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Predicted the death of broadcast TV? Then have I got news for you

Death by a thousand Netflix clicks? Broadcast viewing figures tell a different story. 

Broadcast TV is dead. Television ratings have been declining since 1981 at the latest, and have more recently entered a terminal spiral. 1981 was when the creation of the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (Barb) established a single method for calculating how many people were watching any television channel. This made the number of viewers of BBC and ITV programmes directly comparable for the first time.

Barb endures, its methods updated, and it’s now used for all channels from BBC One to QVC HD +1 and everything in between. It’s because of Barb that we know that the most-watched programme of 2015 - The Great British Bake Off Final - managed 16.03m viewers, and that this is just over two thirds of the audience of 23.3m that saw the most-watched UK TV transmission of 1981. (It wasn’t what you think it was, by the way, we’ll come back to that at the end.)

Yet, despite the explosion of multi-channel television in the thirty five years between those figures, the most-watched television programmes of any year are now, as then, on BBC One and ITV. In any given week, only BBC Two and, even less frequently, Channel 4 might have a chance of pushing into the weekly top ten, but anything further down the programme planner will be even further down any integrated chart.

“Ah, but,” people say, “It’s all about streaming, iPlayer and online now, isn’t it?” Well, those things certainly exist, and because of them Barb’s Project Dovetail, launched in 2016, incorporates data from broadcasters’ online operations into their standard reports. Dovetail, though, only applies to online arms of recognised broadcasters, including those that didn’t exist when Barb was created. Sky’s channels are assessed through both this and more traditional methods. It’s from them we know that fewer people in the UK watched Sky Atlantic’s most-ever-watched episode of Game of Thrones than did that same week’s episode of The Great British Sewing Bee on BBC Two. Including time-shifting, SkyGo and in-the-week repeats.

However, it’s undeniably true that we don’t know how many people are watching Netflix or Amazon Prime’s original material. Statements are occasionally made, but data isn’t shared. There are no agreed points of comparison. We do know that Netflix has c5m subscribers in the UK. So, hypothetically, if three people per account watched the same programme, it could add up to the viewership of the Bake Off Final. Given that BBC One’s numbers were drawn from a potential viewership many times the size (because tens of millions more people have tellies than have Netflix) it doesn’t seem likely. Frankly, if it’d happened they’d be hollering about it from the rooftops.

Intriguingly, the US company Symphony AM, which uses a technique not dissimilar to Barb’s to calculate US viewership, once produced its own figures for US (not UK) Netflix use. They calculated that there were around 8.5m US viewers watching Netflix’s biggest series, Fuller House, a sequel to a 1990s US sitcom with little recognition factor in the UK. Netflix called this "remarkably inaccurate", but declined to produce any figures of their own in rebuttal.

Meanwhile, Barb’s first ever Project Dovetail report concluded that Cuckoo, Happy Valley and Call the Midwife were the most in-demand of "on-demand" programmes, all three being BBC series that were already doing well. There aren’t, it seems, programmes that no one watches on transmission, and which gain most their viewers via catch up. (The arguable exception is imports that simulcast with US transmissions, being nominally shown at 2am before being "repeated" 20 hours later.)

Timeshift changes the numbers, but not what we watch. Something doesn’t sneak up from behind the back because all its viewers, perhaps from a different (assumed to be younger?) demographic, are watching by a different method. An example: Sherlock’s 2014 premiere created an all-time record for timeshifting: 3.5m viewers. That’s almost a third of its audience, arguably a significant chunk, but it’s also inherently much less than half. Most people who saw the programme saw it when it was broadcast. Not afterwards.

If you ignore 2012, where the London Olympics’ Opening and Closing Ceremonies pulled in extraordinary numbers of viewers, the most-watched television programmes of the year have seen a small, but definite, upswing in their ratings this decade, starting at 13.5m and building to 16.03m. This suggests either that television viewership is actually increasing, or that viewers who decamped to other methods of watching are being included again thanks to methodological changes. The repeated, stunning ratings success of the New Year’s fireworks on BBC One may point to the former being true, larger audiences being a consequence of the reduced entertainment budgets of many in austerity Britain.

So, the programmes that are most seen by shiny new methods are the same ones seen on transmission, and those methods deliver fewer viewers than dusty old-fashioned broadcast? Still. Why is that? Live events, such as football matches, finals of talent shows and Royal occasions have always featured strongly in weekly and yearly top tens of programmes. Such things are generally watched live or not at all. A sense of communal watching, of shared experience, is only possible by everyone doing it at the same time, and while that inevitably means on broadcast, it no longer has to involve everyone socialising being in the same room.

Social media platforms, accused so often of driving people apart, merely provide another means of human contact. Certain corners of Twitter and Facebook come alive during televised football matches, especially those on BBC and ITV. And such things aren’t confined to live events. BBC Four’s Top of the Pops repeats routinely cause #TOTP to top its list of UK trending hashtags as viewers try and top each others’ jokes about acts’ hair or clothes, or indulge in nostalgic reminiscences of the era the episode is from.

Perhaps surprisingly, this online communalism does extend to drama series, despite the obvious fact that if you’re writing and tweeting jokes about a television drama series while watching it, you’re not paying enough attention to it. It may be because of things like this that this year already four drama series on BBC One or ITV, Broadchurch, Call The Midwife, Sherlock and the Moorside have been seen by more than 10m people, and several more have come close to it. In early January, when the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock reported overnights of 11.33m I confidently asserted it would be the most watched drama series of 2017, as it had been in 2016 and 2014 and 2012, but now I’m not so sure.

The UK is the historical home of television. The pre-war BBC Television Service is usually regarded as the first regular television channel and we watch, proportionately and in absolute terms, a lot of it. The 10m viewers enjoying the BBC's biggest dramas represent more than a fifth of British adults. Compare that with the USA, say, where the two biggest series on television (inexplicably The Big Bang Theory and NCIS) draw around 19m viewers a week from a population five times the size of the UK’s. Television is very much our thing, and it seems like we’re not letting it go, however much those who try to predict the medium’s future want us to.

Online hasn’t killed terrestrial broadcast TV, anymore than multichannel, catch-up or VHS did. And in each case, there were plenty who were certain it would. New delivery methods account for far less of our viewing habits than terrestrial television does, and by far the largest share of terrestrial television is still seen on broadcast. Short of another London Olympics, we’ll never again see numbers like those gained by the 1981 premiere of Jaws, which knocked that year’s Royal Wedding off the top of the yearly chart, but broadcast TV is not dead.

It isn’t even resting.

 

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder