How can television keep us watching in the age of the internet?

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20 February
10:39
20 February
10:39

When I arrived at the BBC in 1996 we were still being trained to use this newfangled thing called email. It’s not that long ago that we weren’t computer savvy at all. I remember being taken to lots of seminars run by John Birt and his cronies, saying the internet was on its way, and no-one really got it. Back then, the BBC thought they were were untouchable: people will want to watch our shows, at the time we give them, forevermore. DVRs were not even thought of. We were still on VHS. We didn't know what was on its way. But in such a short amount of time everything changed.

I remember going to lots of meetings where people were freaking out, saying “Oh my God, the internet is going to be the end of television as we know it!” Lots of people misinterpreted it, lots of execs and writers thought that the internet meant watching a television show on your laptop or iPhone and of course it didn’t. It’s a such a weird myth that’s been been built up, but people don't want to watch all of their TV like that. Yes, you can sit on the tube now and watch last night’s TV, but as television prices have come down, the technology has improved, so now everyone’s got a huge flat-screen TV and they want HD, they want high-quality, and most of us now see that the internet is just a delivery method. Quality scripted shows are doing huge business worldwide, with massive budgets to equal movies. That’s what the viewers are responding to. The internet has just supplied more ways to access it.

  • Last night’s TV on the morning commute… but it still needs to be a quality show. 

I remember a lot of writers, especially during the Television Writers’ Strike in America in 2007-8, all ran to the internet, but they didn't have any money, so the programmes they made were fairly cheap crap, and they kinda looked crap. Everyone said, “See! See what I mean? That’s what we’re going to end up with! It’s the end of the big budget shows!’ No it isn’t. It was just an experiment, a way of saying, “Is there a way of making something scripted for the internet?” What it boiled down to was that it actually works better when it’s little two or three minute comedy sketches. Something that could be easily passed around and go viral. Funny Or Die worked because of that, but they still needed really high-level writers and performers to deliver it. It couldn't be crap. It still needed to be funded. But the funding model of online only scripted stuff still hasn't been worked out. How do you get someone to pay for it?

“Funny Or Die worked as a viral format but they still needed really high-level writers and performers to deliver it. It couldn’t be crap.”

Netflix and Amazon worked that out brilliantly. Netflix realised they already had a delivery method into your home that you would pay for. They started out doing rental DVDs by post, which destroyed Blockbuster, then that morphed into digital delivery of those DVDs. So they found themselves, by accident, with a delivery method into millions of homes that were already wired up. Boom! But that’s all the internet is, a highly efficient delivery method.

Of course they’re a threat to the existing traditional TV stations, because there are a lot less restrictions on Netflix and digital-only platforms who are signing up subscribers and so not as reliant on ad-funded programming.

But I actually think it’s cable networks like HBO who are more scared, because suddenly the writers who would only go to HBO and Showtime will now say, “You know what? I’d rather go to Netflix, where they’ll give me two series, no pilot”. HBO might say they have this reputation of being very good to writers and giving them lots of freedom, but their development can be tough. They’re all over you like a rash. That’s why a lot of their stuff is good, but it’s also why an awful lot of their stuff never makes it to air. They can afford to shoot lots of pilots, spend millions on stuff you never get to see. It’s cutthroat. You can develop there for two, three, four years and never see anything get on air, but they’ll throw money at you. Scorsese and Jagger were in development on Vinyl for a long time, yet it still didn’t make it past Season One.

  • Scorsese and Jagger’s Vinyl: millions of dollars, tons of PR… and a massive flop

On the other hand, Netflix will buy your pitch in the room and if they really believe in the writer/producer who’s going to deliver it, well… The Crown, was delivered off an idea by Andy Harries, Peter Morgan, and Stephen Daldry in the room. They bought two seasons, $100m, straight to production, no script. So that’s the competition you’re up against. That kind of confidence and financial balls.

The traditional networks have to find a way of making the advertising model work. There’s still money in that, but they, and the cable companies, are fighting a new generation of what they call cable cutters, people who say “I’m not going to have any traditional TV. I’m going to get it all through my Apple TV or Netflix”. What we’ll see in the next couple of years is that every traditional network will become an app. CBS have just announced that their live feed is going to be carried on Hulu. In the US, paying for Hulu costs about ten bucks a month. That’s a good subscription model. So CBS will get a cut of that, guaranteed subscribers, they’re not as reliant on advertisers, and they’ve got another way of getting their product into your home. Pretty soon, all networks, whether they be Netflix, Amazon, ABC, Fox, BBC1, will all just be apps with a portal into a live stream and a library of archive programmes.

But although we love the binge box-set and TV-on-demand, there is still a great desire for live TV, for events. That’s why Saturday night in the UK is so big. That’s why, when we brought Doctor Who back in 2005 we put it on at the beginning of the night, into Strictly, into Casualty and that’s your Saturday night sewn up. It’s for the family, to sit on the sofa together, have a takeaway, and be the only night of the week when they’re all in the same place.

The communal experience of what television can bring is more important than ever now, because we’re all fragmented. We want certain flagpoles in our day, our week. Breaking Bad originally went out every Sunday at nine o’ clock, and it was a real treat. I didn't want to binge watch it. I wanted to come to the end of every episode and go “Oh no! I’ve got to wait a week!?” That was part of the enjoyment.

We’re time-shifting, we’re downloading, so our options are wide, but we’ll still go, ‘Oh, Strictly’s on!’ As a TV watcher who’s got all the different devices, and a subscription to every platform, I will still say, “Oh great! There’s a new Shark Tank tonight on ABC!” We still want that. It’s important. It’s our little treat. Both models can happily co-exist.

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