When the BBC made its first regular ‘high-definition’ broadcasts from Alexandra Palace back in 1936 there were said to be only 2,000 television sets in the entire world. Now, just over 80 years later, 26.8 million homes (97 percent of all UK households) have at least one, while global figures are estimated to be around 1.5 billion. In that time we’ve seen a steady evolution in the devices from black and white to colour, analogue to digital, standard definition to HD, a resurgence of 3D and now the arrival of 4K.
DVRs have also made it so much simpler to control the content we receive, with services such as Sky+ and YouView even allowing you to record a show or series of programmes from your mobile phone. With those systems, gone is the feeling of dread as you’re half way up the M1 and realise that you forgot to set Dr Who to record.
Not that this matters as much as it used to, thanks to the myriad of catch-up services like BBC iPlayer that now exist.
But whereas in the past the large networks have had the audience all to themselves, we’re seeing a new challenge to their dominance from the internet. On-demand services such as Netflix and LoveFilm are growing in popularity, YouTube is expanding and diversifying its content, and audiences are beginning to consume their entertainment on devices other than the traditional big-box TV.
These developments pose interesting questions for the future of television as we know it. Will scheduled programming cease? Who will make the content we watch? And what technology will we use to consume it?
We spoke to a collection of industry experts who are working towards the answers to these questions, and who also pose a few of their own.
Future of TV: Will TV schedules be a thing of the past?
As the new digital landscape emerges, many have begun prophesying the death of traditional broadcasting. After all, Netflix offers a wide range of TV shows which you can watch in chronological order, at a time that suits you, on a range of devices, and for only £5.99 per month.
But after so many years of ubiquity in the living room, broadcast TV is still the one that dwarfs all others. Of course that doesn’t mean that things will always be this way, and broadcasters are alive to the fact that they need to embrace the opportunities that the internet offers as well as the challenges. Leading the way is, perhaps surprisingly, the one who started the whole thing off in the first place - the BBC.
‘What we’re seeing at the moment is this hugely complimentary relationship between broadcast and on-demand’ states Victoria Jaye, Head of IPTV at the BBC. ‘About 89 percent of the TV audience is still watching live broadcasts on the big screen, and the percentage that is only consuming on-demand content is less than a fraction of a percentage. So this idea that somehow broadcast television is dwindling is just not playing out. But simultaneously, and in parallel, on-demand is growing.’
Since its launch in 2007, BBC iPlayer has gone on to be a huge success for the corporation. Last year alone the service handled over 2 billion requests for streams and downloads. It was initially designed as a simple catch-up service for shows that had broadcast in the previous week on the various BBC channels, but recent analysis has shown that audience behaviour is changing.
‘What we’re seeing in terms of usage,’ Jaye explains, ‘is that today 42 percent of those that come to BBC iPlayer do so without anything specific in mind to watch, up from 25 percent in 2008. This tells us that for the audience iPlayer is beginning to evolve from the sort of catch-up utility into an entertainment and discovery platform.’
This is significant, because it gives the BBC an audience looking for something new, and affords the chance to gauge reactions to pilot shows without having to sacrifice precious airtime on broadcast channels.
‘Last year we commissioned original comedy for BBC3 under their ‘Feed my Funny’ comedy strand’ says Jaye. ‘These were seven comedy programmes that we played out exclusively in iPlayer, available to the audience over a ten-day period, and promoted within iPlayer. They received a one million reach and were the top performing content for BBC3 in that week. One title [People Just Do Nothing] was the most shared programme in iPlayer for the whole month, and one of those pilots [Impractical Jokers] has now become a series on BBC television.
‘We’re moving into online commissioning in a paced, measured way. Obviously we have a huge amount of content already to showcase on iPlayer, so the online original content is very much exploring, in the first instance, comedy as a genre. Our broadcast slots for comedy are fairly constrained, it’s a very risky genre to create hits for, and so we’re looking at iPlayer as a fantastic way to grow new comedy. To work with a really broad range of up-and-coming talent both on and off screen, and get that content in front of an audience.’
The BBC has recently announced eight more iPlayer pilots, and that People Just Do Nothing is to be a fully fledged BBC3 show. The corporation isn’t alone in harnessing the power of an engaged audience when it comes to new shows. Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube have all announced various forms of original digital content recently, with plans to continue down that path in the months ahead. The challenge for these new networks, as Victoria Jaye sees it, remains one of consistency.
‘It’s still a handful of discrete titles they’re originating, and that’s something that will be interesting to see as it develops - how much they originate on an ongoing basis’, she says. ‘The BBC has obviously been doing this for many many years. Every year we originate around 5,500 hours of original output which we deliver to all the homes in the UK on an ongoing basis. So this is familiar territory to us.’
Next page: Original programmes, but not on TV