In the ‘80s film ‘Groundhog Day’, Bill Murray wakes each day to discover that he is trapped in time and place, doomed to relive the same events over and over again. Love and understanding save him in the end.
I am reminded of this because TV suffers from its own form of Groundhog Day; every so often something happens which leads to headlines about a revolution in TV viewing or the end of TV as we know it or farewell to the schedule. Often the word ‘death’ is unleashed like a rabid, half-witted groundhog – even now, when the death of TV died so long ago.
In the last week, three such events happened (well, two and half maybe): the BBC released new iPlayer figures (they were up, unsurprisingly ); Netflix announced it was remaking seminal TV series House of Cards and making the entire series available to its subscribers all in one go (bit like a straight to DVD box set available to a limited audience); and a broadband advice website did an online survey where a third of its sample claimed to prefer watching TV on a tablet rather than a TV set, as if they would ever have to choose. And, just, as if.
This was a perfect storm in a teacup of coincidence and it has led some to a kind of perverse, blind triangulation, the result of which was a perceived threat to linear TV. More VOD is being watched? Must be bad news for linear TV. An on-demand subscription service has invested in quality TV content? Must be the thin end of the wedge for ad-funded TV channels. The sorts of people who take part in online surveys claim they like tablets? Must be…well, actually, most people dismissed the research for the rubbish it was without blinking.
If we sensibly discount the survey and focus on the two more interesting developments, what do they actually tell us about TV’s future? The iPlayer figures tell us that broadcaster VOD services are growing. This is great news for the broadcasters and for Thinkbox. Linear viewing is stable at 4 hours a day and VOD is growing. TV as a whole is expanding.
Netflix investing in its own exclusive TV content is great too – and I’m sure it won’t be that long before it considers selling the content to a broadcaster who will schedule it. I’m looking forward to Kevin Spacey reprising the Francis Urquhart role, and Netflix is contributing a bit more quality TV content to this golden age we’re enjoying. No surprise that they are not attempting to launch a brand new series mind. As Foster’s found out with Alan Partridge, it’s a much easier job remaking online TV when the property chosen was first made famous and popular on linear TV, than launching something from scratch.
But Netflix – or YouTube, for that matter – investing in their own TV content is a sign of them joining the TV industry, not trying to shatter it. It proves that exclusive quality content is what motivates people to try new services. And exclusive quality content doesn’t come cheap. Netflix is reported to have spent £65m for the rights and production of one series of House of Cards, which rather puts YouTube’s $100m into perspective. As TV expands, so do the means by which we can choose to watch it. From the licence-funded BBC, to ad-funded commercial broadcasters, to on-demand monthly subscription services, to micro-payments to watch individual shows on-demand – how TV is funded and watched is a mixed, but balanced ecology. The main dividing line, if you really need one, is the two main ways to watch: on-demand and linear. And it is worth rehearsing one more time why they co-exist and complement each other.
Linear and on-demand TV fulfil different viewer needs: we watch linear TV to share the live experience with others and, sometimes, because we don’t know what we want to watch and can’t motivate ourselves to search for something. The schedules are expertly and lovingly curated for us and remain the trusted first port of call. We watch on-demand to fit all our TV into our busy lives and to catch-up when we’ve missed things. Linear is convivial, VOD is convenient, and together they are increasing the amount of TV people are watching. Neither is a threat to the other; it is a relationship built on love and understanding. The sooner everyone appreciates that, the sooner we can stop reliving the same day.