As production costs rise, free-to-air broadcasters will struggle to compete, says Simon Cornwell.
TV is changing. In the UK, the average age of the broadcast TV audience is rising by 10 to 12 months every year.
In five years, the number of under-25s watching linear TV in the UK will have halved. Consumption has shifted to mobile devices; even in the living room, we spend more than half of our time watching streaming services or things we’ve recorded.
And it is not money that constrains younger viewers (the average UK TV viewer is an incredible 59 years old) but time.
Even as traditional viewing declines, spend on entertainment is increasing. Subscribers are choosing to pay for Netflix or Amazon on top of their existing commitments. Over the past five years, Netflix has built a base far faster than Sky did – and not as a substitute but as a supplement.
What does this all mean for the public service broadcasters?
First, drama is where our audiences are heading – 90% of the streaming services’ programming is drama. If our free-to-air broadcasters want to hold their audiences, they must pay ever more attention to this genre.
Second, audiences are becoming choosier.
We buy choice. But as we buy choice, we consume less. We become pickier, and we only invest our time in things that we feel are worthwhile. The PSBs lack the financial strength to try to please everyone. They can only win with a much more radical strategy.
At one end of the spectrum, we need to be making low-cost, highly innovative programming that may break out and compete with big-budget rivals. To pick two examples: Fleabag, and some years before that Skins, are proof that our talent, and our broadcasters, can excel in that arena.
At the other end, if our free-to-air broadcasters are to offer shows that can compete, then they have to commit the resources required to deliver at that level. And they must take risks. The shows we talk about around the watercooler – The Handmaid’s Tale, Top Of The Lake, True Detective – all took huge risks. To compete, we must be bold.
But it’s not only about creative risk-taking.
Playing at that level is expensive, and only becoming more so. Between The Night Manager, shot in 2015, and its follow-up The Little Drummer Girl, shot in 2018, like-for-like costs for talent and crew rose by an average of 41% in sterling terms. Yet broadcast tariffs have barely moved.
If free-to-air broadcasters cannot step up, they will be left only with the shows that the streamers didn’t want. We producers, however much we love our free-to-air broadcasters, simply won’t be able to afford to make top-quality shows for them any more.
And it’s not just money from the UK that’s the obstacle to competing here. Great British shows have value around the world, and capturing that value is critical to making the economics of a show work.
The PSBs have an admirable track record in this area. But when UK revenues may only account for 25% of a show’s budget, we must try even harder to find ways to make things work for our partners as well as they work for us.
So if British free-to-air broadcasters want not only to survive but to compete and prosper on a global stage, we need a rethink. Some of the seeds have already been sown and, privately, our leading free-to-air executives know full well what is needed.
But it’s time to make this into explicit policy, to back our flagship shows with the resources and the collaborative co-production environment they need, and to embrace it as the way of the future.