There are a lot of problems facing traditional broadcaster. The first is the continual rise of streaming giants. Although, if I’m honest I’m talking solely about Netflix, as Apple TV+, Amazon and BritBox have yet to really pose any threat to the original behemoth. Disney + knows its market well and with the launch of a more adult-skewed platform Star, I can see that going from strength to strength.
In my opinion, The reason these streamers pose such a threat to traditional broadcasters isn’t that people can watch on their own time and gorge on hour after hour of their favourite content, but more that the current generation views Netflix as the one-stop-shop for entertainment. As ever, there are exceptions to the rule, with I May Destroy You and Normal People not only garnering huge figures for the BBC iPlayer but critical praise, in-depth conversations online and awards buzz. The bigger issue facing the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 is that I don’t believe the generation beneath mine, (I’m 37 but still very much down with the kids) think that the traditional broadcasters offer anything for them.
Let’s take the BBC’s latest Sunday night drama Bloodlands. It stars a rugged and weary James Nesbitt as a cop who discovers that the man who murdered his wife has been kidnapped. It follows Nesbitt’s character trying desperately trying to solve the case and put his demons to rest. To be fair, it’s a solid four-parter that will appeal to enough of BBC One’s core audience and the performances are good, but, just by my description, you’ll feel like you’ve seen it a million times before. Sadly, you have. It’s not going to appeal to my sister and brother-in-law who search the streamers for the next big show only occasionally asking me (their TV nerd relation) if there’s anything they should be seeking out outside of their firestick.
Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t think the drama Netflix is making is of any higher quality than what the BBC or ITV are making, but there’s a perception that if it’s on Netflix it’s worth watching. Their brand isn’t really identifiable. It’s not known for high or low brand drama but it’s a brand that people trust and rely on. Take a recent hit The Queen’s Gambit. I was one of a few people who didn’t rate it. Blasphemy I know. To me, it was a well made period piece helmed by a great lead performance but It wouldn’t’ve seemed out of place on ITV or the BBC at 9 on a Sunday. The irony being of course, that if the BBC or ITV had aired it, it probably wouldn’t have been seen by the same audience who praised it.
Netflix is a strange creature. When they started making dramas we had House Of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Jessica Jones, now the drama slate feels a bit confused. Emily in Paris is a show people actively knew was awful but one they couldn’t stop watching. The same can be said of their more recent hit Behind Her Eyes. An objectively terrible drama with an infuriating ending that people lapped up whilst acknowledging they knew it was awful. People like Netflix because, even when things are as bad as Behind Her Eyes, they can keep going. It’s a part of the business model where the traditional broadcasters can’t compete. But, drama on Netflix isn’t in the healthy of places either. It’s a mish-mash of dramas that don’t fit any particular mould but more often than not will find an audience because of the platform they’re sitting on.
Of all their recent dramas the only one that I’d recommend whole-heartedly is Unorthodox. A bittersweet four-parter about a woman who flees her husband in her secretive Hasidic Jew community to start a new life in Berlin. In an era where Netflix dramas are brash, loud, in your face but plodding, Unorthodox told a tender story that put a little known community in the spotlight. It was the sort of show I’d be raving about if the BBC were to show it and the sort of show people would have probably missed if the BBC were to show it.
In a recent interview with BBC radio, screenwriter Russell T Davies said he felt the BBC was heading for extinction. “The state of the broadcasters is not so magnificent … I’ve given up fighting” for it.
He said his repeated warnings that the broadcaster was “doomed” had gone unheeded for “so long that now I’m sitting back thinking, ‘I’ll be 60 soon, I had the best of it, well done, bye bye’.”
Davies said he welcomed the increased visibility that writers behind hits such as Happy Valley, Shameless and I May Destroy You were receiving, hoping it inspired young people to consider writing as a career option.
The point Davies is making is a worrying one. When the current generation of licence fee payers dies away, will the next generation feel compelled to pay their way? Will they have a connection with the BBC to keep it going?
