With online streaming services churning out a seemingly endless amount of content, is creativity and originality being lost along the way?
This week, the BBC (“The Beeb”) announced plans to launch a cross-platform streaming service, working with ITV, C4 and NBC (“Teev”, “Ceef” and “Neeb” respectively) to try and rival the increasingly dominant Netflix and Amazon services.
This comes after reports in late March that terrestrial viewing figures were, for the first time, in danger of falling behind privately owned on-demand platforms. Using the five-second gaps between queued episodes of ‘Stranger Things’ to conduct research, BBC analysts were shocked to find that 16-24 year olds spend more time watching Netflix than all of the public service’s channels combined, including iPlayer.
The BBC’s ‘annual plan’ stated that “Maintaining the reach and time that audiences spend with our output is…difficult when they have so many other choices at their disposal. This challenge is most acute for young audiences”.
The End of the F**king World?
Expanding the age bracket to 16-34 gives viewing figures that are roughly equal for Netflix, BBC, and ITV, but concerns over the data surrounding young people and children has convinced the UK’s leading broadcasters that it’s time they updated their model to keep up with a changing world.
The saga is a reboot of the 2007 story of joint-streaming service ‘Kangaroo’, the BBC’s first, ill-fated attempt to team up with Channel 4 and ITV. The three motley chums tracked viewers across the plain like a real-life Aragorn, (the BBC with its paradoxical ‘for the people’ despotism), Legolas, (ITV and its penchant for hypergroomed elfin blondes), and Gimli, here standing in for Channel 4’s history of objectifying anyone it deems physically ‘other’.
The unimaginatively named bad-guy of the piece, John Smith (head of BBC’s commercial arm), blocked the move at the last minute on grounds of competition regulation, saying it represented “broadcasters taking control of our destiny”.
Viewers would be forgiven for thinking that a greater range of choice isn’t exactly the end of the world, despite the challenges it poses to broadcasting institutions. Interesting enough in itself is the BBC’s interpretation that the arrival of ‘other choices’ heralds an overhaul of their platforming, rather than an appraisal of their content.
NBC Universal is included in the planned merged platform because they own the broadcasting rights for every Baby Boomers’ favourite nostalgia-trip, ‘Downton Abbey’. The BBC recently announced the return of the world’s fastest pot-bellied bigot, Jeremy Clarkson, and Channel 4 this week debuted ‘Genderquake’ and ‘Genderquake: The Debate’, a reality series and its spin-off which essentially engage in polite chin-scratching about whether or not trans-people are allowed to exist.
It’s fair to say this isn’t programming aimed at Millennials. If UK broadcasters want to reclaim a youth audience, a good start might be to review their content, rather than their means of broadcasting.
Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime use viewer-data to inform their output of new shows. Their content seems to be consumer-driven, responding in pretty much real-time to tastes and demands. They also have the notable advantage of catering to (actually, inventing and perpetuating) the ‘binge-watching’ culture so prevalent amongst viewers today.
The instantaneous release of entire series frees the platforms from the strictures of scheduling and serialisation, meaning it’s more feasible to have multiple smash-hit shows available simultaneously, without worrying about inter-competition.
But does the breadth, ease of access, and instant-gratification of something like Netflix translate into quality? Is there in fact as much variety as it at first seems, or are we increasingly spoilt by the illusion of choice?
As detailed in a post on analytics-blog “kissmetrics” a number of years ago, Netflix bought the rights to the US version of ‘House of Cards’ based on a synergistic matrix of data detailing the crossover between “people who watched the UK version”, “people who watched Kevin Spacey films directed by David Fincher” and “people who watched David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ from start-to-finish”.
Their commissioning programme is based on ‘completion rates’. As another example, the sitcom ‘Arrested Development’ was dragged out of retirement for several new ‘Netflix Original’ seasons because seasons 1-3 (initially airing on Fox before being cancelled) had a high proportion of viewers watching ‘to completion’ rather than giving up at any point. “People with data have an advantage over those who run on intuition or “what feels right”.” Concludes blogger Zach Bulygo.
Does this data-driven obsession with viewer-satisfaction translate into creative quality? Perhaps not. Arrested Development’s first season scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Its fourth season, the first to air as a Netflix Original, scores 75%, and early reviews of 2018’s “Season 4: Remix” are down at 40%. Anecdotally speaking, you’d be very hard pressed to find anyone rating the show’s later seasons anywhere near the quality of the first two.
This is, of course, shaky and subjective ground, but there’s reasonable cause for concern that data-driven content production might stifle the risk-taking and creativity of the traditional ‘pitch a pilot’ model.
The ‘give it a go and see what happens’ attitude which led to the best of The Beeb – fearless and anarchic comedy shows like ‘The Young Ones’, panel shows like ‘Have I Got News for You’, all of Vic & Bob, and later sitcoms like ‘Ideal’ and ‘The Mighty Boosh’ – may have had its day, as creative enterprise and ambition are replaced by algorithmic processes.
Ken Loach famously called television “the enemy of creativity”. People like Carlos Gomez-Urbine, now of Facebook, who helped write the code for Netflix’s viewer-behaviour algorithms, believe in televisual and filmic art’s increasing reliance upon a “complex ecosystem of algorithms”. Either way, the whole thing is now a sort of living entity. Whether viral or verdant is difficult to judge.