OPINION: The BBC should stop trying to be Netflix.

by | Nov 17, 2020 | All, Opinions

The BBC seems a little confused at the moment. There’s a consensus that no one is watching TV when it’s on, which is an argument you hear constantly. It’s also an argument that is immediately trounced all over when shows like Strictly Come Dancing or ITV’s Des still turn in strong overnight ratings. There’s also talk that online-only channel BBC Three could be resurrected and given a space back on television. When the channel was moved permanently. When the channel moved onto the iPlayer back in 2016, the reason given was that ‘young people don’t watch television.’ However, according to research in a new article for Broadcast, suggests that the channel’s switch to streaming saw ratings plummet 60% over five years. 

I appreciate that the broadcasters face a dilemma: how does a liner broadcaster compete with a global streaming giant like Netflix? It’s a problem they’ve been wrestling with for years, and the answers they’ve come up with aren’t exactly working. Streamers like Netflix are good at throwing new content in the faces of those who it will appeal to, the iPlayer isn’t designed that way. The same article says linear television has a knack of telling you what you should be watching. This is traditional TV’s USP and it’s worrying me that the BBC, in particular, is forgetting what their role is.

Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth II

The BBC is a broadcaster. It offers something the streaming giants can’t.  ‘The communal viewing experience.’  It’s all well and good everyone banging on about how wonderful The Crown or Stranger Things are, but the conversation that surrounds these shows is incredibly short-lived. I could binge all of the new season of The Crown (it’s possibly a bad example as I’m not a fan of the show) or I could choose to make my way through it at a slower pace. Whichever I chose I’m left with problems. If I whizz through it quickly, then the experience is an enjoyable but very short one as I will breeze through it, feel somewhat fulfilled but then immediately try and find the next thing to gorge on. If I watch it at a slower pace, I risk being alienated from any conversation around it, or even worse seeing someone spoiling something crucial that I haven’t reached yet.

This is where the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have the advantage. Traditional television is my favourite because it gets people talking. When a show, like Line of Duty, is on, it feels like the entire country is abuzz with theories and discussing the big shocks of the week. The streamers can’t compete at all. Imagine if the BBC released the next series of Line Of Duty on the iPlayer after the first episode had aired. Even I’d be tempted to race through the episodes and gorge on it like the box of chocolates it is, but ultimately the enjoyment would be shortlived. 

The BBC's Line of Duty has been a ratings hit.
Line of Duty has been a ratings hit.

Shows like Line of Duty and most dramas really aren’t made to be consumed like that. They’re densely plotted and need a week’s gap between the episodes to let you deconstruct what you’ve seen and compare notes with other fans. Over the last few months, every drama and comedy that has aired across the BBC has been plonked onto the iPlayer to allow people who enjoy them to race through the episodes at their own pace. If you loved the first episode of Mike Bartlett’s drama Life you could go onto the iPlayer and watch the five remaining episodes rather than waiting the week between airings.  I’m not entirely sure why you would. I’m not entirely sure the BBC themselves understand why they’ve done it. The same is true of David Hare’s new drama Roadkill which is airing on Sunday nights, Sara Pascoe’s new comedy Out of Her Mind and the recent series of Ghosts and BBC one’s Us. 

Hassaan Mohammad, a fellow TV enthusiast who has worked as a runner is equally frustrated by the BBC’s current approach. 

I think it is a particularly good idea to bring back the linear channel at this point. It was difficult to see the next Gavin and Stacey or Little Britain emerging from BBC Three as an online tool (two shows which started out life on BBC Three and eventually became huge hits on BBC One) but given that nursery slope on a linear BBC Three will allow those shows to be made possible. The post-news “BBC Three hours” being freed up would allow comedy to also be premiered there in the same way that the likes of Mrs Brown’s Boys and Outnumbered were launched.”

“I do see many benefits from the iPlayer platform itself but the BBC should be a broadcaster. With every move trying to be like Netflix weakens the case to exist.”

There’s no greater feeling than when the whole nation is watching something at the same time and I don’t think that can ever be replaced. I think the more programmes that are made with a mass audience in mind, the greater the rewards. We’ve seen it so many times before; whenever it’s thought that terrestrial television is dead (such as the rise of multichannel in the early 2000s), along comes a huge programme which just reaps the ratings. In the mid-2000s we had Strictly vs The X Factor which revitalised Saturday night television. There’s still potential and I would hate to see the BBC’s channels not posting strong ratings.

“I think it’s important that young people are checking out the BBC and are growing up with it. Having more live viewers will allow for new programmes to be given a lift. 8 million viewers watching Strictly live will give the new programme (be it a game show or drama) afterwards to get off to a good start. I just feel that there’s so much potential and a lot of what I’ve said above has a lot to do with my passion for television and want to see it remain as strong as it has ever been. I just think it’d be a massive shame to not see programmes that are bringing the nation together again and I fear that’d be made worse through not telling viewers to view the linear channels. I feel the fact the BBC has linear channels and an online platform is a positive. Binge-watching six episodes of a half-hour comedy (Ghosts for example) is a concept I struggle to get behind. It should be treated as a gem in the schedule and given the best chance for most people to watch it.  Showing a channel on the channel first and then having it as a boxset will drive eyeballs to both. I think the box set approach is more suited to a service like Sky than the nation’s favourite broadcaster.”

