Broadcasters gathered in Cambridge more optimistic

CAMBRIDGE, England — European broadcasters have learned to rub along with the Internet rather than to fear it outright.

That was the prevailing mood at the U.K.’s most prestigious TV talking shop, the three-day biannual Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention that wrapped Friday.

Around 500 delegates talked, wined and dined at King’s College, Cambridge, not far from Blighty’s answer to Silicon Valley.

The TV toppers — all the heads of the U.K. webs, with the exception of Channel 5, plus RTL Group CEO Gerhard Zeiler — discussed how to profit from Internet-enabled TV.

The talking shop and its upbeat title, TV Everywhere — Paths to Growth, provided a marked contrast to this elite gathering’s last session, in 2009, when the proceedings were entitled Riding Out the Storm and the atmosphere was distinctly downbeat.

“Then everyone thought the Internet was going to kill TV,” recalled Simon Terrington, who runs U.K. media consultancy Terrington and Co. “Now people are more or less sanguine about it and realize that TV and the Web can coexist.”

As stressed by the confab’s international keynote speaker, Discovery Communications prexy-CEO David Zaslav, research suggests that auds on both sides of the Atlantic are spending more time in front of the TV. “More and more people are watching TV, and they’re watching it for longer,” he said.

But Zaslav admitted that broadcasters have to tread cautiously before making deals with technology behemoths like Google and Apple.

“We need to be careful. We can’t just take the biggest check,” warned Zaslav.

Protecting Discovery’s channel brand was key, as connected platforms continued to raise the stakes, he said.

This point was echoed by Zeiler, who was upbeat regarding the prospects for TV advertising across continental Europe but skeptical about the impact connected TV would have on his business.

The boss of the pan-Europe broadcast group insisted that his webs in Germany and France would sign deals with aggregators, such as Hulu, only if two criteria were met — his networks get to keep the ad coin and RTL’s channel brands remain at the fore.

Selling programs piecemeal to services like Google TV, due to bow in Europe next year, is asking for trouble and a reduced share of ad revenue, he said.

Martin Sorrell, head of international advertising powerhouse WPP, flew in by private jet from China. He suggested the free-to-air networks had more to fear from Google than they realized. “Google is not a technology company; it is a media owner,” Sorrell warned.

In a converging era he said that the TV industry was “much more vulnerable” than advertising agencies.

“Free-to-air TV is as narrowly balanced as newspapers,” Sorrell said. “The industry probably won’t suffer as much because the whole process of felling trees and using newsprint is inefficient. But free-to-air TV is very narrowly based.”

Free-to-air TV is a legacy business led by execs who are “entrenched, conservative and want to protect it,” he added. “We are terrified because we have something to lose.”

The clear message was that all TV operators needed to have a viable pay strategy because in the age of the Internet there is “not enough advertising to go round.”

The next RTS Cambridge Convention will be held in 2013. By then broadcasters will have a much clearer idea of whether Sorrell is right — and if their strategy of coexistence with the online giants has boosted their profits and power or put them on the back foot.

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