What is happening with British television?


It couldn’t last forever, could it?

The British couch-dwelling public has, for the past two decades, grown weary of a feast of high-quality television. Finally, it seems that we have reached some kind of limit. The three entities that have introduced us to some of the world’s finest entertainment – Netflix, the BBC and Channel 4 – face very different threats.

US giant Netflix, the pioneer of the streaming model, has seen its market capitalization drop $200bn from its peak, more than Ukraine’s GDP, as it battles for dominance with Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+ and the rest. . The company has blamed everything from the war in Ukraine to customer password sharing to the cost-of-living crisis. Consumer analyst Kantar says the number of UK households with at least one paid streaming service fell by 215,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, the BBC, our monolithic state broadcaster (10 national TV channels, 50+ radio stations, news operations in 40+ languages…) is facing a two-year license fee freeze, a migration of younger audiences, political interference in its news production, and a hemorrhage of talent. Emily Maitlis, Andrew Marr and Dan Walker are among the recent exits. CEO Tim Davie has warned that “everything is on the agenda” when it comes to saving £285m.

As for Channel 4, well, they have to deal with Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary. “I have concluded that government ownership prevents Channel 4 from competing with streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon,” Dorries tweeted in April, a couple of weeks before Netflix announced it had lost 200,000 subscribers. But Dorries was not discouraged. Selling Channel 4 to the highest bidder, she insists, will help ‘level’ Britain’s regions, free up our independent sector and generate a ‘cultural dividend’. And anyone who disagrees is a ‘luvvie leftist lynch mob’.

It’s not hard to find people in television who disagree, because literally everyone who works in television disagrees, especially since (cost of living crisis today) Channel 4 All 4’s streaming service costs zero pounds. “The vast majority of people on television, whether they’ve worked for Channel 4 or not, understand its benefits,” says Kirstie Allsopp, one of the channel’s best-known faces, and no one has any idea of ​​a left-wing sweetheart.

“I’m surprised he made the decision without visiting the offices or talking to anyone about what they do,” says Allsopp. ‘British television is an extraordinary export. We hit well above our weight.

As she and many others pointed out, Channel 4 is privately funded so it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny and yet it is publicly owned so it must serve regional, minority and niche audiences who would otherwise they would be ignored. It sources its programs from independent production companies that engage in precisely the kind of entrepreneurship that Margaret Thatcher intended to encourage when she established the channel in 1982. It’s also profitable: for the past two years, Channel 4 has generated a record financial surplus, with revenue of £934m (Netflix is ​​$15bn in debt). And it provides a boost to Britain’s creative industries as a whole. Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Pegg, the most successful British comedy film in history (The In betweeners Movie), reality shows, dating shows and properties, all developed with the help of C4.

As for ‘leveling up’, well, Channel 4’s head office is in Leeds and it has numerous regional hubs tasked with finding and developing talent, like the team behind Derry Girls, the beloved Northern Irish sitcom that is attracting Record audiences for its final season. . “The Derry Girls would never have existed without Channel 4,” says Saoirse-Monica Jackson, who plays Erin on the show. ‘They have given a voice to people from regional areas.’ She is disconcerted that the Government, indeed, chooses to discard this model. “Especially now when Channel 4 has produced niche things that have become so successful.”

David Olusoga, the historian and broadcaster, is under no illusions that the industry as a whole is being punished as part of the conservative culture war. “We are a very successful industry, a great British success story,” he says. “Where I live, Bristol, is awash with money from TV networks in Europe and the US that is going into our production companies. A lot of them work for Channel 4, a lot of them work for Netflix.

I always have the feeling that if we were making tanks or missiles, we wouldn’t have these kinds of attacks. But because it’s culture, regardless of how much we benefit the economy, it’s always open season on TV.’

At first glance, Netflix, the BBC and Channel 4 have little in common other than the fact that they all make TV shows. As Olusoga says, it is like comparing a book, a magazine and a newspaper, the existence of one does not negate the necessity of the other. Netflix is ​​beholden to its shareholders; the BBC is financed by the license fee; Channel 4 is publicly owned but makes money through advertising. And yet, it is precisely this variety that makes the British entertainment landscape so rich. We have Bridgerton but also Stath Lets Flats; Britain’s forgotten slave owners, but also in the night garden. Not even the companies participate in direct competition. If a sitcom on BBC3 or E4 is successful, it could easily end up being bought by a streamer, representing a new source of income for show creators: Derry Girls sits on Netflix; Catastrophe is available on Amazon Prime.

If we were doing tanks, we wouldn’t have these attacks, but it’s always open season on TV.

