Sir Martin teaches the FT about TV

In the keynote interview at the FT Digital Media Conference last week (shelf wobblers and leaflets not allowed), the FT’s Global Media Editor, Matt Garrahan, asked Sir Martin Sorrell about whether TV viewing was declining. Sir Martin said no.

We gasped with joy. We rewound. Sir Martin said no again.

One more rewind and he was still saying no. I could have happily sat rewinding and watching Sir Martin say no all day but I had things to do.

Sir Martin explained how the issue with TV is that measurement has not caught up with changes in patterns of viewing. TV viewing is not declining. ‘Young people do watch TV,’ said Sir M, pointing out that they are embracing new ways to watch on other screens.

You can watch the relevant part of the FT interview here, about 12 minutes 20 seconds into film 26 (Keynote interview).

This is an important moment. Compared to global technology firms, the advertising industry has a paucity of globally recognised leaders and spokespeople; Sir Martin is pretty much the only game in town. This has usually meant that what he says gets attention. Sadly, his positive TV analysis hasn’t been widely reported (I suspect had he said the opposite we wouldn’t hear the end of it).

Oddly, given Sir Martin’s positivity, his interviewer, the FT’s Matt Garrahan, went on to make a short film called ’Death of the TV?’. If the film’s title sounds familiar it is because this is approximately the billionth time in the last 10 years that a journalist has asked that question. As with most headlines that ask a question the answer is no.

In the UK 98% of TV is watched on a TV set, 86% on the set in the living room, 88% is watched live and the majority is watched in company. ‘The’ TV is alive and well – mainly for watching TV but for other things too: gaming, some online video, radio…

A little less TV is being watched on TV sets, this is true. People have the flexibility to watch on other screens, which they love, and there are other nuanced reasons why it has dipped. But talk of death – of either the TV set or of TV content (the FT’s film conflates the two) – is ridiculous and ignores the facts.

Thinkbox is screen agnostic; watch telly however you like. Beam it from microwaves and mirrors and we’ll be happy. But we like facts and the fact is that humans are not going to jettison the live, shared experience on the highest quality screen. It is part of what makes us human, no matter what technology comes up with.

Displaying the balance of a two-legged table in a hurricane, the FT’s film featured spokespeople from Yahoo, Roku, Maker Studios and Storyful. Surely if you are going to question the TV industry it would be reasonable to let it answer, give its side – maybe even use some facts.

Maybe it’s because I’m in election mode, but the film feels like a party political broadcast for TV’s supposed rivals hidden behind the fig leaf of a question mark. It would be depressing if I wasn’t so overjoyed by Sir Martin.

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