Recent CST blogs have taken up the ‘end of TV theme’, arguing that timeshift viewing, video-on-demand and box-set bingeing is the end of broadcast TV. It’s more complicated than that, surely. Consider these bits of argument:
1. THE DRAMA FETISH
- In the UK, timeshifted viewing is skewed towards drama (20% of total) and soaps (16% of total). In homes with PVRs, this rises to 32% and 26% respectively (Broadcast 14 October 2011) [subscribers only]
- CST bloggers write mainly about drama series
- Therefore CST bloggers think that viewing habits in general are moving away from broadcast TV, when in reality it is their habits (and those of people like us) whose use of TV is skewed towards fiction.
2. SCHEDULING STILL MATTERS
- According to the same BARB figures, almost half (48% in w/e 25/09/2010) of time-shift viewing takes placed on the same day as the linear broadcast
- So many timeshifters are really schedule shufflers, still organising their viewing in relation to the concept of currency which is the effect of TV scheduling. Episodes of a TV series still have a declining currency in relation to their first broadcast availability.
- However, this may well apply less to drama than the other categories of timeshifted programming, where currency is a more pressing issue: soaps (occurring in our time, but in a parallel world, as Jostein Gripsrud put it), entertainment (think X-Factor or … Got Talent), factual entertainment and even documentary.
3. THE UK MAY BE DIFFERENT
- Netflix may have 25 million subscribers in North America, but it thinks the UK will be tricky to crack. They predict that it will take them more than the usual two years to break the UK market (Broadcast 27 /10/2010). Will Netflix go the way of TiVO in the UK market? First fanfare release/then underperformance/then withdrawal from market/and finally a stealth return under the Sky banner. We’ll know by 2015 I guess.
- The growth in online (PC, tablet or mobile) viewing in the UK may have stalled. It increased from 11% of individuals at the end of 2009 to 14.4% at the end of 2010. But by the end of 2011, this grown to only 14.9% of individuals in the UK. On the one hand, this is a Barb poll; on the other, it was simply asking “have you ever done so this year”, so it indicates that any regular online viewing is still a relatively niche experience and one that is not growing as fast in the UK as may might wish (Broadcast 3/1/12).[subscribers only]
- The UK catch-up market has been defined by the BBC’s i-Player as a 7 day window (mainly to enable talent union agreements). This fits nicely with the weekly episode structure of much scheduled TV, and most broadcasters have followed the BBC model. Channel 4 makes more shows available for longer.
- So it may be that national cultural specificities in viewing patterns will continue to define TV. It may be that broadcast TV will die in the US (at least for those who can afford other means of access), and continue to thrive elsewhere. Certainly it is a more pleasurable experience to watch a US network drama on the network’s own on-demand service than it is through the broadcast stream with its persistent ad breaks. As I’ve said here already, US networks are busy vandalising their principal asset.
- And bear in mind that for large parts of the world, broadcast TV is still an expanding business. In China and India, consumerism is still developing, and broadcast TV (as it proved in post-war USA and Europe) is intimately bound up with the development of domestic consumerism: the only commodity that sells other commodities, as Roger Silverstone put it.
What may be dying is not TV but our ability to generalise about it. Differences are becoming more marked rather than less. National markets are diverging rather than converging. Personal habits of TV use are increasingly significant. Different genres of TV are developing new means of being used (there’s not much demand for a Big Brother box set, but for The Wire or The Killing on the other hand…).
Is TV dead? We still have its genres. We still have its slot lengths and series structures; its narrative patterns of repetition and variation. As Toby Miller pointed out, “TV still dominates as a mode of production, distribution, and reception of the very genres that it helped create” Broadcast TV still matters, more so than those living in the post-apocalyptic broadcast landscape of the US are willing to give it credit. We still have ‘event TV’. People still watch broadcast TV (more than ever in a recession). More generally the schedules of broadcast TV still define the cultural and market currency of TV material. So why the funereal air of some recent contributions?
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and leads the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.