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Will traditional TV channels become irrelevant in 2019?

Broadcast television is struggling to hold on to viewers in the age of digital binge-watching. 

Interviewed on The Culture Show in 2008, David Simon let viewers in on a little secret about his HBO show The Wire. Citing the show’s novelistic approach to storytelling – with a lack of exposition, and complex, multi-layered plots – host Lauren Laverne asked him about the “contempt” The Wire showed for the average viewer. “What about the casual viewer?” she said, bewildered. “People who want to dip in, dip out?” Simon just shook his head. Looking over his shoulder, and leaning forward conspiratorially, he whispered: “Fuck the casual viewer.”

It was a controversial statement, not least because broadcast television was specifically designed to accommodate the casual viewer. As the former TV producer John Ellis, now professor of media arts at Royal Holloway, London, wrote in 1982, typically, television was supposed to be “a casual experience rather than an intensive one”. Because it was intended to be watched at home, TV could not “assume the same level of attention from its viewers that cinema can from its spectators”. For Ellis, proof of this was the simple fact that broadcast TV in the 20th century had not “produced a group of telephiles to match the cinephiles who have seen everything and know the least inconsequential detail” about prestige cinema – an aside that now seems thrillingly out of date. When The Wire was being made in the early Noughties, the idea that you could deliberately alienate the majority of TV viewers and go in search of a more devoted audience seemed radically new.

Ten years later, viewing habits are no longer casual. Thanks to pioneering subscription-model channels such as HBO (which also made The Sopranos, Girls and Game of Thrones) and AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), and subscription streaming services such as Netflix (House of Cards, The Crown) and Amazon (Transparent), the television landscape has been transformed. The word “binge-watching” has entered the mainstream lexicon. We’re happy to consume longer, more complex and slower-paced multi-episode television shows that demand greater attention. We’ll take on the challenge of more difficult characters, or persist with shows after favourites are killed off. We’ll accept shows that suddenly reinvent themselves, changing their setting, premise or tone. Ten years after David Simon said “fuck you” to the casual viewer, television is defined instead by the avid viewer.

What does this mean for broadcast television, vying for the attention of a consumer who has changed beyond recognition? And could 2019 be the year that terrestrial network television crumbles? The data looks bleak. As numbers of those using digital streaming services rise, more people are cutting back on broadcast subscriptions. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that a million Americans had cancelled their cable or satellite subscriptions between July and September – one of the largest ever seasonal drops. It estimated that ten million US households had stopped paying for cable or satellite TV since 2010, when traditional TV subscriptions were at their peak.

In the UK, things aren’t looking much better for broadcast TV. Ofcom reported that early last year digital streaming overtook traditional television for the first time – there are now more UK subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon and Now TV (15.4 million) than to traditional “pay TV” services such as those offered by Sky, Virgin Media, BT and TalkTalk (15.1 million). This does not include BBC licence fee payers, of which there are significantly more (25.8 million as of 2017). But there are reasons for the BBC to be worried by the rise of streaming: between 2013 and 2017, a record 3.5 million UK residents cancelled their licence fee – a rate of almost one million a year.

Increasingly, viewers seek out the kind of TV shows streaming services are making: more than a third of Netflix subscribers surveyed said they signed up to watch Netflix “Originals” (new shows and films made by Netflix such as The Crown, rather than existing ones licensed to the service, such as Friends), demonstrating that viewers see the service as a producer of quality original content worth paying for, and not simply as a digital library of licensed programming.

If viewers already consider digital streaming to be a rival source of high-quality original shows, that perception could increase significantly over the next year. Ofcom observed in its first annual Media Nations report that spending by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 on new UK-made television programmes fell to a 20-year low in 2017, at a collective spend of £2.5bn.

It’s a particularly worrying statistic as more and more money is ploughed into big-budget competition from digital streaming services, which are only increasing their investment in new programming. In 2018, 85 per cent of spending by Netflix was on original content. According to the Economist, citing data from a Goldman Sachs assessment, that amounts to as much as $13bn. That’s significantly more than any US broadcaster, and more than four times that of all the UK’s biggest traditional networks combined.

