I know media fragmentation is an ancient topic by now but a couple of things have happened in the last few weeks that have shed new light on the benefits of fragmentation for me.
When the fragmentation apocalypse was first predicted it was always assumed to be ‘a bad thing’. The ability to reach millions of people simultaneously would be severely curtailed and the power of media channels to influence mass culture was considered to be over.
Nowhere was this more the case than for television. The explosion of channels since the beginning of the multichannel revolution in the early 1990s was the most compelling example of fragmentation, and the consistent fall in the headline ratings figures for the main channels and programmes had been seized on by many digitalistas as the beginning of the end for broadcast television. The fact that their predictions were far wide of the mark can perhaps be explained by the fact that they could only see the downside of fragmentation, whereas (as in many other cases of digital wishful thinking) the unforeseen benefits have become far greater than we could have possibly expected.
Two recent events have given me food for thought, especially in terms of how media channels can use fragmentation to attract viewing from traditionally hard to reach light viewing groups who would normally claim to watch very little ‘traditional’ TV.
The first of these occurred when I had the good fortune to be interviewed by Robert Elms on Radio London about my recently-published book on the future of television. Robert was sceptical of TV’s future, concerned that TV’s ‘golden age’ was well and truly over. He claimed that there weren’t the same array ‘stand-out’ programmes that you knew the whole nation would be watching and that he often struggled to find something to watch. He then let slip that he had been glued to Eurosport for the previous couple of weeks, watching the slow but dramatic progress of the Giro D’Italia. He had not even considered that to be TV viewing, but the benefits of fragmentation had meant a very light viewer had spent many hours watching TV to follow a passionate interest. How often would somebody like Robert Elms have spent hours and hours in front of a TV set in the pre-fragmentation days?
On the same day I gave that interview, I received an email about the Broadcast Digital Awards for 2013. Among the usual contenders for best specialist channel, in this case BBC Four, History Channel and Discovery sits one of the more niche broadcasters; Horse & Country Television.
Now, as one who assumes point-to-point is something to do with my fingers, I must admit that this channel had largely passed me by. But it has certainly contributed to the fragmentation process; a quarterly audience not far shy of 1 million viewers, with a core audience that is overwhelmingly female (92%), and/or horse lovers (96% ride and 71% own a horse!)
Like Robert Elms – actually very unlike him, which I guess is my point – this particular audience has a passion which fragmentation-era broadcast TV can now satisfy; which has quietly resulted in significantly increased hours of viewing from the most unlikely audiences. It may be the King of 80s Cool or the Barbour’s & Badminton set, but either way, fragmentation – for so long considered a bad word – may actually be bringing in the kinds of audiences who would normally say in research surveys “oh, I never watch the television set”!