I’m told by a senior chap on Planet Murdoch that there was a moment last year when Rupert was shown a presentation by his best business brains on the future of TV. The message it conveyed was clear and consequential: a few months later he shocked the media world by declaring he would sell his entertainment business to Disney.
TV, they told him, is splitting in two. At one end is highly produced scripted drama and documentaries. This is the stuff Netflix has super-charged. It is being consumed mostly through streaming.
Streaming is making the idea of linear channels redundant, based as they are on scheduling: the increasingly quaint notion that some rascal you don’t know decides when you can watch something.
The thing about schedules is you have to fill them. Lots of linear channels, though they don’t like to admit it, rely heavily on so-called superstar productions that drive audiences and advertising, which in turn fund the daytime stuff fewer people watch. Netflix doesn’t face this problem. It’s just a vast library. For the generation reared on iPhones and streamed services, TV is stuff you watch when you want, where you want. Unless it’s a live event, of course. This is the other end of the TV spectrum: event-based news and sport.
Murdoch was presented with an analysis that showed money pouring, at an astonishing rate, into either end of this spectrum. He decided it would be wiser to specialise than try to ride two horses. That is why he entered talks with Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, to sell off his entertainment assets, and concentrate on where he began: news and sport.
Murdoch has always been a news man for whom entertainment was a commercial, not emotional, concern. He has ink in his veins and celluloid in his wallet. That’s why, as the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil told me, Murdoch prefers New York, a journalist’s town, to Los Angeles, an actor’s.
This was a chance for him to go back to his roots. But it was also a pragmatic decision, based on the knowledge that even he – Rupert Murdoch! – with his near-$80bn company, couldn’t compete with the big boys of Silicon Valley. It is they who are reinventing the industry, funding talent as never before.
I was chair of the judges in the drama category for the Royal Television Society awards this year. It was a big undertaking: the quality of scripted writing, across both terrestrial and satellite television, is extremely high. Documentaries, too, have rarely been better. As my mate James Jones, a sought-after documentary maker, tweeted a couple of weeks ago: “People bang on about Netflix, but hard to argue that British TV docs aren’t in extremely good health. This week alone there’s been Generation Gifted… Life and Death Row, 24 Hours in Police Custody, Working with Weinstein tonight, Murdered for Love tomorrow.”
What matters is the effect this has on our culture. As television has shifted from a single screen with few channels to a multi-screen experience involving pocket gadgets, so its role in both family and national life has altered. I don’t say this because I pine for a golden age; on the contrary, it’s obvious we’re living in one. But when Bamber Gascoigne first presented University Challenge, in the era of three channels, 12 million tuned in regularly: very often as families.
Today, because the choice is so vast, ever fewer shows command such audiences. Teenagers are more likely than ever to be in their rooms, in digital universes untouched by parental knowledge. They are still nurturing bonds; just with their peers, or random people overseas, instead.
The family and the nation have undergone tremendous upheaval in a very short space of time. Television used to unite both. As it bifurcates, in the age of acceleration and globalisation in which we live, will it start to have the opposite effect? l
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war