The revolution will be televised, but will we notice?

The great philosopher Homer Simpson once asked, in a tone of wonderment, how one little wire could bring so much pleasure. He was, of course, referring to cable television — “teacher, mother, secret lover” — and I’m certainly not going to disagree with him. Yet here in the Middle East the love affair between the viewer and the magic rectangle has always been a little stilted.

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  February 26, 2006

The revolution will be televised, but will we notice?|~||~||~|The great philosopher Homer Simpson once asked, in a tone of wonderment, how one little wire could bring so much pleasure. He was, of course, referring to cable television — “teacher, mother, secret lover” — and I’m certainly not going to disagree with him. Yet here in the Middle East the love affair between the viewer and the magic rectangle has always been a little stilted. For one thing, the programming is poor. Too often it’s a case of badly — and cheaply — made local offerings, combined with scraping-the-barrel internationally syndicated material. Then comes the scheduling — how can one possibly hope to build up viewers’ loyalty if they do not know when the programme is on because the schedule doesn’t get finalised until the last moment — and too late for the press to tell the consumer? Plus, the popular channels are greedy. And, although there have been recent improvements, it is not long since punters had to suffer 15-minute ad breaks. Fragmentation is yet another issue. Many satellite subscribers find themselves with hundreds of channels, yet almost nothing worth watching. And this region is among the worst in the world for that because unprofitable stations stay on air long after they should have been put out of their misery. Owner egos and political motivations are just two of the reasons why financially untenable stations remain with us. Then there’s the sheer unreliability. There are only so many times a consumer will watch a programme only to discover that the first half is shown twice while the second never gets screened at all. Which, you’ll be relieved to know, finally brings me to my point. It’s this: there’s a good chance that the new gizmo from Showtime is about to change TV viewing habits in the region. The market-changing potential of Showtime’s new Showbox digital video recorder is massive. A bit like the early days of SMS, it’s one of those pieces of technology that, until you try it, you can’t quite see why it is such a big deal. Yet in the UK, the equivalent piece of kit — badged there as Sky Plus — has given the country’s satellite operator an almost impregnable market position. Seven million paying households and climbing. The result has been far more committed consumers, spending far more time watching the services they subscribe to. So what’s so special about this box of tricks? For starters, it’s far easier to use than an old-fangled video recorder. Even an idiot like me is able to whizz through the electronic on-screen programme guide and pick out the programmes I want. Also, it’s simple to pause live telly if you want to make a cup of tea. But, most importantly, and this is the scary bit for advertisers, the viewer can easily fast forward through the ads. Just to repeat, because this is the important bit: they can fast forward through the ads. So why would Showtime be foolish enough to put in the hands of their customers something that would make them far less attractive to advertisers? The answer is that it drives subscriptions and makes the subscribers more loyal. In that situation, who needs advertisers? There are still hurdles before this changes the market. Showtime subscribers are in the minority, and even the attraction of this gizmo will not change that any time soon. Also, the available programming may not be compelling enough to create those committed subscribers. But most importantly, there’s simply good old incompetence. The people in charge of providing information for the electronic TV guide are the same ones who can’t even tell the local press. Different method, same bumbling seems the likely prospect. But if Showtime really does invest in marketing this kit to consumers, and in making the consumer experience work, then it has the potential to revolutionise the TV market. Who’d have thought that one little box could bring such mayhem?||**||

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