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Channel 4's David Abraham eyes 'connected' decade

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Channel 4's 4oD relaunch screenshot

© Channel 4

Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham has said that the next decade will be all about getting "connected" with viewers, as broadcasters search for ways to turn convergence into cash.

Speaking at this weekend's MediaGuardian International Television Festival, Abraham said that the last ten years were about broadcasters "dealing with the fragmentation" of the digital multi-channels, video on-demand and personal video recorders.

But he now feels that the supposed "death of the TV" has proved a misnomer, as linear viewing has grown to record levels and most on-demand consumption is for catching up on the live TV schedule.

Abraham said that the next 10 years will be about making more "connections" with viewers around programming, utilising the possibilities of social media, digital platforms and rich audience data.

He said that the goal is getting more "connected" with viewers, pointing to the recent series of Embarrassing Bodies, which used Skype for a remote diagnosis of medical problems, resulting in 300,000 to 400,000 people using the Microsoft-owned IP telephony service to contact the show.

For The Inbetweeners Movie premiere, Channel 4 asked a fan of the E4 show to produce red carpet reports for streaming online. Then there was The Million Pound Drop, which has won awards and plaudits for its accompanying online game enabling viewers to play along and engage.

Abraham was speaking at a session discussing one of the hot topics at this year's festival - convergence. Broadcasters are increasingly courting social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to gain new revenue streams around TV shows.

The esteemed panel also included Christian Hernandez, the head of international business development at social networking giant Facebook, culture minister Ed Vaizey and Fru Hazlitt, ITV's managing director of commercial and online.

Hazlitt said that people like to share programming experiences, usually the big live moments such as The X Factor final, and now they can follow the conversation in more ways than ever via social networks and forums.

However, she said the "biggest threat" in the converged world "is to assume consumers will just take what you give them", meaning there has to be intelligence in the way ideas are delivered.

Hazlitt said that UK broadcasters have failed to fully bring together the traditional and digital strains of their business, whereas companies in the US have embraced digital convergence, meaning subscription entertainment firm Netflix is now able to compete alongside the cable TV giants.

She said that it is vital for broadcasters to "create a format relationship that goes way beyond the legacy", which means bringing together the commercial, the digital and the social to create campaigns that strike a chord with viewers.

But the biggest hurdle facing broadcasters is how to turn the growing trend for convergence into hard cash, and Hazlitt admitted that it is still unclear "just what content people are willing to pay for," including micro-payment transactions for video on-demand content and mobile applications for hit shows. Broadcasters have instead made more progress in securing sponsorship deals that tap into the converged world.

ITV plans to launch a multiplatform promotion for new gameshow Red Or Black involving a play-along game on the Jackpot Joy website that is designed to increase integration with the show, while also featuring Red Or Black sponsor Domino's.

The commercial broadcaster recently ran a campaign with Argos for soap opera Emmerdale, in which the drama featured a particular item available in the Argos catalogue. Argos then ran adverts asking viewers to find the item in their catalogue and enter online to win £10,000 worth of credit at the store. Hazlitt said that she never thought anyone would enter, but 40,000 people did, showing the potential reach of campaigns such as these.

The recent series of Britain's Got Talent also featured a tie-in with Marks & Spencer, involving parents sending in videos of their gifted youngsters to appear in a new ad campaign for the retail chain.

Facebook's Christian Hernandez said that the social network is increasingly becoming a platform to bring together TV shows and brands. He said that during Champions League games there was an upsurge in 'Likes' on the Facebook page of sponsor Heineken.

Endemol has introduced social voting with broadcaster RTL for the series of Big Brother in Germany, involving fans purchasing Facebook Credits to vote on the eliminations (with Facebook taking 30% and the content owner getting the remainder).

Hernandez said that 10% of the voting on the show now comes through Facebook, suggesting a growing demand and potential revenue stream from 'social voting' on popular programmes.

Discussing future developers in the TV industry, Ed Vaizey said that it is "not the government's job to predict shifts or trends", but what it can do is "give more freedom to those who do".

He said that the proposed new Communications Bill will include measures to free up some of the regulation around the industry, but admitted that the government is "stuck in an analogue world trying to push forward legislation in a world that is changing week by week".

Abraham said that one area where regulation should be changed is in the access to data on the viewing habits of consumers.

The Channel 4 chief executive has set aside a multi-million pound investment fund for compiling a database that can "defend the power of TV" against the threat of the internet and other competing entertainment sources.

Abraham, who joined the broadcaster last year from UKTV, also repeated calls for platform holders, such as Sky - who put free-to-air content behind paywalls - to make their viewing data more widely available.

In a recent Royal Television Society speech, Abraham expressed concern that pay-TV firms could be gaining commercial benefit from the audience data drawn from content that is free-to-air, or even public funded, rather than sharing the information with other broadcasters.

Vaizey said that the government is willing to "talk about" the issue, while media regulator Ofcom is also said to be monitoring the situation.

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