5 years ago many media commentators were predicting the end of the linear TV and the death of the television schedule as people migrated to on-demand internet delivered TV, or simply moved their attention to other types of online content. The reality is that linear viewing has held strong- in both number of hours (over 4 hours per day and growing) and the proportion of viewing (95% of TV content is still viewed live). The prediction that the web would cannibalise television was too simplistic; in many cases it has provided a new platform for existing viewers to interact with shows on the second screen, thereby deepening their engagement, and the web has even driven new audiences to TV and cemented live viewing as people discuss and share shows on facebook, twitter, and many of the new generation of social TV apps… the ‘watercooler moment’ has become realtime!
This is all great news surely? Well yes and no – because this 4th dimension of television, the social layer, has implications for the type of content that UK broadcasters want.
The shows that generate buzz are typically ‘live’ or ‘event’ TV… X-Factor, Million Pound Drop, The Apprentice, live sports – television that demands linear viewing because if you don’t watch live you’ll either miss out on the water cooler conversation (which can often be as much fun as the actual show), or in the case of most reality shows you’ll miss the result and therefore lose out on the entertainment of guessing the outcome… I’m sure it’s not just me that’s had my catch-up viewing plans ruined by finding out who got fired on The Apprentice on the twitter stream?
The economics of production (particularly the relatively lower cost of reality over drama), the economics of broadcasting (the need to capture large simultaneous audiences to satisfy advertisers), combined with the social layer as a driver to live TV and a new form of audience insight will increasingly drive commissioners and schedulers to live and event telly, but what does this mean for other genres?
Many of us appreciated critically acclaimed dramas like ‘Any Human Heart’ or ‘Red Riding’ on TV, but the truth is they didn’t rate, these kinds of dramas rarely rate, and they’re expensive to make – commercially most of them don’t make sense for TV broadcasters. I’m not saying drama never works in terms of ratings or buzz – look at Downtown Abbey, Doctor Who, The Inbetweeners – just that in the pursuit of maintaining audience sizes and share broadcasters will increasingly have to rely on live, event and participative content that creates and feeds off the buzz online. Furthermore I’m not saying drama can’t be commercially successful, many dramas make lots of money from international sales, downloads, DVDs, but most of that cash goes back to the producer/distributor, not the broadcaster. For now viewers and UK producers are in a somewhat fortunate position to have two PSB broadcasters in the BBC and Channel 4 who are obliged to produce types of content like drama (and documentary) that don’t typically demand live viewing from the audience, but there’s no guarantee in the long-term that this commitment will stay.
So the importance of social network activity may not be good for all genres and all viewers in the UK, but the resulting glut of reality and live TV may ultimately not be good for the growth of on-demand services – because if all the content we’re watching (or at least the content that gets decent levels of investment) is live and only relevant to that point in time then who’s going to watch it further down the line? I certainly wouldn’t watch last years Strictly Come Dancing again, but I might watch a great original British drama a year later, 10 years later, and further down the line.
So what’s the solution? I’m no drama expert but I’d suggest three things. First UK drama producers need to re-examine the terms of trade - if they want broadcasters to pay for a large chunk of their glossy high-price-tag drama they need to accept that broadcasters should get a longer window for offering this content on-demand, or otherwise the economics don’t make sense… and UK drama will ultimately lose out to both US drama and other cheaper programme genres. Second producers need to innovate – they need look at interesting ways of engaging audiences to create a buzz that doesn’t ruin the linear experience – and a great example would be in shows like Misfits or Skins who build an active fanbase pre-broadcast, drip feed content between episodes and constantly reward their fans. There are lots of other examples too, from Hollyoaks asking the public to be a virtual jury of a rape trial in the drama, to shows like Dexter in the US that created an animated series to run online between series. Finally, dare I say it (I know this is an easy thing to say but less easy to do): broadacasters, producers and distributors need to invest more in UK drama – to make what the UK does do stand its own against US imports – to create fewer but bigger longer-running drama brands that attract international attention, international investment, and a broader and bigger noise on social networks… shows like Torchwood have started making these steps with international production, lots of interesting participative elements, but there’s a long way to go.