Bill Gates told us 21 years ago that ‘content is king’ and for those of us in the content business, it was music to our ears.  But as we all know, lots has changed since then. 

It was 21 years ago, in 1996, that Google was invented, Dolly the sheep was cloned and the Spice Girls had the biggest selling song of the year with ‘Wannabe’.

Bill Gates went on to say “One of the exciting things about the Internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create.”  And yes, that was true to an extent, but with video, things weren’t quite that easy! 

It’s only in the last few years that broadband has become reasonably ubiquitous and that streaming high quality video is now a reality. (It certainly wasn’t in 1996 and as many people living and working in rural communities know, it’s still not always possible.)

Audience fragmentation

So surely content, finally, is king? Well no, sadly not. What we’ve seen is the fragmentation of media channels. Back in 1996 Sky, with 28 analogue channels was starting the digital TV revolution announcing that it would have 150 channels in 1997. Eight years later, in 2005, YouTube was launched. YouTube now has 15 billion visitors per month and 5 billion videos are watched every day. And with the massive growth of video on Facebook, getting your video seen is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

And yet many organisations make a great video, put it on YouTube and are surprised when no one watches it (apart from maybe family, friends and the people that made it!). What’s worse, is that the organisation then announces, with the evidence to prove it, that video doesn’t work. (Trust me, I’ve seen this more than once.)

The king is dead; long live the king?

The answer, of course, is to ensure that you have a developed distribution strategy. And unless you have a talking dog or acrobatic goldfish, that usually means creating a media budget. Go back 21 years and it’s like making a press or TV ad without having a media budget and being surprised that no one sees it.

Bill Gate’s article also said that “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.” That may or may not be true, but we are getting glimpses of it from the likes of Netflix and others. But one thing is for sure, without distribution, content will be mostly unseen and to me – and I say this with something approaching a heavy heart – will be king of a very small country. Of course, engaging content is incredibly important and something that those of us in the content business are passionate about, but without distribution, it’s a wasted opportunity. If content is still king, then maybe distribution is the heir apparent?

21 years on from Bill’s article, not everything has changed though; there’s a new Trainspotting film out!


Many years ago, TV ‘soaps’ sponsored by the washing powder manufacturers were innovators of product placement.  Actually, the first ‘soap’ was a radio series first broadcast in 1930; the first TV soaps didn’t appear until 1949!

Product Placement

Product placement in magazines started even earlier, at the very beginning of the 20th century. Fast forward a century and we find product placement is ubiquitous in film and on commercial television. Cheerios and Coca-Cola were in the film Evita, Aston Martins and then BMWs driven by James Bond and cash can be withdrawn from the Nationwide dispenser in Coronation Street.

Programme Sponsorship

TV programme and film sponsorship is big with car brands including Honda, Audi, DS Automobiles, Mitsubishi and Seat to name just a few. Almost every car brand is at it. But is getting a brand on screen the only criteria for success? Or are these ‘sponsored by . . .’ messages in danger of cancelling each other out?

Brands integrated within a programme

Having your product attached to a programme is surely much less powerful than the product or brand being integrated within the programme.  When Ofcom’s rules governing product placement were relaxed somewhat in 2011, it was thought that we would see more programmes that incorporated brands integrated within a programme, rather than being bolted on. So we might see a programme funded by a brand involved with a sport such as rugby (say Land Rover, O2 or RBS) that were keen to engage with younger audiences, being integrated in a programme about grass roots rugby. It’s fairly easy to see how the brand could be integrated in a subtle, non-intrusive way. 

The potential appeal to broadcasters is that a brand will pay for production costs, saving them money. However, getting a brand integrated programme on air isn’t so easy. Most brands want decent audience numbers if they are to justify the production costs and that usually means ITV or C4. ITV aren’t currently keen on this type of programming. C4 are slightly more receptive, but much of the programming that they are scheduling doesn’t lend itself to this type of programming. Sports programming is a potentially rich seam as Sky and BT have multiple sports channels and some big audiences but not all brands fit well with sport.

Is online the answer?

So where does that leave us? The answer seems to be online channels. With the growth of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube as commissioners, we are starting to see big audiences online. Traditional broadcasters are also moving into this space; particularly C4 who are commissioning content for ‘online only’. The benefit of being online is that Ofcom’s regulations on product placement don’t apply so programme makers have more freedom with their brand. Brands that think they can run corporate content are underestimating their audiences. To attract viewers, programmes must engage with their audience and the proven way of doing this is wit human interest stories as opposed to corporate stories. If the brand is the enabler and it is done in a subtle way that is integrated within a strong programme idea, then there is every reason to believe the programme will attract big audience numbers.