From text to TV: the all-day update

Broadcasters have always given away their news for free, so it's perhaps no surprise the idea of digital media funded almost entirely by advertising revenue doesn't provoke the same sort of anxiety in ITN On managing director Nicholas Wheeler as it does in some newspaper executives.

The freshly rebranded multimedia department that Wheeler heads produces the websites for ITV News and Channel 4 News, mobile video for Channel 4 News and the new Channel 4 Radio podcasts. It also produces an ITN-branded news and weather channel for 3G for mobile phones.

"The user paying — I don't think that's a sustainable model, even in mobile," says Wheeler.

"At the moment, people are happy to pay for content on the move anywhere, anytime because that is a genuinely new thing.

"It certainly won't work for material delivered on the internet. Free has become the norm — the availability of free content from the BBC reinforces that."

Some online news sites are attempting to create subscription-supported online video services. CNN's Pipeline, for example, charges $2.95 per month for ad-free live streaming video. But Wheeler is sceptical. Subscription and micro-payment schemes that have worked for music, entertainment video and other types of online content are less likely to be realised for news, he says.

"If you are asked on the web to pay £4.99 to download a music video which would cost you £6.99 in the shops, that sort of works. In a news world where I can watch the news on TV for free or can look at it on a website where I have to pay for it — that isn't going to work. I think you can use news content to draw people to a site, and then there's the potential to offer them other things, either paid for or not."

Instead, Wheeler is confident about advertisersupported video on new platforms. "Online advertising is increasing at a good rate; advertising on television is struggling, therefore should there not be a coming together? Advertising pays for commercial news now, why shouldn't it in the future?

"I think there's no doubt that news can offer a premium to advertisers. It certainly does in the radio world," he adds. "You've got an audience that is paying attention, because you can't just let the news waft over you like you would a music show."

Since the department was set up in 2003 with six people, the team has grown to 35. The £100m contract that ITN agreed earlier this year to provide Channel 4 News for the next five years includes 20 new jobs, nine for online.

ITN On is profitable, even though one key platform — mobile video — is hardly a mass-market product yet.

"You're aiming for those six million 3G phones out of 64 million SIM cards. There are more active SIMs in the UK than there are people, and of them, less than 10 per cent are 3G phones. So that market has yet to grow. It is growing, and by the end of the year, we're probably looking at 10 million 3G phones.

That's a substantial market."

Rooney watching Using the major news story on the day we meet — the state of Wayne Rooney's metatarsal — Wheeler illustrates how consumers in the near future would follow the story across a variety of media over the course of a day.

"We'll probably get to the stage where the first you hear about a story will be an SMS alert: ‘Wayne Rooney's foot is fixed.' That is the quickest way of communicating with a large number of people.

"You've then got MMS — that will probably be the first video of Rooney leaving hospital. You go to your PC and you can consume larger bits of video, giving a broader part of the story. And then you can sit at your home monitor — currently called television — and watch the whole game of football.

"By the time you get to the lunchtime news, you have got to deliver something different. By the time you get to the evening news, you have to deliver something different still. By the time you get to your newspaper the next day, that isn't the story any more.

"It all ties together, delivering the right content to the right people wherever they are, making sure we meet the users' demands wherever they are in their daily life. They don't want SMS alerts when they're at home watching their 35-inch plasma at night."

How this market develops over the next decade may be determined above all by the digital ambitions of that other broadcast heavyweight.

"We've made no secret about our concern about how the BBC position themselves in this new environment, because they have enormous resources," says Wheeler.

"It's going to be very important for them to make sure that they go through their public value tests before they put anything out to the consumer."

But there are other sources of competition, too.

Newspapers are offering similar services to those being developed by ITN's client broadcasters. The Times recently announced an online video news service.

"When we started in 1955, it was simple: [there was just] the BBC and ITN. How gentle life was. It's a different ballgame today," he laughs.

"Once journalists wake up to that they'll realise how powerful they really are. If we write good stories, film good stories, talk good stories, then people will want it.

If we don't they'll go to something else that is better."

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