Is it the end of TV? Broadcasters prepare for online-only switchover

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It’s hard to miss the big televised events of the last two weeks. There was Matt Hancock scurrying off to the jungle on ITV, England scoring Royal goals in the World Cup, and then the ex-royal couple giving it their own spin in an orchestrated ‘fall’ from the first few episodes of a intimate documentary series on Netflix. And while none of these offers registered as personal “viewing appointments,” the hype created was surely persistent.

However, there are strong indications that the days of large live TV audiences, with everyone sharing a scheduled broadcast at the same time, are numbered. The plan, after years of rumours, calls for all TV releases to be available online only within the next 10 years or so. The broadcast channels, with their daily schedule of shows, are doomed. The programs (originally so-called because they were ‘scheduled’) will enter our homes as streamed branded products, rather than being broadcast to viewers on a pre-set schedule.

This glimpse of the near future came with the arrival of ITV’s new digital home, ITVX, last Thursday and also in the sensational words of the BBC’s chief executive, who politely asked the nation’s public the day before to “imagine a world that be it just the internet, where television and radio broadcasts are turned off and the choice is endless”. Tim Davie went on to state, “A broadcast outage will and should happen over time, and we should be active in planning for that.” And so, while the BBC claims to continue to be involved in live broadcasting, in the next twenty years the closure of individual “linear” channels, and radio stations, is already accepted.

Davie said he hoped such rapid change would be supported by investment, so that no one is left behind, neither the viewer, nor the broadcasting company itself. “Sometimes I read that the BBC needs to record that the world has changed. I can assure you we don’t need any convincing,” she added.

This promise to “bring the BBC together in one offering” ironically stirs up a nostalgic memory of a time when viewing choices were simple indeed; the days a Christmas show by Morecambe and Wise brought the nation together with the ‘unique offering’ of festive ‘sun’. The 1977 show had one of the highest “viewership figures” of all time, with over 20 million viewers.

Lorraine Heggessey, former controller of BBC1, believes these collective and bonding moments will never be a thing of the past. “I’ve learned never to predict the future, because it never goes exactly as you expect,” she says, “but shared vision is important and will stay that way.”

The producer also points out that the release of “appointment to see” programming is clearly possible in a digital age. Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary, Hulu’s A handmaid’s tale and HBO Succession each demonstrated this: “You can also see that it shows, how I’m a celebrityor the live sporting events that Amazon Prime has done so well from, won’t go away.

Series like HBO’s Succession prove that date TV is still possible in the digital age. Photography: Macall Polay/AP

“Providers are going to want to drop things on the public at some point in time, whether they’re online or part of it [a] hours. If they don’t, why choose their platform? Viewers, after all, have to weigh whether the subscription is worth it.

The bewildering choice that comes our way could also lead to a more pick-and-mix approach to streaming services. “I think there will be growth in the pay-per-view market, both for special events and one-off drama series,” Heggessey says.

But an early departure from terrestrial schedules will be key for many. “Older people tend to be more related to planned vision. And digital streaming can be difficult if you’re in an area with slow broadband or if you have an old TV,” Heggessey qualifies. “These things will simplify. If you have a TV connected, it’s already much easier .”

Meanwhile, his 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 are going to be looking for quality and some sort of guidance through it all. The BBC is a wonderful kite brand and viewers will seek it out.

I’ve learned never to predict the future, but shared vision is important and will remain so

Lorraine Heggessey, former controller of BBC1

ITVX, which has now replaced ITV Hub, the commercial equivalent of the BBC iPlayer, is a free, ad-funded service with far more content than its predecessor. ITV hopes to attract twice as many viewers, although there are industry speculations that it could knock some of this audience off its networks.

The launch has so far passed without major incidents. The apps have quietly renamed themselves, though viewers aren’t able to use closed captions on certain devices, a snag that should be resolved in the new year. The service, however, has made new friends among the deaf by offering the first British Sign Language channel to stream. It also has some niche entertainment spaces, such as an anime channel, and others that offer true crime or police dramas.

Last year BBC1 still dominated Christmas Day viewing, with eight out of 10 most watched shows. This year he could very well win again with the king’s speech, Strictly And Call the midwife in contention with Michael McIntyre’s Christmas Wheel.

A purely digital age may be looming, but the “gogglebox” is taking some time to reimagine. It is worth noting however that Channel 4’s hit programme, Glasses box, which celebrates the joy of sharing a couch in front of the set, creates something of a false image. Contributors are not, above all, watching scheduled television. Rather, each family gets a curated list to download at their convenience. It won’t be long before the rest of the nation needs such a bespoke service.

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