Look what’s happening to the way we consume television (in America, at any rate, above). Meanwhile, the BBC chooses to defend the status quo rather than be in the avant grade (below). See the BBC News report here
Broadcasting is one area where ‘the market’ has had mixed results. More choice, and some great quality, no question. But also, enormous amounts of gooey rubbish. And – God almighty! – the cost of watching television today is shocking.
The BBC licence fee is under £150 per year, giving you access to everything the Corporation does across radio, television, digital and online. In the pre-digital era, it also gave you access to all ITV programming and Channel 4.
Probably like you, I have my problems with the BBC. I went into some detail here. So don’t imagine this is an unpaid advert for the licence fee.
But – for a basic Sky package, you’ll pay double the cost of the BBC licence fee and have access to a fraction of their output (although that does include broadband access and line rental for your landline phone).
If you want Sky Sport and Sky Movies, you’ll be paying over £1,000 a year. There has to be a limit to the number of people willing and able to shell out that kind of money. How else to explain the paltry audiences for Game Of Thrones compared to lesser shows on BBC or ITV?
My own Virgin package costs around £700 a year. And what do I watch most? A year ago I’d have said BBC4, but that’s now reduced to mostly repeats, with one new programme per day. (The BBC piling problem upon problem).
My viewing these days is dominated by Scandi dramas (mostly on BBC4), BBC2 and BBC4 documentaries (Horizon, Storyville) and an occasional PBS programme (Dick Cavett’s Vietnam being a particularly stunning example; but also a revealing doc about one of my boyhood heroes, Buffalo Bill).
For my trashier needs I’ll always check out Fox and Universal. Sky ran an enjoyable piece of Marvel Comics-style nonsense recently, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. But then I wanted to see Marvel’s Jessica Jones, so I had to subscribe to Netflix. There you go – another £84 a year, so that I could see one 13-episode series. And then I got bored about halfway through because David Tennant started to dominate and it got all angsty-David when I wanted angry Jessica.
So I cancelled my subscription. And then the bastards put up another series called Narcos, about Columbian cartel leader Pablo Escobar. Mexican and South American drug cartels are a bit of an obsession, so off we went again with the subscription. Mind you, since my first go-round with them, there’s a lot more interesting stuff on Netflix. But if you’re not into trashy serials, you can watch most of what’s worth watching in a week or two.
At least with Netflix, you can turn the tap on and off. It’s not like that with Sky, Virgin or BT. And because Virgin is what’s available where I live – with 200mbps broadband, that sometimes ramps up to 250mbps – I’ve missed all the supposedly great series on Sky Atlantic – including later series of one of my favourite show, Mad Men.
Which means, of course, I have to buy the boxed sets on DVD, or subscribe to Sky Box Sets or whatever other blood-sucking means exist to extract cash.
Say what you will about the BBC, it was a lot simpler when the licence fee got you everything on offer.
Even once Sky got going, if you looked at viewing figures, it rarely got an audience above one million, except for football matches. So small were the audiences, The Sunday Times (like Sky, a Murdoch enterprise) stopped publishing a ‘satellite top 10’ replacing it with ‘And The Rest’ – which includes any digital channel.
Even then the monster Game Of Thrones reached an audience of only 2.4m in, for instance, the week ended May 15.
Can there be any question that had Game Of Thrones been on BBC or even ITV, the audience would have been at least double that? BBCI’s mid-profile Undercover reached more than 4m. ITV’s curiously underwhelming Marcella (with Anna Friel) pulled in the best part of 5m. BBC2’s Line Of Duty attracted the same level of audience.
On BBC1, The Night Manager pulled 8.5m; Happy Valley topped even that with more than 9m. Both of these shows absolutely trounced the once huge and dominating soaps, Eastenders and Coronation Street, which are now frequently under 7m (they used to be up in the teens. Audiences have, effectively, halved). The BBC’s Great British Bake-off, meanwhile, effortlessly draws in up to 15m for its final.
What’s the answer? There isn’t one. Except for the BBC. Those in ‘the market’ – Virgin, Sky, BT etc – will adapt. Sky’s ability to pay for a show like Game Of Thrones when attracting fewer than 3m viewers is testament to its business model.
The BBC, on the other hand, isn’t adapting to a world where people simply won’t pay the licence fee. They’ll be consuming their visual entertainment in different ways. There will come a point where the licence fee is simply an annual tax on having a television. The public won’t tolerate that.