What’s happening to British TV?

·10-min read
 (Ajeet Mestry)
(Ajeet Mestry)

It couldn’t last forever, could it?

The British sofa-dwelling public have, for the past two decades, gorged themselves silly on a feast of high-grade television. Finally, it seems we have reached some kind of limit. The three entities that have laid some of the choicest entertainment before us — Netflix, the BBC and Channel 4 — all face very different threats.

The American giant Netflix, the pioneer of the streaming model, has seen its market capitalisation fall $200 billion from its peak — more than the GDP of Ukraine — as it battles for dominance with Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+ and the rest. The company has blamed everything from the war in Ukraine to customers sharing passwords to the cost of living crisis. Consumer analyst Kantar says the number of UK homes with at least one paid-for streaming service fell by 215,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, the BBC, our monolithic state broadcaster (10 domestic TV channels, more than 50 radio stations, news operations in 40+ languages…) faces a two-year freeze of the licence fee, a migration of younger audiences, political interference in its news output and a haemorrhaging of talent. Emily Maitlis, Andrew Marr and Dan Walker are among the recent departures. The director-general, Tim Davie, has warned that ‘everything is on the agenda’ when it comes to making £285m worth of savings.

As for Channel 4, well, it has Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, to contend with. ‘I have come to the conclusion that government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon,’ Dorries tweeted in April, a couple of weeks before Netflix announced that it had lost 200,000 subscribers. But Dorries was undaunted. Selling Channel 4 to the highest bidder, she insists, will help to ‘level up’ British regions, unleash our independent sector and provide a ‘cultural dividend’. And anyone who disagrees is a ‘leftie luvvie lynch mob’.

It is not hard to find people in TV who disagree — because literally everyone who works in TV disagrees, not least because (cost of living crisis ahoy) Channel 4’s streaming service All 4 costs zero pounds. ‘The vast majority of people in television, whether they have worked for Channel 4 or not, understand its benefits,’ says Kirstie Allsopp, one of the channel’s most familiar faces and no one’s idea of a leftie luvvie.

‘I am stunned that she made the decision without visiting the offices or speaking to anyone there about what they do,’ Allsopp says. ‘British TV is an extraordinary export. We punch so far above our weight.’

As she and countless others pointed out, Channel 4 is privately funded, so it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny — and yet it is publicly owned, so it must serve regional, minority and niche audiences that would otherwise be ignored. It sources its programmes from independent production companies engaging in precisely the sort of entrepreneurial cut-and-thrust that Margaret Thatcher intended to encourage when she established the channel in 1982. It’s profitable, too: for the past two years Channel 4 has generated a record financial surplus, with revenue of £934m (Netflix is $15bn in debt). And it provides uplift to the British creative industries as a whole. Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Pegg, the most successful British comedy film ever (The Inbetweeners Movie), reality TV, dating and property shows, all developed with the help of C4.

As for ‘levelling up’, well, Channel 4’s head office is in Leeds and it has numerous regional hubs tasked with finding and developing talent, such as the team behind Derry Girls, the beloved Northern Irish comedy that’s drawing record audiences for its final season. ‘Derry Girls would never have existed without Channel 4,’ says Saoirse-Monica Jackson, who plays Erin on the show. ‘They’ve given people from regional areas a voice.’ She is bewildered that the Government would, effectively, choose to trash this model. ‘Especially now, when Channel 4 has produced such niche things that have become so successful.’

David Olusoga, the historian and broadcaster, is under no illusions that the sector as a whole is being punished as part of the Conservative culture war. ‘We’re a very successful sector, a great British success story,’ he says. ‘Where I live, Bristol, is awash with money from broadcasters in Europe and the United States that’s coming into our production companies. Many of them work for Channel 4, many of them work for Netflix.

I always get the feeling that if we were making tanks or missiles, we wouldn’t have these sorts of attacks. But because it’s culture, irrespective of how much we benefit the economy, it’s always open season on television.’

On the face of it, Netflix, the BBC and Channel 4 have little in common besides the fact that they all make TV shows. As Olusoga says, it’s like comparing a book, a magazine and a newspaper, the existence of one doesn’t negate the need for the other. Netflix is beholden to its shareholders; the BBC is funded by the licence fee; Channel 4 is publicly owned but makes money through advertising. And yet it is precisely this variety that makes the British entertainment landscape so rich. We have Bridgerton but also Stath Lets Flats; Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners but also In the Night Garden. Nor are the businesses even engaged in direct competition. If a sitcom on BBC3 or E4 is successful, it can easily end up being bought by a streamer, representing a new source of revenue for programme makers: Derry Girls sits on Netflix; Catastrophe is available on Amazon Prime.

If we were making tanks, we wouldn’t have these attacks, But it’s always open season on television

And while all the traditional channels have lost audiences to the streamers, they have proved far more resilient than many feared. BBC iPlayer and All 4 have transitioned from catch-up services into all-round content hubs, offering Netflix-esque features like movies and season-dumps of popular dramas. They’re also far better at showcasing the sort of programmes that the British public actually want to watch. Last November, the Broadcasters Audience Research Board began to incorporate subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) and video-sharing platforms into their viewing figures for the first time. Only four Netflix shows made the top 100. The movie Black Widow on Disney+ scraped in at number 79. There were no Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ shows at all. You wouldn’t know it from the media hype, but Coronation Street, Countryfile and Gogglebox are many, many, many times more popular than Bridgerton, The Mandalorian and Amazon’s $80m fantasy series The Wheel of Time. ‘It’s actually not really surprising that public service broadcasters make the sort of programmes that the public want to watch as they exist to serve the public,’ says producer/director Adam Tandy, whose credits include Inside No9 and Detectorists. What is a problem, however, is the fierce competition for stars, crew and intellectual property that has pushed up costs.

For many producers, it is simply a numbers game. ‘For documentaries, the budget on Netflix will be so much higher than anything you’ll get at the BBC,’ says one unnamed producer. ‘If you have a story that can become global, like The Tinder Swindler, you would definitely take it to Netflix. BBC Storyville will put in a maximum of £100K. Netflix will finance the whole thing for £2.5m. So why would you go to the BBC?’

But then again, she points out, Netflix’s interest in documentaries is limited to titles that will sit on the platform for a long time and work in different territories — true crime and things that end in ‘-spiracy’, basically. A documentary maker who wants to create anything time-sensitive, or highbrow, or regionally-specific, will make do with a smaller budget on BBC or Channel 4.

When it comes to drama, too, she says the range is narrowing. ‘Netflix is getting way more trashy,’ she says. ‘I mean however high the production values are on Bridgerton and Squid Game, it’s sort of junk TV.’ And yes, there are classy movies like The Power of the Dog on there but that was funded by guess who? BBC Films, she points out.

An executive producer describes visiting Netflix’s office in LA as a ‘dystopian’ experience. ‘Everyone looks the same and wears the same hat. They ask for a few buzzwords and feed them into an algorithm. The room for creative risk there now seems minimal.’

Netflix’s metrics are the best in the business. A writer friend of mine complains that he was asked to insert a sex scene into the first five minutes of his sitcom — as Netflix had run the numbers on Bridgerton and this was what kept people watching. However, one of the problems with algorithmic content of this kind is that it traps you in a prison of your past likes, a bit like how internet ads are always trying to sell you the thing you bought yesterday. What algorithms are less good at is coming up with something brand new that you didn’t know you liked.

What is good at that? Well, the independent companies that operate within the British TV ecosystem. Paradoxically it is the more state-driven model that encourages the culture of risk taking. Nerys Evans, a creative director at London production company Expectation, says she pitches her shows to Netflix, Amazon, the BBC and Channel 4 — but what each of them wants is very different. ‘The streamers are interested in huge brands with pre-existing audiences. But if you go to BBC or Channel 4 you can start from the ground up: brand new writer, brand new cast, and create something new.’

She cites two of her company’s recent award-winners: In My Skin, a drama by Welsh writer Kayleigh Llewellyn about a teenage girl looking after her bipolar mother; and Alma’s Not Normal, the riotous comedy by Bolton-born writer Sophie Willan who describes herself as being like ‘the baby in Trainspotting, if she’d lived’.

The ecosystem will be f***ed if we don’t allow writers to have their first shows on BBC and c4

‘These were both first-time, regional, benefits-class writers,’ says Evans. ‘Neither of them would have got a look in on a streamer. That’s the sort of loss-leader that only a public service broadcaster would make, but both of them are now being touted by Hollywood. The ecosystem will be f***ed if we don’t allow those writers to have their first shows on BBC and Channel 4.’

But of the three, it’s Netflix’s future that looks most perilous. Without the cash reserves of Apple or Amazon, or the brand recognition of Disney, it is at risk of becoming the MySpace of the streaming era. The BBC may yet find a better way to fund itself other than the licence fee. And it’s not only BBC and Channel 4 that will suffer from government interference. It’s the streamers too. ‘No one knew who Phoebe Waller-Bridge was before Fleabag,’ says the executive producer. ‘Of course Amazon has signed her up now but the question for the future is: where is this talent supposed to come from?’

Or as Saoirse-Monica Jackson puts it: ‘I don’t think Channel 4 needs to compete with Netflix. Anyway, Netflix can’t compete with Channel 4. Channel 4 has put so much money into Derry. It has come and listened to people, taken on board their opinions, found young writers and developed them from a really young age. It’s so important for the nation to have that.’

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