It was in the mid-1990s when we saw the first signs of television becoming a staple in the British family home. On the 7th June 1946, BBC television re-opened after the war, and in July 1948, London hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics, which was the first ever Olympic tournament to be broadcast to home television in the UK. At this time, only a select few had working television sets from before the war. Few British homes would invite family, friends, and neighbours round to sit and watch the small screened box.
Following that was the biggest broadcast to date: The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which was broadcast on the 2nd June 1953. A royal moment that has lived on in Great Britain ever since as a national tradition.
By the summer of 1955, 95% of the UK could receive BBC television. Watch-anytime TV was born in the late 1950s, followed by video recording in the late 1970s, early 1980s, which then allowed people to record and watch their favourite shows at their convenience.
Satellite television was established in the 1990s and by Christmas Day 2007, the BBC had launched iPlayer, an internet service, which back then was for watching previously aired TV shows. Netflix then launched its movie and TV streaming service in the UK in January 2012, which many people didn’t realise would shape a lot of our viewing habits to date. Since then other streaming sites such as Amazon Prime have launched, advertising their own exclusive TV shows and films.
Technology has come a long way, going from having to rely on the programmable VCR to come to our rescue to BBC iPlayer, the ITV Hub, Netflix and more becoming an essential part of our everyday lives. These applications allow us to instantly catch-up on missed scheduled programmes, as well as access complete box-set series and vast amounts of films, documentaries and so on for our binge-watching pleasure. Missing a programme can now never be an issue since all of these applications are available on mobile, web and tablet; with many offering ‘watch offline’ features.
Because of this advancement, the UK has now become a nation of binge-watchers, watching multiple episodes of our favourite television programmes in rapid succession, typically by means of digital streaming. Ofcom revealed earlier this year that BBC iPlayer remains the most popular on-demand service in Britain with 63% of the adult population using it. Closely followed by ITV Hub (40%), then YouTube (38%) and finally Netflix at 31%.
Earlier this year, Netflix announced a major symbolic victory, having more U.S streaming subscribers (50.85 million) than the number of customers in the United States largest cable companies (48.61 million).
It’s clear that there is a stark, generational divide in traditional TV viewing, with the amount watched rising significantly with the age of the audience. Younger generations are far more interested in watching programmes when they want and are much more flexible at adopting new platforms.
Sky UK’s director of programmes, Zai Bennett, says that the TV industry should modify the way it reports and focuses on viewing statistics: “Broadcasters are failing to count millions of viewers and should better reflect the way people are now watching TV – with more viewing online, on mobile phones and on-demand, more “binge” and catch-up viewing, and early access to some programme episodes, released online before they’re broadcast as box sets.” What do these changed habits, both recorded and not, mean for the television industry?
The late Steve Hewlett, writing for The Guardian said: “There probably aren’t many TV executives left who haven’t felt the chill wind of the ‘Netflix effect’, or felt anxious about the damage the service might do to their linear TV businesses.”
Netflix isn’t the only streaming service that is adding more and more subscribers. Tom Huddleston Jr. reported earlier this year: “Rivals such as Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube, owned by Google’s parent company, are gaining more of the streaming market share as they look to mount challenges to Netflix’s streaming supremacy.” Does this mean that more traditional TV services have even more to be worried about?
Nic Newman; journalist and digital strategist who played an important role in shaping the BBC’s internet services for over more than a decade, as well as helping to introduce innovations such as blogs, podcasting, and on-demand video. Newman was also an important figure in the development of social media strategies and guidelines for the wider BBC and has exclusively commented on what, in his opinion, watch-anytime series mean for TV.
Newman says: “What we tend to see with technology is that it doesn’t normally replace what’s gone before, it provides an extra layer of choice and complication. If you look at the projections, for example in the US, where the cable television industry is much stronger than in the UK, they’re looking at sort of about a 20% fall in the next decade; in paid for cable or subscriptions. At the same time, we’re seeing a rise in streaming services, so it’s really an extra layer.” To expand, services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are acting as an extra layer of choice for people to choose from when deciding what to watch on television.
“The fact that online, or over the top (when it comes to television), allows for greater choice, means that consumers over the next twenty years are going to be in much more control. Many of the business models that paid television, in particular, has relied on for the last decade or so are changing.”
The reason BBC iPlayer is the most popular on-demand service in the UK is that it has more programmes people want to watch fundamentally. It’s not about the technology or the streaming. That all helps, especially when it’s done extremely well, which in this case it is.
Newman says: “The rise of services like Netflix has really come off the back of delivering more drama. Drama is something that the traditional media companies have also been investing a lot more money into proportionally… They’ve cut things like children’s services and other things to put more money into drama because they know how critical that is.”
Netflix is producing more and more of its own original content, however, and so are other streaming websites such as Amazon Prime. Amazon also offers its members the Amazon Fire TV Stick, which is an easy way to enjoy over 4,000 channels, apps, and games including access to over 250,000 TV episodes and movies on Netflix, Amazon Video, HBO NOW, Hulu, and more.
“The BBC and others are also in the global game, producing things like Blue Planet and the rest”, says Newman.
“The advantage that the BBC has is that it’s investing in that themselves. They can decide whether to give a programme to Netflix or not, so they’ve got a sort of exclusivity over content that people really, really want.”
Netflix is able to offer what a lot of streaming sites can’t: exclusive episodes of the world’s most popular TV shows.
You don’t subscribe to Netflix because it’s streaming, you subscribe to it because it gives you what you want, when you want it and at a reasonable price.
Lindsey Fussell, consumer group director at Ofcom, says: “Technology has revolutionised the way we watch TV. The days of waiting a week for the next episode are largely gone, with people finding it hard to resist watching multiple episodes around the house or on the move.
“But live television still has a special draw, and the power to bring the whole family together in a common experience.”
The programming is what fundamentally makes BBC iPlayer so popular, in addition to the range of programming you can find. There is always something you can find on there and its high quality. They’re also advantaged because the BBC isn’t just an on-demand service. They can combine great moments that bring the nation together as I mentioned earlier, through programmes like coronations and Olympic Games, as well as live sport which is really important and something that Netflix doesn’t have. The ability to combine live and on-demand with entertainment, news and sport all in one streaming place is amazing, something that Netflix may struggle to reciprocate.