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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: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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