Feature: The new niche TV

Internet Protocol Television is the latest addition to a crowded broadcast market. Steve Hemsley asks how PR people can best reach broadband viewers

Anyone who thinks the television market is already too fragmented may want to look away now.

If it was not bad enough that 175 satellite and digital channels were launched in Europe last year alone (bringing the total to 1,132 European TV stations, according to Screen Digest), the congestion is set to get worse. This is thanks to the convergence of broadband technology and Internet Protocol TV (IPTV), the latest addition to content provision.

The rapid growth of high-speed broadband (17.5 million adults now have a broadband connection in the UK) has made IPTV possible. It allows TV and broadband internet services to share the same home connections, meaning programmes can be watched online via a PC instead of on a traditional TV set.

Wide appeal
Already there are more than 1,000 internet television channels, appealing to everyone from the religious (Vatican TV) to the sporty (SurfUpTV, Cycling TV) and those interested in their town (Glasgow TV).

Niche channels are springing up all the time, including the recently launched GreenTV, which rubs shoulders with established channels such as arts-focused Worldart Television. The latter has been broadcasting a mix of music, comedy and dance since 2003.

Until recently, the question has been whether any of these channels has sufficient viewership or PR potential for agency and in-house PROs. The signs are, however, that this medium will be the new niche sector to get to know. Research by the Online Publishers' Association in the US reveals that a quarter of web users access video - including broadband television channels - once a week; 46 per cent do so once a month.

The good news for PR practitioners and their clients is that most IPTV channels require a constant supply of broadcast-quality editorial to attract subscribers and advertisers, and most do not have the resources or the inclination to create all their programming themselves. There are also opportunities for product placement because online content is not yet covered by Ofcom regulations.

GreenTV notched up 150,000 unique visitors in its first two months and if an ongoing pilot by ITV is anything to go by, local IPTV is set to see growing visitor numbers.

ITV piloted its ITV Local service last October in an attempt to offset the decline in traditional ad revenues. It is a bespoke channel aimed at people living in Brighton and Hastings, but the ITV Local project should be of particular interest to all PROs.

As well as news, the site hosts viewers' uploaded 'citizen journalist' reports, and footage of local football teams. There were 160,000 unique visitors to ITV Local in June, up from 103,000 in May. The pilot has been so successful that ITV Local now has 12 channels, including web stations for Basingstoke, Maidstone and the Isle of Wight. Although this may seem a small number, ITV says the medium will thrive on the 'quality' of the audience rather than the quantity of viewers, because website channels are tightly targeted.

ITV Meridian managing director Lindsay Charlton, who has overseen the project, says initial feedback from viewers shows they want more web-based interactivity such as chat rooms. It is possible ITV will roll out the concept to other parts of the country before the end of the year.

Commercial opportunity
Charlton believes broadband television channel owners of all sizes can enjoy a strong editorial and commercial partnership with PR practitioners as long as neither side abuses the medium. ‘Our local content must be fresh and original, and we want to talk to PR agencies about how they can use ITV Local. We cover Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight, and if a clothing company wanted to provide branded outfits for our production staff, or place items in our coverage in a subtle way, we would have that discussion,' he says.

Brighton-based Midnight Communications is already targeting ITV Local. One client, Brunswick Developments, needed local opinion on its side for its plans to revamp the outer harbour entrance of the Brighton Marina. Midnight was charged with managing local publicity - including getting coverage on ITV?Local - and Brunswick's planning application was granted on 30 June.

"The point of using ITV Local was to raise awareness of the plans before the council made its decision," says the head of Midnight's technology team, Lloyd Gofton. "I can see web television channels becoming useful testing grounds for many of our clients' PR campaigns."

It is likely that broadband TV services, from Christian channel Premier.tv to marine enthusiasts' outlet Sail.tv, will complement traditional TV rather than replace it. Rather than targeting the mass market like ITV1 does, these stations are appealing to individuals with a specialist interest or who live in a particular area and share local concerns.

The potential for PR professionals whose clients have something interesting to say or can provide spokespeople is, therefore, huge. It has even prompted a debate on whether in-house PROs should set up their own web television channels to get their clients' messages across.

