Different Strokes for Different Blokes

In the United States, as in other countries, we often observe the new-media experiences of other regions as bellwethers for what might happen at home under similar circumstances. For example, the recent U.K. experience with DAB frequently is referenced as predictive of how IBOC will fare here.
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Sometimes Trends We See Abroad Offer Hints of Our Domestic Future; Sometimes They Don't

In the United States, as in other countries, we often observe the new-media experiences of other regions as bellwethers for what might happen at home under similar circumstances. For example, the recent U.K. experience with DAB frequently is referenced as predictive of how IBOC will fare here.

Interestingly, such models do not always present an accurate picture. There have been numerous examples where consumer behavior (or behaviour, in this case) in a given region was not duplicated under essentially similar circumstances in another area.

Among the reasons for this are contextual differences, historical precedents, varying economic preferences and diverging priorities - any of which can trump the new-media offering's native parameters and present a localized result that may be unlike how the same technology was received elsewhere.

Some examples

Perhaps the best known of these variances is the use of Short Message Service, or SMS, messaging. While this system is employed widely by cellular phone owners in Europe, it has been historically less used by U.S. consumers.

Some attribute this to relatively expensive, metered (i.e., pay-by-the-minute or fraction) voice service on European wireless phones, whereas most U.S. cellular users have flat-rate monthly (or high monthly-minute) plans. The European tradition of not charging users for incoming calls or messages may also play a part, along with the higher early penetration of cellular phones in some European countries. But there may be less tangible reasons, owing to cultural preferences and the like.

In any case, cellular operators doing business in both regions are aware of the resulting differences and have adapted their respective regional services and marketing support accordingly.

Another interesting case is interactive television. While it has not been hugely successful anywhere, it has garnered far more interest in some European markets than in the U.S., and this deviation has been maintained rather steadily for nearly a decade. Here the likely driving forces are more clearly cut and exemplify some of the classical reasons for different results in different regions:

First, the European deployment of PCs and Internet connections has (until recently) lagged behind that of the United States, and dial-up Internet connections (local calls) are again generally provided there under metered service plans. So any service that offered Internet-like content via free-to-air broadcasting to a TV would be preferred for both device-penetration and economic reasons.

Second, the European TV market has benefited from the now well-established tradition of Teletext, by which a generation of consumers became used to consulting their TV screens for the auxiliary data carried on European analog TV broadcasts. Teletext is used routinely to read news headlines, weather forecasts, sports scores, train and airline schedules and many other published data sets in video text form. This behavior is unknown in the United States; adoption of Teletext was blocked by television networks when in emerged in the 1980s, out of fear that audiences would turn to these screens during commercial breaks.

Thus the conditions were set by both habit and budget for different acceptance paths of the same technology in different regions.

Consider also how geography and language affect media formats. The higher latitudes and closer proximity of different languages in Europe have worked against direct satellite transmission there, while the lower latitudes and large homogenous language zones of North America have had the opposite effect. Thus satellite radio has become successful here, while no similar service has emerged in Europe.

(A contributing cultural difference is that roughly 30 percent of U.S. radio listening takes place in cars, which is about double that of the typical European environment.)

Same course, different speeds

A more nuanced variant of this phenomenon holds that eventually similar situations may exist in different regions, but the rates or paths taken by these zones to their ultimate uniformity may be divergent.

For example, SMS usage is now increasing in the U.S., and may eventually match European usage, but it has taken many years for this to occur. Similarly, the broadband uptake in some European countries is now faster than that in the United States, and Europe's earlier preference for interactive TV over the Internet is therefore fading.

Meanwhile, South Korea may be a good model for the future of the U.S. market, as the American broadband deployment moves slowly toward the pinnacle of Korean bandwidth and penetration, along with its preference for myriad commercial media services. But cultural differences between the United States and many Asian cultures are notorious (such as physical density and the tolerance for long-term viewing on small screens), and these may dilute or wipe out any lessons for North America from such regions.

Latest lessons

Some recent data appear to indicate that a new divergence is taking place, and it is one that may have some impact on radio broadcasting's prospects here. It involves the emerging market for music listening on wireless telephones.

A new study by TNS, a global research firm, shows that nearly one out of every five mobile phone owners worldwide already uses the device for music listening, with a significant percentage preferring the platform over home hi-fi or even personal digital music players (e.g., iPods) as a primary music-listening system.

But the study also shows that in the United States, only 4 percent of mobile phone users listened to music on their phones regularly, putting Americans dead last among the 15 countries included. (By comparison, South Korea responded at 26 percent, Hong Kong 23 percent and the U.K. 19 percent to the same query.)

This could be another case of the U.S. simply getting off to a slow start, since music-to-phones service has just started to launch in recent months here. But it could also be a function of the many other outlets and platforms that exist here for music distribution.

IBOC vs. DAB

This calls into question just how relevant the oft-cited U.K. success with DAB is to the prospects for IBOC in the United States.

While there is little doubt that the U.K. experience owes much to the availability of unduplicated content on DAB, can one assume that offering such content on IBOC supplemental channels will have the same positive results here?

Consider that the U.K. radio market has fewer radio stations, less diversity of ownership, less in-car radio listening and no mobile satellite radio competition. DAB has also benefited from a degree of cross-promotion across media that would be difficult to achieve in the U.S. It could be argued that this creates a different context for digital radio's emergence there, rendering any transfer of lessons to U.S. prospects somewhat suspect.

So while the experience of one region may enlighten others, reliable predictors of universal behavior are rarely encountered. The deployment of IBOC in the United States will likely take its own unique path, which will in turn be observed by other regions to help inform their future strategies - rightly or wrongly.

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