Subscribers to digital streaming services get shows with extravagantly higher budgets: gorgeous sets and exotic locations, more famous faces, and more expensive industry talent, empowered to take greater risks. But there’s also less pressure on individual shows to bring in millions of viewers. Freed from the shackles of prime-time schedules, streaming services personalise user home pages based on viewing history – so they only see shows they are likely to watch. Netflix identifies “taste clusters”, grouping viewers together and pushing them towards what they may be interested in. This way, the kind of shows that could underwhelm in a traditional mainstream schedule can have a new kind of targeted appeal online. (Take The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell: a spooky baking show produced by the Jim Henson Company, featuring creepy cakes and talking puppets.) This should also mean fewer disappointed viewers, because, in theory, you won’t be nudged towards the kinds of shows you have no history of watching.

The competition for broadcast television is becoming ever more intense. Last year, YouTube launched a subscription-based streaming service, YouTube Premium, featuring a multimillion-dollar flagship sci-fi show called Origin. Facebook put more weight behind its own service, Facebook Watch, with a US remake of a globally successful Norwegian show called Skam and with Queen America, a dark comedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In late 2019, Disney is set to launch its own streaming service, Disney+ (which will be the home of all Disney’s output, including its own acquisitions: the Marvel superhero and Star Wars films and shows and, as it is set to finish a deal with 20th Century Fox, anything from X-Men to The Simpsons). AT&T’s WarnerMedia is launching its own service this year, as is Apple – with Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle and more signed up to projects.

But the sheer proliferation of content could mean digital streaming creates its own downfall. In 2015, John Landgraf, chief executive of the broadcast network FX, coined the phrase “peak TV”: there was too much to watch and audiences were becoming exhausted. And last year he said “the golden age of television has become the gilded age of television”, predicting that the bubble would burst.

Perhaps there’s some truth in this. After spending millions on Origin only for it to be poorly received, YouTube is, according to the Hollywood Reporter, significantly scaling back its spending on scripted shows, and moving away from a subscription model. Facebook and Apple could face a similar problem, finding that big spending doesn’t necessarily translate into big viewing figures. Netflix itself, while its subscriber numbers, revenue and earnings continue to rise, also set a record for negative free cash flow in the third quarter last year: it spent $859m more making films and shows than its 130 million subscribers paid to watch them. Shares of the so-called Faang companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) dipped in 2018, with Netflix shares down by 37 per cent between July and December. Bloomberg fears that the continuous success story of Faang stocks could “collapse” in 2019.

The expansion of television means audiences won’t settle for repetitive programming. Soaps such as the BBC’s EastEnders have haemorrhaged millions of viewers over the past decade, as have tired reality and entertainment formats such as ITV’s The X Factor. But original formats, revitalised legacy programmes and new glossy dramas such as BBC’s Bodyguard have attracted viewing numbers the streaming services would envy. Bodyguard finale became the most-watched episode of any drama in the UK since 2002, with 17.1 million people watching over 28 days. By comparison, 16 million people stream Game of Thrones on HBO (which begins its final series in April). Netflix keeps its viewing figures a closely guarded secret but according to some estimates, these are far higher figures than most Netflix shows. (The second series of Stranger Things secured 15 million viewers in the first three days of airing in October 2017, and was the closest thing to a water-cooler show Netflix has had.)

Streaming giants are offering a version of TV that is more intense, more varied and more personalised than ever before. So perhaps legacy broadcasters can survive by sticking to their strengths. If TV viewing has become less casual, the desire to read about, talk about and analyse TV has increased dramatically (as the rise of online TV recaps and podcasts demonstrate). In April 2018, David Clementi, chairman of the BBC, acknowledged the extreme challenges faced by the corporation in maintaining (particularly younger) viewers in the digital age. “The BBC is at its strongest when we unite age groups to share national moments,” he said, emphasising its social role and how some programmes – a royal wedding, the World Cup, a popular drama – bring people together. There’s no doubt that we are still hungry for television that cuts through “taste clusters” and becomes part of the national conversation. Done well, “event” television could hold the key to broadcast television’s survival.

Read all the pieces in our “2019 – the big questions” series: 

John Bew: Will Trump go to war?

Felix Martin: Will there be another crash?

George Eaton: Will Brexit actually happen?

Will Dunn: Could Facebook be broken up?

Paul Mason: Will the far right triumph in Europe?

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions