The new ways we watch TV

As the autumn TV schedules are launched, Ed Power recalls the days before multiple screens and streaming –and finds himself strangely nostalgic for the days we watched TV as a family

TELEVISION isn’t what it used to be. The old ritual of vegging out in front of the goggle-box, possibly in the company of one or more loved-ones has been bulldozed by the new digital reality with which civilisation is presently coming to grips. Screens are everywhere. TV as we know it has literally faded into the background. Consider the changes in your own family dynamic. A decade ago you and your significant other might have unwound at the end of a long day by watching some disposable rubbish together. There was nothing else on and, anyway, wouldn’t it be weird to leave the room and tune into the soccer on an upstairs telly while your missus tucked into Coronation Street?

Nowadays, we can exist apart even sitting side by side. You are enjoying Marvel’s The Defenders on your iPad; in the corner one of the kids is staring at My Little Pony on a phone (you make a mental note to worry about how much screen time they’ve had in the morning). Meanwhile your wife is telling everyone to stop laughing into their headsets as she settles into the second half of First Dates. What a strange future we’ve arrived at.

There is upheaval, too, for what used to be called channels but are nowadays more fashionably described as “content providers”. Even in an industry as volatile as television, a sexy relationship caper starring Naomi Watts screamed sure fire hit. Which is why the announcement last month that Netflix was cancelling its marquee summer drama Gypsy after a single season created shock waves. The streaming giant has been terminating shows at a ferocious clip this year (The Get Down, Bloodline and cult sci-fi romp Sense8 were likewise for the chop). Nonetheless, to cull Gypsy just weeks after its debut (to admittedly derisory reviews) was a stunning surprise.

This bombshell was followed by the news that, from 2018, Disney is to pull much of its licensed content from Netflix (no big loss to subscribers to the company’s Irish service, which rarely features big Disney movies anyway). The reason is that the House of Mouse is planning its own streaming service to compete with Netflix. This follows rumours that Disney had wanted to buy Netflix and did not take the rebuff kindly. In the future, viewers who want to watch Moana or The Avengers (Marvel is part of the Disney empire) will have to splash out on a separate subscription. Such upheavals are further proof that television has reached a critical juncture. With audiences for traditional broadcasting in free-fall – a survey in June found half of Irish millennials would rather watch streaming content on a computer/tablet than pay for a television license — it’s clear the medium is undergoing a fundamental transformation. In such circumstances major players such as Netflix — which has racked up $20 billion in debt on the way to becoming the biggest player in the sector — are still negotiating the future by trial and error.

What’s beyond question is that television is no longer something to be passively consumed. We choose what we want to watch and when — a new reality to which broadcasters are scrambling to adjust. The pace of change was underpinned recently with the launch in Ireland of Sky’s Now TV service – a streaming platform that offers “passes” for viewers wishing to access Sky content (included that produced by its US partner HBO, home to Game of Thrones).

 

So, a day of soccer, rugby and GAA on Sky’s sports channels will cost €10 – while a month of access to Sky movies will set you back €15. Now TV is already a success in the UK, where it launched five years ago (with prices significantly lower than in Ireland). In the year ending June 2016, the company had sold a record £2 million worth of passes to its sports channels, with overall revenues rising 11 per cent. Sky has profitably identified a gap in the market for no-ties TV. This is merely the beginning of a more widespread transformation. Amazon is now competing head to head with Netflix, having last year made its Prime subscription service available in Ireland, with big draws including Jeremy Clarkson’s The Grand Tour (the tenth most watched television programme in the world in 2016 according to certain metrics). Alongside Disney, HBO has, for its part, launched a digital-only service, HBO Go in the United States, with sports broadcaster ESPN soon to follow. A forthcoming small screen reboot of Star Trek will be exclusively available via streaming (on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix in Ireland).

This autumn, meanwhile, the biggest gorilla of all, Apple, will enter the room with ambitious plans for its own television service. It has already unveiled two shows, Carpool Karaoke, adapted from the annoying James Corden talk show sketch, and Planet of the Apps, a sort of Silicon Valley version of Dragon’s Den. A scripted drama, based on the life of rapper Dr Dre, is expected to follow next year, part of the estimated $1 billion it is to invest in original content in 2018 (around half of what Netflix has spent on shows in 2017). With so much TV to watch, studios and other content producers are struggling to meet demand. Some 325 scripted television dramas aired in the United States in the first half of 2017, compared 325 in the previous 12 months. Of those 62 were produced by streaming platforms – with 79 to follow through the back end of the year.

The deluge of programming is not only overwhelming to viewers, one leading figure has warned. With traditional broadcasters forced to compete with the bottomless pockets of Silicon Valley, the pitch has been tilted in favour of Big Tech. “What’s unknown is: Where’s YouTube going to go?” said John Landgraf, chief executive of FX (Fargo, American Horror Story, Atlanta) said in July. “Where’s Apple going to go? Silicon Valley has infinite access to capital and can lose money indefinitely. If enough of them decide they want to take over this business and they’re willing to lose money to do it, they can just make as many shows as they want.” His warning appeared to be borne out just a few days later, with news that Netflix had lured Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes away from ABC, one of America’s traditional “big four”.

“Silicon Valley’s business strategy and operating model… is a winner-take-all or winner-take-most structure,” Landgraf had said. “In that world, it’s about scale. It’s about data. It’s about technology, AI algorithms, finance.

“It’s about being able to bring billions upon billions of dollars, even at a loss, to bear on conquering markets. And I think that’s a very, very stiff headwind, I would say, for anybody who’s not in Silicon Valley and not on that side of that business model.”

“The hardest thing right now will be making decisions on what they will subscribe to should appointment viewing come to an end,” says Walter Wynne of digital production company WJ&A Media. “Are we faced with micro payments for TV shows or do we subscribe to the broader offering of say a Netflix or HBO model? And by segmenting viewership do we run the risk of polarising content?”

The era of appointment viewing “has ended already for millennials” says Maryrose Lyons, founder of social media marketing agency Brightspark Consulting. “And as with everything - the rest of us are following them.” There’s clearly no going back. Netflix founder Reed Hastings likened broadcast television to the telephone landline when bringing the service to Ireland in 2012. There would still be a niche for live sports, reality TV and events that are similarly best watched in the moment. Otherwise the great technological migration was underway: in a future that is here the consumer decides what they want to watch and when and it is the industry’s job to accommodate them. “It’s like the mobile phone compared to the land-line. We’ve had broadcast television for 60 years now,” said Hastings. “With the internet you click and watch. Over the next 20 years everything is going to become click and watch and on demand. We’ll still have broadcast — after all we still have land-lines. It just won’t get used very much.”

“Watching TV in the palm of your hand is now as normal as listening to an iPod was less than a decade ago,” commented technology site TechCrunch in 2015. “It was once impossible to imagine, and is now so hard to envision life without. And what’s more life-changing than that?”


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