Ezra Eeman (EBU) about how public service broadcasters can stay relevant
In part 4 of his ‘Content Crash’ series of articles, Ezra Eeman throws an interesting light on how Public Service Media can stay relevant amid fierce competition. Ezra Eeman is well placed to see the broad picture as Head of Digital, Transformation and Platforms at the EBU, the alliance of public service media organizations in Europe and beyond. He states among other things that PSM need to stop thinking Linear. They need to transform so that audiences start seeing them as true digital destinations. We called him with a burning question on our minds:
Are you saying that Linear is dead?
E.E.: “Linear is still very much alive, very dominant even in some European countries. In Italy, for instance, 90% of viewing is still linear. But there is a shift happening and you have to be prepared, otherwise you will be caught by surprise when the balance tilts over.
Digital viewing has increased enormously over the last few years, and not only among the young. In Sweden 70% of the 15 to 74 year old consume streamed content on a daily basis. Before long, people won’t even know whether the programme they are watching is on a linear or on-demand schedule. In the new connected TV environment with hybrid menus, the distinction is blurring fast and becoming irrelevant for the viewer.”
But live broadcasting is very much alive …
E.E.: “The only big differentiator is indeed whether a programme is live or not. News, sports and big events that happen in the now will always draw us in droves to the TV set. But for anything else, why would you go sit in front of the television at a dedicated time when you can actually watch it at your own convenience? I think that logic is out the window.”
You might wonder why PSM haven’t been quicker in massively putting their public service content online, for everyone to see for free.
E.E.: “If you mean putting it on YouTube, for instance, well, that won’t work. Maybe a fiction series or a comedy series will float up. The rest will remain invisible. It isn’t necessarily in the public’s interest to make public service content available in environments that are governed by commercial algorithms. These algorithms boost the content that has the highest engagement and will generate the most ad revenue. I reckon a great deal of public service content would not even surface that way.”
You’re saying public service broadcasters should go DTC and focus on developing their own platforms?
E.E.: “In your own platform environment, you have much more control over what you are offering, how you are offering it, and how people can discover it. That is really crucial, otherwise you are just a content provider. PSM are far more than that. We can learn a lot from third-party platforms, but just putting content on third-party platforms is not the answer.”
But how to compete with the giant streaming platforms?
E.E.: “First of all, PSM should ensure that their platforms are open, accessible, user-friendly and allow people to discover things and share things. You have to meet the high expectations of convenience that people now have of digital platforms. If it takes more steps to access your content you make it harder for people to engage with you.
“You need more lenses to look at your audience.”
Look at how granular the categories of Netflix are and how they can tailor their content to you and give you collections that you might be interested in. That is exponential compared with what we’re currently doing. It requires the ability to tag your content in a richer way. But in order to have meaningful tags you also have to understand your audience better and match your tags with these insights. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Traditional demographics won’t do any more. You need more lenses to look at your audience.”
But where can PSM make a difference?
E.E.: “Operational excellence is not where we will outgun the competition. Ultimately it will be about what we are offering, whether it is more locally relevant than what the others out there are offering.”
Meanwhile, Netflix is investing in localized content …
E.E.: “Yes, but that is still marginal in their catalogue. The giant streaming platforms will never be able to produce something that is as local, as relevant, as grounded and connected to society as what PSM can do.
“Relevance starts with proximity to your audiences.”
Relevance starts with proximity to your audiences. Proximity is not necessarily about having the most data about audiences and content consumption. It is first of all about local connection and being audience-centric in your company culture, processes and workflows. This is less of an investment with money, more of an investment in focus, in strategy. You are no longer in an ivory tower deciding what people will watch. You need to focus on interactions and feedback loops with your audience.”
But proximity does imply investments in data capabilities?
E.E.: “The PSM are sitting on a lot of data, but they are not really clear on what to do with it. It is true that they will need to grow their data capabilities. There is no way around it, even if they will never be able to compete with the giant streaming platforms. The complete annual budget of a PSM cannot compare with the amounts Netflix is investing in technology. So, again, this requires focus. If you want to grow in data you might have to scale back other things. That could be the huge-scale production capabilities for big outdoor events. Are there smarter ways to cover these events? Is AI opening the door to more agile production methods? These are the questions we should ask ourselves.