The first nail in the coffin was making BBC Three, a channel designed for that elusive 16-35 demographic moving to an online-only channel. It’s a decision that still boggles the mind. That channel had its purpose, it’s remit and the target audience and all of that was disregarded because the message got around that ‘young people don’t watch TV’ It’s not an argument I’ve ever subscribed to. They don’t watch TV if TV doesn’t cater to them and that’s my stance here. Whilst the iPlayer is improving, the BBC Three ‘brand’ is confused and doesn’t really mean anything anymore. A smart decision came when they purchased Killing Eve from BBCAMERICA. That first series was one of the most exciting and revolutionary first series of any show in recent memory. It was unpredictable, smartly written with two ‘killer’ leads. It felt like a breath of fresh air and a show that everyone was talking about. That’s what the old BBC Three used to be.
When the decision to move online was confirmed, the spin was that it was the start of an exciting new chapter, and even now 6 years on from that move, I’m not entirely sure what it has achieved. Yes, you can make the argument that the shows that live under the ‘BBC Three’ banner eventually get late night showings on the BBC, but the brand doesn’t really have the same cohesive message as the place to go for the younger BBC viewer. In actual fact, as twitter user, Back the BBC puts it, It costs more to distribute online and you need better content and more marketing to pull the audiences in. When the online move was made it came with a cruel budget cut, making it harder to make shows for the brand. It was an utterly bonkers decision that I don’t the BBC has ever come back from.
Yes, the iPlayer delivers consistently high figures which the Beeb themselves happily shout about as each month ends, but it’s teaching that up and coming TV viewer that TV as a medium doesn’t matter because you can watch everything online.
Don’t get me wrong here, I gorged on all of Normal People when I fell under its spell during Lockdown 1.0, and I’ll never miss one of those poorly made but ultimately incredibly gripping Netflix true-crime documentaries, so I’m not saying you have to be sat down at 9pm on a Tuesday to be a TV viewer, but the channels themselves are making that less and less important.
There’s a wonderful irony in what Russell T Davies saying. His most recent show, It’s a Sin, was plonked onto Channel 4’s platform All4 in its entirety when it launched last month. I’ll admit I was so taken with the first episode that I found myself unable to stop at just episode one and I ploughed through the five episodes very quickly. But, It’s a Sin managed something rather remarkable. Even the people who admitted they’d rushed through the series, watched it again as it went out at 9.00pm on a Friday. This is a broadcasters dream. Their streaming platform has a hit on its hands and the buzz around the show is so strong that new viewers, and those who have already watched tune back in to watch it communally and discuss it on social media. The show is a masterpiece and deserves every pair of eyes on it. It’s a rare beast that appeals to huge swathes of people and the sort of drama any broadcaster should be immensely proud of. Something, like It’s a Sin, feel special because they remind us of the power of television. Television has the power to bring us together. It can bring people together and educate us in various different ways. And here-in lies the biggest problem for the traditional broadcaster: we need more shows that we can all relate to.
Aside from Normal People and I May Destroy You, which aired primarily on the iPlayer and had a BBC airing in primetime as the BBC scrambled to fill the gaps left by the sudden lockdown, I can’t think of a single BBC drama from the past year or the previous that felt like it captured the public’s imagination. I’d have to go back to Bodyguard in 2018 or the second series of Happy Valley in 2016. Even Peaky Blinders, with its masses of devotees, doesn’t really garner the conversation you’d imagine. The irony of my picking those three shows, of course, is that all three were made quickly available on Netflix!
Traditional TV is at its best when it’s creating moments. We’ve all seen the clips of Delboy falling fowl of a bar, or those god awful snakes chasing the lizard up the rocks, but I really can’t think of any recent TV moments that could join them and that’s what TV needs to do to bring those who don’t look to TV for their ‘content’ back and make sure they are the fee payers of the future.
You may go away from reading this imagining I’m promoting Netflix and giving the broadcasters a kicking. In fact, I’m trying to do the opposite. I’m genuinely worried we’re going to lose the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV because they’re not focused enough on the demographic who live online. Perhaps I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I grew up viewing television as a communal experience and there’s no doubting that’s slowly being lost. The main channels need to remember their role in creating the moments that can the country talking, laughing and crying. That’s their USP and while Netflix and the streamers can initiate short term conversation, but the broadcasters still have the edge in long-term chatter if they remember to include the audience that is leaving them behind. Great TV stays with you, so remember to support terrestrial television.