emerges, many of which seem better at targeting me with content I want to watch. Amazon found me and told me to watch 'Designated Survivor', whilst the iPlayer still thinks I want to watch the One Show, which I will never do other than as a critical industry voice.

Consumers know how to use multiple services now, the moment when ease of access was a driver for convergence has gone and high value customers are subscribing, renting and buying content on multiple platforms with ease: iPlayer for Taboo, Netflix for The Crown, and Amazon for Deutschland '83, whilst running Spotify on their phone.

It's time to move on and accept we live in a multi-source world, and look back to the only time when we had true convergence with nostalgia: it was called analogue, and it's over.