Three Screens, One Question: How Will Audiences Consume Content In The New World

Any physicist will tell you energy can neither be created nor destroyed; just changed from one form to another. Much the same can be said these days about television viewing.

Life used to be so simple - one screen, three national broadcast networks and a handful of local TV stations in every market. What's more, all stations "signed off" sometime after midnight, leaving insomniacs with nothing to watch until morning but the once iconic test pattern. Then along came cable, considerably expanding both the choice of channels and the time available to view them.

Television programming has since migrated online and across a variety of mobile devices, while an array of newer technologies, showcased at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, promise to deliver all sorts of Internet content to digital TV sets anywhere in the home.

Indeed, television now operates 24/7, the maximum allowed by the laws of science. And in an increasingly global and fragmented media marketplace, it is highly unlikely such time will be reduced. How then will consumers continue to change their viewing experiences? As academically interesting as the question is, for all segments of the industry, getting the answer right will separate winners from losers.



Although the amount of TV fare currently streamed online remains small - and appears to have made no real dent in conventional television viewing - it is growing fast. In fact, Nielsen's latest "Three Screen" report shows that video consumption across all three screens (TV, PC and mobile) is up compared to last year - with TV reaching an all-time high of 151 hours a month. But what happens if the Internet competes more aggressively for television viewers? Will online advertising become more valuable to all concerned?

For broadcast networks, online ads may present new revenue opportunities - even with smaller audiences online - given the ability to better target advertising and, thus, charge higher CPMs. Right now the theory is being tested at Hulu, which in less than a year has become the second-largest video service on the web, according to Nielsen Online, and is delivering ads on 80% of its streams.

Cable networks, on the other hand, may have a higher bar to clear. They have two revenue streams - advertising and subscription fees from carriers like MSOs, satellite companies and telcos. So the break-even point is greater. Nonetheless, several cable programmers, including Time Warner and Viacom, are exploring new ways to make their content available online that will closely replicate their current revenue model.

Adding to the uncertainty, however, is the challenge posed by "all you can eat" Internet access pricing. Since significant increases in streaming video will put a lot more stress on current bandwidth, networks may be looking at a reduction in revenues just as online costs for content distribution go up. This is the basis for accusations that some cable internet service providers are intentionally slowing delivery of content to high bandwidth users.

Still, most consumers know or care little about bandwidth issues and business models. For them, it is the viewing experience that counts, and they will continue to go to the 'best available screen' for content. At home, big plasma wins. On the road, the laptop often is the screen of choice. And when literally on the move, they go mobile.

What is more, Nielsen data shows that most people prefer the same source of programming, no matter what the medium. In other words, fans of CNN on cable are most likely to visit That is why content providers must continue to make it as painless as possible for loyal viewers to get their content when and where they want it.

Yet that is the easy part. Altering the underlying economics to accommodate change is a lot more problematical.

For example, the aggregate cost of getting access to information across the three screens can be as much as $100 a month or more. But there are inefficiencies associated with each individual service that will have to be addressed:

* Because cable TV subscribers pay for channels they don't necessarily watch - and prices go up as more content becomes available - some may eventually decide to cut the cord and move to the Internet. As a result, deals between cable operators and content producers will need to shift to payments based on viewing rather than carriage. In that case, cable operators might sell more (or all) ad inventory, or cable networks may pay a percentage of their ad dollars to operators.

* Internet users who regularly stream or download huge files generally pay the same monthly fee as those who check emails once or twice a day, and perhaps visit a few web sites. Clearly, the former costs an ISP much more than the latter. If distribution costs continue to decrease, the point is pretty much moot. But if and when the cost line rises higher and faster than that of revenues, the industry may need to consider selling the internet access in "bands" or "tiers."

* While providing streaming video or TV on mobile phones is still in relative infancy, most companies are already charging an extra monthly fee for delivering such content. Adaptation by consumers and further advances in technology will drive any changes in the business model.

Just as the transfer of energy from one place to another can produce new forms of power, shifts in consumer activity across the three screens will generate new opportunities. The challenge in both instances is to find the most effective ways to harness them.

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