Broadcast television might be struggling, but streaming can’t live without it

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Ofcom's 2023 Media Nations report is less than encouraging for traditional television broadcasters - but a look at the wider television industry reveals how much difficulty streaming services really face

Right now, the most popular show on Netflix in the UK is something called Witness Number 3. It’s a four-part legal thriller, starring Nina Touissant-White as a hairdresser who testifies in a murder investigation. Notably, it’s not a new show, like the latest seasons of Netflix originals The Witcher and The Lincoln Lawyer, both of which occupy lower spaces on the list; Witness Number 3 first aired last summer, one of several original dramas to air on Channel 5, highlighted in today’s Ofcom Media Nations report as the least watched of the major UK broadcasters.

Broadly speaking, Ofcom’s report paints a less-than-encouraging picture of the state of linear broadcast television, if not necessarily a surprising one either: weekly audience reach has seen the steepest annual decline since records began, and even the previously reliable older demographics have seen their daily viewing drop at the fastest rate ever. The number of programmes on broadcast television pulling in over 4m live viewers has more than halved in the past eight years, falling from 2490 in 2014 to 1184 in in 2022. 

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The report – partially, at least – attributes this to “competition for people’s attention [...] outside broadcast TV”, noting that “the media diets of viewers and listeners in the UK appear to be more diverse and fragmented than ever”. It’s more complicated than that – when you allow for recordings and on demand streaming on the likes of BBC iPlayer, “broadcast television still accounts for the greatest proportion of all time spent watching television” – but at first glance things are going well for the streaming services, with a combined 20% increase in revenue across UK-based streaming arms. 

Netflix's Top 10 most watched TV programmes in the UK from July 24 - July 30 2023, in descending order: Witness Number 3, The Witcher, Sweet Magnolias, The Lincoln Lawyer, Too Hot to Handle, Manifest, Young Sheldon, Peppa Pig, Baki Nanma, and Outnumbered (Credit: Netflix)Netflix's Top 10 most watched TV programmes in the UK from July 24 - July 30 2023, in descending order: Witness Number 3, The Witcher, Sweet Magnolias, The Lincoln Lawyer, Too Hot to Handle, Manifest, Young Sheldon, Peppa Pig, Baki Nanma, and Outnumbered (Credit: Netflix)
Netflix's Top 10 most watched TV programmes in the UK from July 24 - July 30 2023, in descending order: Witness Number 3, The Witcher, Sweet Magnolias, The Lincoln Lawyer, Too Hot to Handle, Manifest, Young Sheldon, Peppa Pig, Baki Nanma, and Outnumbered (Credit: Netflix) | Netflix

Still, though, the report struggles to capture the tension between traditional broadcasters and streaming platforms, and obscures the extent to which the latter are still reliant on the former. The most popular show on Netflix right now is Channel 5’s Witness Number 3, as we’ve already noted, but a glance further down the list reveals the success of Manifest (saved from cancellation by a traditional broadcaster), Peppa Pig, and Outnumbered. In the US, meanwhile, legal drama Suits – which ran from x to 2019 – is experiencing a huge wave of popularity, becoming the first show in nearly four months to exceed 2 billion minutes watched on online-only streaming services

Streaming platforms are famously very opaque with their data – it’s one of the issues at the heart of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes currently – but it’s not hard to see how much they’re still led by traditional broadcasters. The story of entertainment media for the past decade has been that of Silicon Valley disruptors taking a “move fast and break things” approach to television; now, with the rise of FAST channels, the increasing move away from the binge-watch release model, and the introduction of ad-supported tiers on Netflix, it feels more and more that these platforms are grudgingly trying to reinvent what they once tried to break. (Which, if nothing else, exposes how disconnected most arguments about privatisation of public service broadcasters are – at the same time that Nadine Dorries was calling for Channel 4 to be more like Netflix, Netflix was heavily advertising the fact it now had the new series of Derry Girls).  

In a way, next year’s report might prove more interesting, capturing a period that’s seen the big streamers enter an increasingly precarious position – in many cases alienating both the talent that makes their programmes and the audiences that watch it. More and more, the limitations of television by tech company – a side project to sell a few more iPhones or generate a few more Prime subscriptions – are becoming apparent; consider the increasingly common decision to not just cancel a series but remove it from the platform entirely, breaking the implicit promise of the streaming era to save on residual payments and hosting fees. It comes at the same time that a model focused purely on subscriber growth has reached its natural endpoint, too, worrying the Wall Street investors who previously funded these platforms. With all of that in mind, there’s something to be said still for television made with a view towards some kind of public service – if nothing else, it’s more sustainable.

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The Ofcom Media Nations report quotes a woman who, when asked about Channel 5, says she “doesn’t watch normal TV, and hasn’t for quite some time”. Her go-to, she says, is Netflix – perhaps she’s been watching Witness Number 3 this week. 

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