There’s nothing like live television. The energy, the unpredictability. The fact that you can tweet about the fleeting moment on screen, and everyone knows what you’re on about. The feeling that a live broadcast might go belly-up at any moment. Where else but live TV would you have found Bounce, a Labrador invited onto the BBC News Channel, with the caption “SPOKESDOG”?
Until now, with the exception of some sports coverage, streaming services have ignored live television, but that might be about to change. Netflix announced this week that it will show a Chris Rock comedy special live. And not only that, there’s anticipation that he’ll finally talk about being slapped by Will Smith at the Oscars in his routine, which will no doubt create big headlines.
The special is being shown at primetime in the US, and so it won’t be at a suitable time over here, but Netflix’s ambition is sure to make the BBC and its television rivals rather nervous. While Netflix has changed our viewing habits forever, encouraging the rise of box-set binges or the nostalgic rewatching of older shows, there’s one advantage the BBC and other traditional channels have over streaming services – the ability to create shared national moments at the drop of a hat.
Sure, Squid Game and The Crown got people talking around the world, and millions of people might watch a new Netflix show on any given night. But traditional TV has the power of bringing people across a country together to watch the same thing at the same time. It’s one of the best things about television, knowing that millions of people are engrossed in the same moment as you are. It’s a power the BBC is well aware of too, shown most recently with its decision to broadcast the final series of Happy Valley weekly, rather than just release all the episodes at once.
The streaming giants have become victims of their own success. We are now overwhelmed by choice – scrolling through apps to find a show can be tedious. Not knowing if anyone else is watching the same show as you can make streaming feel like a soulless, isolated activity. But if Netflix or other streamers master live viewing, the impact could be huge. The BBC can create national moments; these streamers could create global ones.
The challenge will be working out how to do it. Do they focus on live shows and events? Do they debut new dramas in live scheduled slots? How do they stay accessible to viewers in many different time zones? How will they change a culture that they ushered in – one in which you could watch any show at any time? The cost of living crisis has already resulted in millions of streaming subscriptions being cut, so any wrong decisions could have major consequences.
But if Netflix masters live viewing, the consequences for the BBC would be extremely serious. Their collective viewing advantage and their hold over the national consciousness would be at risk. In that scenario, even Bounce the dog could not help them.