In a recent article for Vulture, it is rumoured that Netflix is piloting the idea of becoming a channel in France. Netflix France announced it had begun testing a new feature that basically lets subscribers watch a version of the service that looks and feels like a traditional linear TV channel. It’s called “Direct,” and the company describes it as “a web-based experience that’s the same for everyone who watches it: a real-time service that gives our members in France some of the best French and European content” Netflix’s post announcing Direct said it had chosen France for the test because “watching traditional TV remains hugely popular with people who just want a ‘lean back’ experience where they don’t have to choose shows.” So-called “lean-back” viewing is not a phenomenon limited to France, however. In the United States, for instance, TV consumption via linear channels still far outpaces tune-in via connected devices, at least among viewers over 35. 

I May Destroy You aired weekly not as a boxset.

There is one big show that has bucked the trend. As a result, it became one of the most talked-about and most admired BBC dramas of the last decade. I’m talking of course of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. It’s the one show this year that the BBC didn’t immediately put on the iPlayer after the first episode had aired. Why? It transpires that Coel didn’t want her story given that treatment. In an interview with Screen Daily  Coel says, “I am not too into bingeing, just look at what the word means – when you binge food, you barely taste it and it’s a hedonistic rush. You don’t get to chew and enjoy the flavour. You should let it go down, wait for the next bite.

For those reasons, Coel did not want I May Destroy You to drop all at once on the BBC iPlayer and, perhaps surprisingly given the focus on the strategy at the broadcaster, her wish was granted.“They are so sweet, I swear to God,” says Coel of the BBC’s executives. “I explained my reasons and they got it.” Whilst it’s hugely positive that the BBC is still very much a place that will listen to its creatives, I do wish more would adopt this way of thinking. The audiences are still there for linear TV.

The BBC’s Giri/Haji went to Netflix across the world.

Screenwriter Joe Barton, whose first BBC drama, Giri/Haji went onto iPlayer after the first episode aired last year says, “It was presented to me as a good thing when Giri went to box set because of the increased marketing spend it gave us. I worried that it would end up with no one watching it in its broadcast slot but there was still an audience that did that so it kind of worked out okay for us. I think they’re still trying to figure out which programmes to put out all at once and which ones are more likely to become water cooler week-to-week shows. Problem is you can never predict these things. And fundamentally the way people watch shows is different so the BBC need to at least explore different ways of doing it”. 

Fellow screenwriter Sophie Petzal, writer of Channel Five’s drama Blood empathises with the predicament broadcasters face. “‘I think broadcasters facing this dilemma are stuck because they still don’t know and can’t predict which shows will work for which outlet. If you knew a show would be a weekly communal event, you’d make it so. But it’s all just guesswork.”

This Christmas, all the broadcasters face uncertainty. That is the one time of year we know families gravitate to traditional broadcast TV for something special. Because of the virus, we’re more likely to see repeats over the festive period. If we need proof though that Christmas does brings people together look no further than last year’s highly anticipated Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special. The one-off special was the UK’s most-watched scripted TV programme of the 2010s, In total, 17.1 million viewers tuned in to the comeback episode live or on catch-up during the subsequent week, according to the consolidated ratings. Whilst the ratings don’t compare to the  24.3 million who saw the Trotters become millionaires in 1996, it’s still an incredible achievement in an age where we’d let to believe no one watches liner television.

Writing a new piece for Vanity Fair, TV critic Sonia Saraiya suggested that just because the streamers are churning so much content doesn’t mean it’s worth our time. “Streaming prioritizes a bunch of conditions that bloat, dilute, and cheapen television, turning it into a chunk of hours-long content rather than a chaptered story with discrete parts. Netflix, the pioneer of the streaming show, has referred to their first seasons as the “pilot” seasons, which expands the idea of a pilot episode into an 8- or 10- or 12-hour test balloon. My argument here is that the BBC shouldn’t worry about being ‘trendy’ and compete with a company like Netflix. 

My problem isn’t the BBC using iPlayer, it’s that they seem unsure of the best strategy here and are plonking full series on the service, not because the creators wanted them to be viewed as a binge, but as a way of competing with the streaming giants. There’s also the problem that the BBC and ITV aren’t really making enough content that interest younger viewers if they were, they’d watch them on the television or online, wherever they were made available. Communal viewing is vital and while the iPlayer serves a purpose it shouldn’t be used to damage the linear channels and make the schedule obsolete. 

Ben Bruce, who has worked on documentaries like Our Dementia Choir and The Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds says, “I’m a firm believer in anticipation, in building the moment, and that’s in any walk of life. Stretch that enjoyment, let it tantalise and grip you, and invade your thoughts.”

Perhaps it’s best to think about like this, iPlayer is the shop window, BBC One is the shop. The BBC should have faith in their programming because if there’s a conversation around a show the audience is sure to find it and if the show requires a weekly commitment so be it!

As journalist Terri White said on a recent episode of The Pilot TV Podcast, “TV’s not meant to be consumed like that. It’s the same reason they put chapters in books!” 

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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