Apart from that, the EBU also shows that together, you can tackle technology at a lower cost. Our recommendation engine is a case in point.”
“There is nothing fuzzy about the value of public service content.”
How can you define and measure the value of public service content?
E.E.: “I could talk all day about the value of PSM content and how it is measured, because there is a broader framework which we call ‘contribution to society’. You can look at all the normal metrics, such as reach, view times, quality of experience, engagement, and so on, but for PSM many more things enter into the equation. The economic value for the local media landscape, for instance. PSM often are the engine driving the local production landscape because they commission a lot of content. They boost the local media ecosystem. There is also a democratic value in that they ensure that important topics are being discussed in an open way. Overall satisfaction, diversity, inclusion … it’s all being measured. The innovation value as well. A lot of PSM have departments that fuel innovation in this industry. So you need to measure the broader impact. And there is nothing fuzzy about it. Just have a look at the annual report of any PSM and you will see that they have to report on clearly defined metrics, be they a bit more nuanced than commercial metrics. This is not just about shareholder revenue.”
To what extent are public service broadcasters already thinking digital-first?
E.E.: “The EBU has 115 member organizations and the extent to which they already have gone digital varies widely. There is still a lot of linear thinking, but some are really on top of the digital game, and even ahead of the market. Take NRK, the Norwegian public service broadcaster. As early as 2015 they launched Skam — shame in English — a web series about the daily lives of teenagers at a gymnasium in Oslo. NRK knew that the first thing schoolkids do after school, is check their mobiles. So at 4 o’clock they would publish a new snippet on their website showing what the Skam characters were up to at the same time of day. And in the evening the teens could watch a summary on the NRK website. These digital bread crumbs were also dropped on social, with the aim to draw the viewers back to the NRK platform.
The Skam format was bought by Facebook, by the way, which goes to show that even the Tech Giants know what kind of creativity sits with public service broadcasters.”
Should PSM use social media primarily to drive traffic to their own platform?
E.E.: “In my experience, as soon as you put content on social media you need to consider the implications. The fact is that on social, people can watch your content without any connection with your brand and your platforms. That makes it very hard to build a direct relationship. It is better to use social as a marketing tool. And you have to experiment. Some social platforms, such as TikTok, are so specific you really need to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Public service broadcasters in the Nordics, Germany, Switzerland and France are now much more active with native formats on social platforms. But never as a core business. Their aim is to maintain a presence on social and create awareness. They use it to reach out to certain audiences and communities that wouldn’t otherwise come to their platform, and through the social platforms they create a journey for these viewers to their own destinations.”
How well are PSM coping with the complexity of the multiplatform world? Getting the right content in the right format on the right platform at the right time?
E.E.: “A lot of these things happen organically, especially on social media. Every programme maker wants their own social channel. They start making content for it and create their own individual workflow. What is often lacking is a holistic view on how they should produce and distribute content for these platforms. This implies rethinking your architecture, processes and workflows. Focusing it all into a unified approach that makes sense, eliminates repetition of the same steps across the company, and enables you to go from one output to another much quicker.
So there is still a lot of potential and opportunity for improvement. That has to do with tooling, but also to a great degree with strategy — making clear what you want to produce for which platforms and be selective. You need to choose the platforms where you can make a difference and have a clear view on what you want to achieve there. You choose this platform for reason A, that platform for reason B, another one for reason C. That is how we roll. Otherwise it’s all too fragmented. There is an end to resources and production capacity.”
PSM have combined forces with commercial broadcasters on joint platforms such as Britbox in the UK and Salto in France. Some might say that is putting public-funded content behind a paywall …
E.E.: “Remember that PSM have to weigh two basic objectives: making sure that society at large has access to their content and services, and at the same time supporting the local media ecosystem. How to balance that? It is not a black or white choice. You can definitely find ways to do both with a balanced and nuanced approach. You can, for instance, first offer your content in preview behind a paywall to support the local media ecosystem. And after some time you can make it available to all for fee. With this kind of windowing strategy you can meet both ends in a clever way.”
“This isn’t a local competition anymore.”
The fact that there isn’t a level playing field for PSM and commercial broadcasters, doesn’t that put a strain on their cooperation?
