Is television too small for the both of them?

Theo Davies-Lewis pits the BBC against streaming services

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in December 2014, BBC Four released a documentary titled The Fight for Saturday Night. Presented by veteran television executive Michael Grade, the show detailed the ratings battle between the BBC and ITV for dominance on Saturday night, and highlighted how presenters, producers, and executives endeavoured to create bigger and better live shows to win over the British public.

Of course, since the 1950s—when London Weekend Television was trying to steal away the BBC’s audience base—a lot has changed. We’ve seen not only technological advances and a shift in presentation techniques, but also a change in how shows are broadcast.

The advent of streaming services like Netflix means that audiences do not always have to wait in suspense for the next episode of a series; instead, they can binge-watch it. Of course, the whole concept of a service like Netflix would have been laughed off by the figures interviewed by Michael Grade for his documentary, but its popularity, despite being a shock even for the platform’s proprietors, is undeniable.

After all, by the end of 2016 Netflix had 93.8 million subscribers, nearly 20 million more than 2015. This is a far cry from the days when the main service of the company was to sell DVDs.

Some complain that this has had a negative effect on the shows produced: if episodes are available all at once, the emotion, drama, and action seem to deflate somewhat, the tension of the weekly wait trumped instead by the cheap thrill of immediate access. Consequently, the viewer may be less inclined to appreciate the show. Yet, Netflix’s shows—from House of Cards to Homeland, Thirteen Reasons Why to Stranger Things—are some of the most popular and successful on the planet.

So, does this signal the end for scheduled programming on major broadcasters such as the BBC? Not quite.

The BBC could never be like Netflix, and vice-versa. Scheduled programming is still important for older generations, and Netflix cannot exactly provide comprehensive analysis of local issues in countries all over the world. Key items such as the news, soap operas like EastEnders, and entertainment shows like Strictly Come Dancing belong on a schedule for order, continuity and consistency.

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Organisations such as the BBC have not ignored the importance of online streaming. Corporations realise the opportunities that streaming provides, and there are even whispers that BBC Radio may head online, a move the importance of which may only be understood in retrospect.

Clearly, there needs to be a balance between scheduling and streaming. Each has a role to play in the ever-shifting landscape of modern television, and each has an audience to cater to.