Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Torygraph thinks BBC should forget about the internet. Quell Surprise!

As Adam Savage used to say on Mythbusters when something easily predictable happened, "What... a... shocker."

This may have been the easiest column to predict.  Neil Midgley wrote that the BBC should forget about the internet, and focus on finding the next Archers, or the next Countryfile.  Those two programmes have really gotten a lot of attention lately.  The Archers garnered the attention recently for a powerful spousal abuse storyline, and rightly so, spousal abuse is an issue that rarely gets talked about in the media in any kind of meaningful way.  Countryfile has recently had some its best viewing figures in its 28 year history.  Not too shabby by any stretch, but not that important either.

However, in trying to criticise the BBC for closing the linear version of BBC Three, Midgley made one crucial mistake in his attempt at analysis.

"When Lord Hall predicts that everything will one day go on-demand – and when, in fulfilling that credo, he starts to scythe bloodily and irretrievably through the creative flesh of the BBC – he is taking one trend and mistaking it for another. Yes, more people are subscribing to on-demand services such as Netflix. Yes, they are binge-watching shows such as Game of Thrones as “box sets”. Yes, teenagers now have iPads and smartphones on which they can watch TV shows. But where Hall makes his mistake is in believing that this new ability to watch on-demand, and on different devices, is a mortal threat to traditional channels."

Sadly, Neil Midgley underestimates the impact of on-demand programming.  He's not the first, and he sure won't be the last.  Even those in the broadcasting industry, like Ginny Hubbard of iHeartMedia, who only discovered podcasts when Serial launched in 2014 are late to the on-demand party.  Podcasts have been around since 2003.

We're already seeing that on-demand watching and listening is having a massive effect in terms of garnering attention from the public.  Programmes that have traditionally been watched as part of a linear stream, now no longer need to be.  The future of shows like Doctor Who, Eastenders, and The Archers, is on-demand.  Because these programmes are produced weeks, even months in advance, watching them at a pre-determined time is no longer a requirement.  iPlayer allows people to watch it when they want to, not at a time of somebody else's choosing.

But if Neil Midgley thinks that Lord Hall thinks that on-demand is going to end linear TV, he's wrong.  There just won't be as much linear TV to go around.

In the old days, significant chunks of programming, would be aired live, as there was no other way to do it cost-effectively.  Nowadays, outside of news and sports, it's only magazine programmes and topical debate shows that are aired live.  The likes of This Morning, Loose Women & The Wright Stuff are the kind of shows that go live to air.  But as the likes of Doctor Who and Eastenders become more widely watched on demand, and will eventually leave linear TV, maybe in 10 years, maybe in 20 years, maybe in 50 years, other programming will have to replace it, and most of this will be live.  Live sports is one of the few things on the air right now that is attracting significant viewership on a regular, consistent basis.  Why is this?  Because live programming can't be spoiled by over-excitable PR people accidentally giving away key moments and points whilst trying to tempt you in to watch it.  How effective would the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker's father have been in 1980, if the PR guys had included that moment in any of the trailers?  It would have had all the impact of a damp squib.

The future is already starting to happen, and the result of that means that there won't be nearly as many linear channels in the future as there is now.  Whether channels like Sky 1, Sky Living, Sky Atlantic or Sky Arts will still be around 20 years + down the line, is hard to predict, but given the trends we are already seeing, I am guessing that at least two of those brands will not survive into the era when On-Demand will be the primary way to watch television programmes.  How many of the myriad of channels out there will survive into the new era?  Maybe no more than 60-100, maybe not even that many.

But the ultra-conservative Torygraph, is frankly nuts if it thinks that the BBC should completely forget about the growth market that is On-Demand, in favour of old style linear TV.  No business worth it's place in the world would deliberately ignore a growing market, in favour of a market that really peaked back in the early 2000s.  Without turning linear channels into channels that favour and produce almost exclusively, live programming, On-Demand would kill of linear TV.  Maybe not for a long time, maybe 20 years, maybe 50 years, maybe even more than that, but eventually it would, if it could.

We have lots of history on our side regarding this.  People were afraid that motion pictures were going to spell the end of live theatre.  It didn't.  People were afraid that television was going to spell doom for the motion picture industry.  Serials and newsreels disappeared, but over 60 years on, the motion picture industry is as strong and vibrant as it ever was.  Why did these things not fall by the wayside?  They adapted to the situation and found a way to thrive, and linear TV will do the same, by becoming a predominantly live medium.

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