The Channel: A thing from a distant past?

A star on Hollywood's walk of fame: The Simpsons suffered in Germany.

A star on Hollywood’s walk of fame: in the beginning, The Simpsons suffered in Germany.

It’s the year 1991. German pubcaster ZDF already feels the urge to rejuvenate its audience (nowadays, the average ZDF viewer is slightly above 60 years old. And no, 20 years ago, the average wasn’t 40+ …). Then, somebody in staid old Mainz discovered the fountain of youth. This young upstart network form the US, FOX, seemed to have some quirky new programming. Commercial competitor RTLplus had already bought 21 Jump Street, starring the young Johnny Depp. And now ZDF had secured the rights to – drum roll, please – The Simpsons.

Well Johnny Depp moved on to more lofty areas of entertainment, RTL lost its plus in the brand. Only The Simpsons are still corrupting yer family values as if it still were 1999.
The End.
Well, not really. The Simpsons are still on, and definitely a major success all over the globe. Including Germany. But not on the ZDF. They had to cancel the show after two seasons, because of fantastically abysmal ratings.

Since season 3, Pro 7 is airing the show. And yes, it’s a great success, thank you. What’s the difference? Compared to ZDF, Pro 7’s core audience is hardly weaned: in 2011, the average age of a viewer is 35 years. Blame it to Homer. Or, maybe, it’s a bit more complicated.

Average age of German TV audiences: channels do matter.

Average age of German TV audiences: channels do matter.

A channel is a lot of things. But for its audience, it’s a promise. If you choose a channel, you have some expectations on what you’ll watch.
It’s a brand.

What’s a Porsche 911? Autobahn tested, made for speed. A Prius? Suburban tree hugger’s delight. Starbucks: meeting place for future Prius-owners. Fox News: the anti-Prius-owner “news” network (or a fountain of truth, depending on your political preferences). And so on and so on.

If you turn on Nickelodeon, undersea adventures aren’t 90 minute documentaries on the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, but some quirky animations featuring a yellow tinted sponge named Bob. That’s what you expect, that’s what you get. That’s brand consistency.

Unfortunately, brands are finicky beasts. They have a massive influence on every consumer’s decisions. But they’re just a figment of your audience’s imagination, so your influence tends to be a bit indirect. Communications can nudge a brand’s perception into a maybe more desirable direction. But there’s no way to talk your brand into a 180° turn. Partial product changes do have some influence. But not always for the better (see: ZDF vs The Simpsons).

Turning off your core audience is only advisable, if your new and fresh target group really will find a new home with you. Think audience flow: if you had sandwiched Walker, Texas Ranger between two geriatric talk programs, your audience would probably have expected a show about an elderly American, roaming freely with his rollator through some open plains or such.

Now look at the environment the ZDF was offering The Simpsons. A ZDF trademark are the Mainzelmännchen, some kind of ghastly garden gnomes, which shared with The Simpsons just one thing: they both are animated.

Sandwiched between and interrupted by those figureheads of German bourgeois humor of the early 1960ies, The Simpsons died a very inglorious death, permanently assaulted by some more vocal members of the ZDF core constituency (read this, in German: Werner Glogauer on the end of Western civilizations A.K.A. the Simpsons family.)

Turning a brand is always difficult. And sometimes it works fabulously well. Look at Audi. They started like this: boring cars for boring people leading boring lives to be interrupted by boring tv commercials. To become the fav car of Iron Man took a bit more effort than some sport rims and a fast commercial. It just took several decades. And even if you follow the blueprint, success is not guaranteed. Just ask the Lincoln-people.

Now, let’s go back to The Simpsons. D.O.A. on ZDF, two decades of unbridled success on PRO 7. Same show. Same country. Just a different channel. What’s the take? Brands and channels did work – in 1991? Common knowledge (and probably Cisco) tries to convince us, that we do not have to care. The channel is a thing of the past. The future is algorithms. A stream of recommendations. There’s only one channel: the one you’re watching. We disintermediate TV. The program becomes the brand. The prosuming viewer becomes the program director (just without an expense account and no free trips to Hollywood or Cannes).

Or, is it? Let’s have a look at Youtube, A.K.A. The Future of Television As It Is Available Right Now™.

  1. There’s a stream of recommendations. Sure. Check.
  2. There a directly accessible programs, becoming their own brands. Think Gangnam Style. Check.
  3. There are so called channels, becoming their own brand, like Gangnam-inventor’s PSY. Uhmm, check?
  4. There are Multi Channel Networks (MCN), which aggregate channels. Now, what’s that?

Let’s skip 1 and 2. Let’s talk a bit about channels and MCN. A channel on Youtube is something like a cross breed between a TV show and and TV network. Usually, it’s creator centric, you can subscribe to it (which has some influence on your recommendations as well).

Like TV channels, Youtube channels are about program discovery. Every minute people upload something like a gazillion hours of video onto Youtube’s servers. Your channels are a trusted destination which help you to sort out this mess. It’s a brand, which channels (pun intended) your expectations.

Because a Youtube channel is a curated list of video, accessible non-linear on demand. Just like a TV channel is a curated list of video, which for technical reasons usually has been only available in a linear broadcasted stream.

Now what about Multi Channel Networks? Read this definition by Youtube:

Multi-Channel Networks (MCNs) are entities that affiliate with multiple YouTube channels, often to offer assistance in areas such as product, programming, funding, cross-promotion, partner management, digital rights management, monetization/sales, and/or audience development.

Let me repeat: … often to offer assistance in areas such as product, programming, funding, cross-promotion, partner management, digital rights management, monetization/sales, and/or audience development. Is there anything in there, which definitely does apply to what a TV network does today?

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