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Confessions of a Digital Pioneer

Confessions of a Digital Pioneer

The following is a guest post contributed by Graham Lovelace, industry analyst and director at Lovelace Consulting.

Oh to be a pioneer! Boldly going where no one has gone before. Designing, building, launching something new--something that could change the world and make you the envy of all your friends. What could be more exciting?

Digital terrestrial television celebrated its 15th birthday recently, and reading the anniversary reports prompted a flood of memories of the exhilarating mid-1990s, when the world wide web was still in its infancy and broadband was something you used in the office in order to avoid the world wide wait at home.

I was a pioneer, working at Teletext Limited with a band of trusty souls. They say you can recognise a pioneer by the arrows in his back. I can testify to that – I still have the scars. Teletext had a thriving interactive information service on ITV and Channel 4 – the main commercial TV channels in the U.K. I say 'interactive' – viewers pressed TEXT on their remote controls and entered a three digit number. Pages of information – latest news, sport scores, weather reports, TV listings – and entertainment (including celebrity interviews, lifestyle features plus the daily Bamboozle quiz) were broadcast via analogue television transmitters around the U.K., offering national and localised services. To receive pages viewers needed a TV with a teletext chip. Soon after we launched Teletext in 1993, the proportion of U.K. homes with Teletext-enabled TVs went beyond 50 percent - we had a large, loyal, mass consumer audience that used the service daily and responded in their millions to advertising.

For a while, back in the mid-1990s, Teletext was a crucible of innovation. TV was about to go digital, giving us the opportunity to offer graphically rich pages with live video. TV manufacturers were starting to think about the potential for what we now call connected or smart TVs – early prototypes had dial-up modems! – and a U.S. start-up, WebTV, had just launched a set-top box that made the long-awaited convergence of broadcast TV and the web a reality. Mobile internet services were slow and clunky, but showed great promise. The rush was on to get Teletext on all these platforms and devices, and carve a commanding position in digital TV and online.

That was the theory. The practice turned out to be very, very hard, largely the result of what I now know to be the innovator's dilemma – successful companies find it difficult to invest in disruptive technologies or business models, the very technologies and business approaches that go on to challenge incumbents and disrupt markets. Teletext ceased broadcasting on TV in 2010.

Today, the potential for disruptive innovation is everywhere across the value chain. New content formats and content origination techniques make viewing experiences more realistic, more immersive, more engaging. New distribution allows content to bypass traditional broadcast networks and TV platforms – presenting a disintermediation threat as content producers, aggregators and rights holders go direct to consumers. New devices present new monetisation opportunities, such as serving synchronised advertising on separate screens powered by data derived from new metrics and analytics.

As the saying goes, prediction is very difficult – especially about the future. Viewing of scheduled linear programming will almost certainly endure over the next 15 years of digital TV – though much of the spectrum currently used for digital terrestrial television could well have been awarded to mobile operators. Viewing will be even more of a hybrid experience – a blend of scheduled and on-demand; broadcast and broadband; big screen (TVs over 55 inches), small screen (smartphones), and screens inbetween (tablets).

And the pioneers? They're everywhere--challenging, provoking and forcing incumbents to think and act differently. Thankfully what changed with the bursting of the dot-com bubble was the belief that to win you had to be the true pioneer, the first mover, in a new market. We've learnt there's actually a greater advantage in being a fast follower, watching the pioneers fall amid a hail of arrows and knowing where it's safe to tread.

Graham Lovelace was editor-in-chief of Teletext Limited 1993-1999. He is director of Lovelace Consulting, the future-facing media consultancy providing advice, content and events; content editor at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC); co-founder of The Infographics Agency; non-executive director at SecondSync; and senior specialist advisor at Denovo.