Digital Television: New TV will give PR a commercial break - When the new digital television channels come on-air there will be greater opportunities for PR but the editorial content of programmes will have to be monitored to ensure quality

British Digital Broadcasting, the company owned by Carlton and Granada, will begin transmitting digital terrestrial television next year. It is an event which, if BDB and Carlton chairman Michael Green are to be believed, is as momentous for TV as the switch from black and white to colour viewing.

British Digital Broadcasting, the company owned by Carlton and

Granada, will begin transmitting digital terrestrial television next

year. It is an event which, if BDB and Carlton chairman Michael Green

are to be believed, is as momentous for TV as the switch from black and

white to colour viewing.



BDB will be able to broadcast at least 15 channels, and as such will be

the trailblazer in digital TV. As well as the predictable offerings of

wall-to-wall films and continuous sport, there will be separate channels

supplied by a BBC/Flextech joint venture. These will be devoted to

factual programming, leisure/ lifestyle, contemporary music and classic

BBC entertainment and drama shows. Viewers will need a set-top box to

watch the new channels.



Aside from improved picture quality, digital TV offers the public the

chance to use interactive services such as home shopping and

banking.



But what will its arrival mean for the PR industry? Will digital be as

significant as Green has claimed?



’The digital revolution is the single most tangible development that

ought to galvanise the corporate world to get a broadcast strategy,’

says David Mannion, former editor of ITN’s programmes on ITV and a

consultant to broadcast PR services company Medialink. ’Britain is

leading the way in digital but it will spread across Europe like the

plague.’



’There will be a revolution in the way companies look at TV to get their

message across,’ says Countrywide Porter Novelli associate director Paul

Murricane, a former head of corporate affairs at STV.



’People will be able to surf like fury when an ad break comes and soon

they’ll be able to order up programmes on demand. They won’t order up

commercials on demand, which suggests that the editorial power of

programmes will become stronger,’ he adds.



It will take time for the impact of the new channels to be felt, but it

seems certain that digital will eventually shake-up the media

landscape.



More channels will be launched and - with heightened picture quality,

interactivity and possible future Internet access - more viewers will be

tempted into sampling those that reflect their interests.



The existing terrestrial channels, which will also be available on

digital, may find consumers to be more promiscuous in their viewing

habits than they had hoped. If this is the case, some of the new

channels will become important media for PR messages.



’Many of these channels won’t have huge budgets so they’ll be happier

and more responsive (than conventional terrestrial channels) to PR

people approaching them with fully packaged stories,’ argues Lynne

Franks broadcast consultant Sharon Hanley, who deals with TV stations

for clients such as Coca-Cola and London Fashion Week.



What remains to be seen is whether low budget programming will offer

value for money or simply unwatchable pap. One suspects, however, that

Granada and Carlton - both experienced ITV programme makers and

broadcasters - have too much savvy and too much credibility at risk to

allow BDB to degenerate into ridicule and failure.



This being so, the new channels - and the many more that will follow -

should not be dismissed lightly.



’We see three results from the advent of digital TV,’ says head of

production at TV consultants the London Bureau Julian Fisher. ’A greater

number of TV channels means we have more potential outlets for our

clients’ stories; increased demand for programming means new

opportunities for us to market our client and sponsored programming; and

we will use subject specific channels to focus in on special interest

audiences.’



Reaching these ’special interest’ audiences will require communicators

to develop more coherent broadcast PR strategies. With a few laudable

exceptions, consultancies and in-house communications departments have

historically been more comfortable dealing with the print media than

exploiting TV opportunities.



An executive at a VNR broadcast consultancy company damns the industry’s

deficiencies more bluntly: ’We built a business on the fact that most PR

companies don’t know anything about TV.’



Yet the signs are that the situation is changing. There is growing

evidence of consultancies building up their TV expertise. Tessa Curtis,

business correspondent BBC News and Current Affairs, is to join

Shandwick Consultants in September with a remit to expand its broadcast

PR services.



And six months ago TV journalist Sarah Schofield joined Dewe Rogerson

from ABC News as part of the consultancy’s move to offer clients

specialist knowledge in business TV channels.



As the potential impact of the digital dawn hits home expect more

consultancies and in-house departments to hire staff with broadcast

expertise. At the same time, those companies specialising in broadcast

PR services have good reason to be optimistic.



Anthony Hayward, chief executive of Bulletin International - which

incidentally produced the VNR for the BDB announcement - claims a

growing number of organisations are looking for strategic broadcast

guidance.



’What PR companies are going to have to do is stop thinking of how to

communicate in the written word and start thinking visually,’ says

Martin Loat, managing director of Propeller, a PR consultancy

specialising in media clients.



Perhaps in our multi-channel future, the most successful PR people will

be those able to bring the digitised corporate logos and spokespersons

of their clients onto our screens.



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