E.E.: “Let’s be realistic. This isn’t a local competition anymore. We have to collaborate and coexist locally with each other and keep in mind that the real competition comes from elsewhere. The ad market is dominated by Google and Facebook, the subscription market by Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple One and other giants that are entering our markets. The kind of revenue that we might take from each other is peanuts compared to what these giants are taking away.
If you want to function in the market you also have to live by the market mechanisms. And it’s good that there is a discussion about hybrid financing and restrictive legislation. We need to discuss these things among ourselves, let politicians weigh in and think about what is the best strategy for our local media ecosystem to survive. That might require more clever ways of collaboration across media. When the house is on fire you need to work together to save it.
In the meantime, the EBU wants to make sure, for instance, that the giants are not walking away with all our data with nothing in return. A clear set of recommendations have been developed on the European level to come to a balanced competitive field.”
Why don’t we see a common platform for European PSM?
E.E.: “On top of a lot of collaboration under the waterline — co-productions, exchange of content, common technology approaches … — there are also collaborations above the fold. Take TV5Monde, an initiative by the French speaking public service broadcasters France Télévisions in France, RTBF in Belgium, RTS in Switzerland, Radio-Canada and TVA in Canada. They launched a joint public service streaming platform offering all their French-spoken content.
But I am not convinced that some kind of European PSM-flix would be a solution. First of all, a standalone new brand would directly add another competitor in the local market. You would just insert another layer of friction, and add a lot of new development costs as well as marketing costs because it is an unknown brand.”
What’s the alternative?
E.E.: “There are more clever and subtle ways to leverage what’s available. Some broadcasters are simply integrating catalogues without creating a new brand. Arte is doing this with their European collection. They offer a part of their catalogue as a kind of European catalogue in the players of the individual participating broadcasters (RTBF, France Télévisions, ARD, and ZDF). This way content travels in new ways.
We are looking if we can expand that into more territories but that’s under discussion. Maybe we can open each other’s news to each other, to offer a collection of European news videos. These ideas are currently floating around and I certainly see more of these examples happening in the future.”
Are you not afraid to lose the older generation, your most loyal viewers?
E.E.: “It’s a misconception that you will lose your older audience just because you’re going digital. Even the elderly are watching digital. Suddenly their new TV is a connected TV and they discover that if they press a button they have access to appealing content. So that is not our biggest challenge. Yes, we have to bring them along into the digital media landscape, but we also have to keep the next generation in mind. If we don’t connect with the young now, they will not connect with us later.
The key question is: Who are we serving? Aren’t we underserving certain audiences? And aren’t we overserving the bracket of the 35 to 65 year old, white, highly educated persons? We have to look at our portfolio and say: a little less of this and a bit more of that, to find and keep the balance.”
What should a balanced PSM content portfolio consist of?
E.E.: “As a PSM you cannot chase every click and eyeball. That would be detrimental to the brand. The PSM values should always be your starting point: universality, independence, excellence, diversity, accountability and innovation. These values don’t limit us. On the contrary, they are quality brands and they also resonate with the young. These values allow us to make a broad spectrum of creative , innovative formats and services that are relevant for a broad population.
“We’re not there to just bring the news.”
Should PSM invest in entertainment at all?
E.E.: “We are not there to just bring the news. News is a core product, and it should always be maintained as a key strength of a PSM because that is where we gain our trust. But entertainment is also important, to introduce those values and be inclusive, to raise democratic awareness, to be proud of our local heritage, to showcase local talent, foster a sense of community, … That is something you do with entertainment and sports, not so much with documentaries and news. Take The Voice. This format does very well on commercial channels but is also broadcasted by some public broadcasters, because these shows are very low-threshold, inclusive and are about local talent. Entertainment is at the core of PSM as long as it is value-based.”
Thank you, Ezra.
About Ezra Eeman
Ezra Eeman is the Head of Digital, Transformation and Platforms at the EBU, the European Broadcasting Union, the leading association of Public Service Media in Europe. In his job he is responsible for leading all EBU activities related to the digital distribution, promotion, and access to content of Public Broadcasters, across all media and on all devices and platforms. Previously he was the head of VRT Start-Up, a digital innovation lab at the Flemish public broadcast company VRT. In 2012, Ezra Eeman received a Fulbright scholarship to investigate the changing media landscape at the City University of New York. There he specialized in the latest technologies, platforms, and storytelling formats for news.