And while all of the traditional channels have lost viewership to streamers, they have proven far more resilient than many feared. BBC iPlayer and All 4 have transitioned from catch-up services to full-fledged content hubs, offering Netflix-style features like movies and season dumps of popular dramas. They’re also much better at showing the kind of shows the British public really wants to see. Last November, the Broadcasters Audience Research Board began incorporating subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) and video-sharing platforms into its viewing figures for the first time. Only four Netflix shows made it to the top 100. The Black Widow movie on Disney+ reached No. 79. There were no Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ shows. You wouldn’t know it from the media hype, but Coronation Street, Countryfile, and Gogglebox are many, many, many times more popular than Bridgerton, The Mandalorian, and Amazon’s $80 million fantasy series The Wheel of Time. “It’s not really surprising that public service broadcasters make the kind of shows that the public wants to see as they exist to serve the public,” says producer/director Adam Tandy, whose credits include Inside No9 and Detectorists. What is a problem, however, is the fierce competition for stars, equipment and intellectual property that has driven up costs.

For many growers, it’s simply a numbers game. “For documentaries, Netflix’s budget will be much higher than the BBC’s,” says an anonymous producer. “If you have a story that can go global, like The Tinder Swindler, you would definitely bring it to Netflix. BBC Storyville will contribute a maximum of £100,000. Netflix will fund the whole thing for £2.5m. So why would you go to the BBC?

But then again, he notes, Netflix’s interest in documentaries is limited to titles that will stay on the platform for a long time and work in different territories: true crimes and things that end in ‘-spiracy’, basically. A documentary maker who wants to create something time-sensitive, intellectual or region-specific will get by on a smaller budget at the BBC or Channel 4.

When it comes to drama too, he says the range is narrowing. “Netflix is ​​getting a lot more trashy,” she says. “I mean, as high as the production values ​​are on Bridgerton and Squid Game, it’s kind of trashy television.” And yes, there are classy movies like The Power of the Dog, but that was financed by guess who? BBC Films, she points out.

An executive producer describes the visit to Netflix’s Los Angeles office as a “dystopian” experience. Everyone looks the same and wears the same hat. They ask for some buzzwords and feed them into an algorithm. The room for creative risk now seems minimal.’

Netflix’s metrics are the best in the business. A writer friend of mine complains that he was asked to insert a sex scene in the first five minutes of his sitcom, as Netflix had calculated Bridgerton’s numbers and this was what kept people watching. However, one of the problems with algorithmic content of this kind is that it traps you in a prison of your past tastes, a bit like internet ads that are always trying to sell you what you bought yesterday. What algorithms are less good at is creating something new that you didn’t know you liked.

What’s so good about that? Well, the independent companies that operate within the British television ecosystem. Paradoxically, it is the most state-owned model that fosters the culture of risk taking. Nerys Evans, creative director of London-based production company Expectation, says she pitches her shows to Netflix, Amazon, the BBC and Channel 4, but what they each want is very different. ‘Streamers are interested in big brands with pre-existing audiences. But if you go to the BBC or Channel 4, you can start from scratch: a new writer, a new cast and create something new.

She cites two of her company’s recent award winners: In My Skin, a drama by Welsh writer Kayleigh Llewellyn about a teenage girl caring for her bipolar mother; and Alma’s Not Normal, the riotous comedy from Bolton-born writer Sophie Willan, who describes herself as “Trainspotting’s baby, if she only lived.”

The ecosystem will be screwed if we don’t allow writers to have their first shows on BBC and C4.

“They were both first-time regional writers of social class,” says Evans. Neither of them would have glanced at a streamer. That’s the kind of loss leader only a public service broadcaster would do, but both are now being hyped by Hollywood. The ecosystem will be screwed if we don’t let those writers get their first shows on the BBC and Channel 4.

But of the three, Netflix’s future looks the most dangerous. Without the cash reserves of Apple or Amazon, or the brand recognition of Disney, it risks becoming the MySpace of the streaming age. The BBC may still find a better way to finance itself other than the license fee. And it’s not just the BBC and Channel 4 that will suffer from government interference. It’s the streamers too. “Nobody knew who Phoebe Waller-Bridge was before Fleabag,” says the executive producer. “Of course Amazon has hired her now, but the question for the future is: where is this talent supposed to come from?”

Or as Saoirse-Monica Jackson puts it: “I don’t think Channel 4 needs to compete with Netflix. Anyway, Netflix can’t compete with Channel 4. Channel 4 has invested a lot of money in Derry. He has come and listened to people, taken their opinions into account, found young writers and developed them from a very young age. It’s very important for the nation to have that.’

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