OPINION: Broadcasters must attempt to foresee change in the industry

Trying to predict the future is a complete mug's game. The completely unexpected nearly always dominates and a successful prediction is likely to have been a matter of chance. Simple extrapolation from where we are now rarely works either.

But how about scenario analysis? Channel 4 must be hoping this week that scenario analysis won't suddenly become all the rage. In three out of four scenarios designed to give us an insight into the broadcasting world of 2012, C4 came out very badly.

Around 30 movers and shakers of the broadcasting world, brought together by the Bournemouth Media School and the Independent Television Commission, sat down to consider four very different media scenarios. In one, the world went entirely digital. In another, a significant number of consumers remained loyal to major networks. In a third there was a major shift from TV to broadband. In the final view, UK TV was dominated by global players.

As Roger Laughton, head of the Bournemouth Media School pointed out last week, more effort has to be made to try to anticipate change.

Laughton is careful to point out that scenario analysis does not claim to be able to predict the future. It's more a case of saying that if one thing happens, these are likely to be the consequences, and the scenarios have to be internally consistent.

There was certainly a considerable degree of consistency in the outcomes.

C4 is either privatised and gobbled up by a global player or is a basket case and has to be supported by a slice of licence fee. The only path to continuing independence lies via the internet.

Equally consistently, the scenario thinkers believe the BBC will remain powerful, although there is a longer-term threat to the licence fee from a move to digital and there is also a possibility it will only survive as 'an intelligent guide' to the broadband world.

Any tool that gets the broadcasting industry thinking in an orderly way about the future is to be welcomed. Prediction may be near impossible, but sleep walking into the future is not to be recommended either.

There is an obvious problem with scenario analysis. First there is the choice of initial propositions, a form of prediction in itself. By choosing four, there is shall we say, a certain hedging of bets. The need to create clear, differentiated cases for discussion leads to extreme propositions.

This is turn leads to extreme and unlikely outcomes such as the privatisation of C4.

That said, the most likely scenario for a decade's time is that analogue switch-off will not have happened and that broadband will be less than universal. In turn this means that the existing networks will command great, though reduced loyalty, and that the population will still be in various stages of adapting to a patchwork of technologies, some of them scarcely on today's horizon.

Of course that is not a prediction - which would be a foolish thing to do.

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