By Vanessa Thorpe Source : The Guardian
As ITVX launches and the BBC gets ready to stream not beam, will event viewing become a thing of the past?
Hard to miss the huge television events of the last fortnight. There was Matt Hancock emoting away in the jungle on ITV, England scoring actual goals in the World Cup, and then the former royal couple telling it their way in an orchestrated “drop” of the first episodes of an intimate documentary series on Netflix. And even if none of these offerings registered as a personal “appointment to view”, the noise created has certainly been insistent.
All the same, there are strong hints that the days of the large, live TV audience, with everybody sharing a scheduled broadcast at the same time, are numbered. The plan, after years of rumour, is for all TV output to be available online only within the next 10 years or so. Broadcast channels, with their daily line-up of shows, are doomed. Programmes (originally so-called because they were “programmed”) will come into our homes as streamed, branded products, rather than being beamed to viewers on a pre-ordained timetable.
This glimpse of the near future came with arrival of ITV’s new digital home, ITVX, last Thursday and also in the resounding words of the BBC’s director general, who the day before politely asked the nation’s audiences to “imagine a world that is internet-only, where broadcast TV and radio are being switched off and choice is infinite”. Tim Davie went on to declare: “A switch-off of broadcast will and should happen over time, and we should be active in planning for it.” And so, while the BBC claims to continue to be committed to live broadcasting, over the next two decades the closure of individual “linear” channels, and radio stations, is already accepted.
Davie said he hopes such fast-moving change will be supported by investment, so that no one is left behind – neither viewer, that is, nor the broadcasting corporation itself. “I sometimes read that the BBC needs to clock that the world has changed. I can assure you that we do not need any convincing,” he added.
This promise of “bringing the BBC together in a single offer” ironically prompts a nostalgic memory of the time when viewing choices were truly simple; the days when a Morecambe and Wise Christmas show brought the nation together with the “single offer” of festive “sunshine”. The 1977 show had one of the highest “ratings figures” of all time, with well over 20 million viewers.
Lorraine Heggessey, a former controller of BBC1, believes such collective, bonding moments will never be a thing of the past. “I have learned never to predict the future, as it never turns out quite as you expect,” she says, “but communal viewing is important and it will stay that way.”
The producer also points out that the release of “appointment to view” programming is clearly possible in a digital era. Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary, Hulu’s A Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s Succession have each proven this: “You can also see that shows, such as I’m a Celebrity, or live sport fixtures which Amazon Prime has done so well from, are not going away.
“Providers will want to drop things on the public at a certain moment, whether they are online or part of [a] schedule. If they don’t, why choose their platform? Viewers, after all, have to weigh up if it is worth the subscription.”
The bewildering choice coming our way might also lead to a more pick-and-mix approach to streaming services. “There will be a growth in the pay-per-view market, I think, whether for special events or one-off drama series,” says Heggessey.
But an early departure from terrestrial schedules will be a wrench for many. “Elderly people tend to be more wedded to scheduled viewing. And digital streaming can be hard if you are in an area with slow broadband, or have an older TV set,” Heggessey qualifies. “These things will simplify. If you have a connected TV, it is already much easier.”
In the meantime, her advice to the BBC would be to hang on to a linear broadcast channel, not just for older viewers, but to showcase its wares: “People will look for quality and for some kind of guide through it all. The BBC is a wonderful kite mark and viewers will seek it out.”
ITVX, which has now replaced ITV Hub, the commercial equivalent of BBC iPlayer, is a free, advertising-funded service with much more content than its predecessor. ITV hopes to draw double the users, although there is industry speculation it may cull some of this audience from its own networks.
The launch has passed without major incident so far. Apps have silently rebranded themselves, although viewers are unable to use subtitles on certain devices – a hitch due to be fixed in the new year. The service has, however, made new friends among deaf people by offering the first streamed British Sign Language channel. It also has some niche entertainment spaces, such as an anime channel, and others offering true crime or detective dramas.
Last year BBC1 still dominated Christmas Day viewing, with eight out of 10 of the most-watched shows. This year it may well win again with the King’s Speech, Strictly and Call the Midwife vying with Michael McIntyre’s Christmas Wheel.
A purely digital age may be looming, but the “gogglebox” is taking its time to be re-imagined. Worth noting, however, that Channel 4’s hit show, Gogglebox, which celebrates the joy of sharing a sofa in front of the set, creates something of a false picture. The contributors are not, crucially, watching much scheduled telly. Rather, each household receives a curated list to download at their convenience. It won’t be too long before the rest of the nation is in need of such a bespoke service.