Narrowstep provides the technology, management and production support to companies and individuals that want to create their own broadband television stations. Its operating system is used by ITV Local, The Baby Channel, Martial Arts TV, FieldHockey.tv and more than 70 other channels. The Narrowstep system, TelvOS, includes a tool that tells channel owners how many people are watching at a particular time.

CEO Steve Beaumont says in-house PROs and agencies are waking up to how this medium can deliver content to an international audience. "IP-delivered video content gives brands an additional means of communication and there is no substitute for good visual editorial to get consumers interested," he says. "This is a TV-like experience, with scheduling and advertising slots."

The pull of TV
According to Beaumont, IPTV is taking off because many clients like the idea of being on television and, although the people visiting these web channels may number just a few hundred or thousand, the audience is often extremely influential.

This month the company will announce a deal to provide a leading advertising agency with its own internet television channel to showcase its creative work. ‘"There is no reason why a client company or PR agency cannot build a station and use it as a new-business tool or to promote its work," says Beaumont.

One PR agency that has worked with a client to set up an internet television service is Exposure. It helped Land Rover launch Go Beyond TV, which is accessed via its website. There are six themed channels and four hours of fresh lifestyle content is added each month, mainly bought from third-party broadcasters such as the Discovery Channel.

Exposure joint managing director Raoul Shah says it is increasingly difficult for brands and products to define themselves in a fragmented broadcast media market. He claims outlets such as Land Rover's Go Beyond can work if the content has enough editorial merit for viewers to make repeat visits.

"This is not a television station all about cars but about the lifestyle and people who make up the brand. It aims to bring to life what "going beyond" and "adventure" means to different people," he says. "I am sure we will see more brands establishing editorial comms channels beyond their usual website home pages."

However, Hotwire PR head of consumer Paul Naphtali believes clients should be spending their time and money producing quality content for existing channels rather than trying to be web broadcasters.

Hotwire regularly provides spokespeople for TelecomsTV, which has been around since 2001 and has built up credibility within the telecommunications industry. Its partners include business television channel CNBC, and Hotwire's telecoms team now considers TelecomsTV one of its top ten media targets. "Clients must make maximum use of the content they already have and PROs should be discovering what the many specialist broadband channels need and want," says Naphtali.

"Having third-party endorsement is better than having your own channel, which may come across as too much of an advertorial."

He adds that PR people must view broadband television as a specialist communication channel in the same way they might consider industry and community blogs as bespoke outlets. "This is a whole new market for PROs and one which does require special attention," he says.

PR people who do not want to create content themselves can use an editorial agency in the same way they might do when targeting radio. Radio Lynx launched an online video service at the end of June. The firm will distribute content to websites and broadband television channels to coincide with a client's PR campaign.

Director Steve Leavesley says web television is an effective and creative way to reach a targeted audience through an online outlet that many people will visit every day.

"My fear about clients doing it themselves is that few brands have the ability to produce consistently strong content. This is not like radio which is a logical brand extension and where you can fill spare airtime with music," he says. "If you invest in broadband television but don't invest in the content you could be left with an expensive marketing white elephant."

Elsewhere, digital television specialist etv works with broadcasters and brands to produce content for television, broadband websites, mobile, video on demand and IPTV. CEO Mark Cullen believes IPTV will become the main distribution platform, and brands need to get involved now.

Corporate link-ups
The company has a strategic alliance with BT and is currently running an IPTV trial with Thomas Cook, using 23,000 hours of content from Thomas Cook TV, which broadcasts on Sky Digital. "There are big opportunities here for brands and their PR companies because entry costs to set up an IPTV channel are relatively low. This is the way a lot of television content will be delivered in the future because it bypasses the big broadcasters, which have traditionally been the content gatekeepers," says Cullen.

He believes the companies that will flourish will be those that can put their content in the hands of their customers: "Brands need to enter into a dialogue and do this as cost-effectively as they can, either via broadband television or mobile phones."

This is the bottom line. Clients need to convey their message to as tightly targeted an audience as possible, but in a credible, engaging and low-cost way. This is something they can achieve with broadband television, either as a content provider or a channel owner.

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