Viewing habits have changed. Netflix and Amazon have transformed the way we watch our favorite shows – rather than view a single episode, we “binge”, watching an entire series in a single sitting. In the US, this new viewing habit is causing many networks to serialize shows in an approach that (they hope) makes them more rewarding to binge watch. Meanwhile, networks are desperately trying to work out how to adapt the valuable advertising market to this strange new world.
In the UK, the debate is even more fraught with tension because of the BBC – the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster owned by the State but remaining as independent as possible. The BBC has expanded into a powerful media force, one that commercial competitors eye with jealousy; where they have to scramble for funding, the BBC is funded by a television license paid by everyone in the country who owns a TV (it’s a criminal offence not to own a license and watch TV). With this wealth behind it, the BBC has expanded into 24-hour news channels, popular Internet news, and – crucially – an online iPlayer service that allows you to catch up on episodes you’ve missed, or rewatch them.
But this is the year when the BBC’s Charter is being renewed, and the political pressure on the BBC is intense. The current Conservative government is ideologically opposed to the idea of a powerful State-run broadcaster, and many prominent Conservative donors and supporters are among the BBC’s rivals. The BBC is going to have to both shrink down its influence in certain areas, and prove that it is adapting to changes in technology and viewing habits.
SO WHAT IS THE BBC’S ANSWER TO NETFLIX AND AMAZON?
This week will see the BBC run an experiment. All six episodes of The Living and the Dead, a supernatural drama set in the Victorian era, will be released on iPlayer on Friday. The series won’t start airing on live TV until later in the month.
The Living and the Dead is a perfect show to experiment with. The BBC has always had a strong reputation for the quality of it’s period dramas, and the Victorian setting is ideal. The show includes popular British actors such as Colin Morgan (of Merlin fame), and is written by some of the BBC’s best talent. What’s more, the dark supernatural edge very much fits with the genre of shows viewers are tending to binge watch.
From a strategic viewpoint, this is a smart experiment, a response to the cultural shift towards binge watching. But there’s more to it than that; in the long-term, the BBC is well aware that the license fee’s future is under threat. Not just for political reasons, either; the license fee model simply seems inappropriate for an age of countless digital and satellite channels and a cultural shift towards online viewing. The BBC’s leadership are being encouraged to look at other revenue options, and a key one simply has to be iPlayer. If the BBC can give viewers enough incentives, they may well be willing to pay a small fee for a monthly subscription to iPlayer. The Government reportedly considered during the recent Charter renewals, although they backtracked in the end.
The reality is that this experiment is only a tentative first step along the road. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the show performs, both on iPlayer and on subsequent terrestrial TV. The Living and the Dead could well be the show that gives Britain a glimpse of the BBC’s future.
Do you think the BBC is making a wise decision? Let me know in the comments!
I’m a British guy who has a particular love of superhero movies – and I’m having a great time writing for Movie Pilot! Feel free to follow me on Twitter @TomABacon!