TV TIMES

Bingewatch30-odd years ago, when satellite dishes were the latest addition to the increasingly-expanding abundance of street furniture, the allure of new television channels beyond the reach of the traditional terrestrial broadcasters prompted the girl I was living with at the time to invest in just such an alternative. We ended up with Cable TV, and despite the accompanying literature boasting about all the new shows we could now access, most of its appeal for me was as a repository for the long-forgotten programmes the old television lords and masters had dispensed with years before. There wasn’t much new material on offer that I myself found capable of piquing my curiosity – bar the novelty exhibitionism of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ long before Jeremy Kyle encouraged the Great British Underclass to wash their own dirty linen in public; but the archive channels suddenly at my fingertips were a rich source of nostalgic entertainment and also (as it was still the 90s) a strain on my limited finances due to the amount of blank VHS tapes I felt compelled to buy to preserve them on.

In the intervening decades, the innovation of the DVD box-set and the advent of YouTube have opened some of the more neglected TV vaults to the public and this is a trend that certainly seems ongoing. Spending a weekend away with all the streaming services and vintage channels I’m not able to receive at home can find me enjoying classic ‘Star Trek’ – and I can’t remember the last time that received a terrestrial outing – and Gerry Anderson’s live-action landmark, ‘UFO’ amongst numerous others. I appreciate my own personal tastes aren’t everyone’s, and many sign-up for the kind of packages offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin or BT in order to catch the contemporary US shows that claim column inches and win awards – the sort of programmes ‘everybody’s talking about’ and so on. I’ve watched a few of these, I admit, and some are pretty good, especially when compared to the generally dismal standard of shows airing on the BBC or ITV, though I’m largely looking for an antique gem when I skim through the thousand-and-one channels listed; and I can usually find one.

During lockdown, the unexpected introduction of time on the hands of an overworked population unaccustomed to catching its breath often translated as binge-watching, whereby Netflix in particular saw a surge in subscribers eager to lose themselves in the sort of addictive mini-series it appears to churn out with effortless ease. Not being a subscriber myself, I found the aforementioned vintage shows to be my own personal source of comfort food for the eyes via the physical box-set, though my diversion was merely a manifestation of a common ailment when the world outside had suddenly taken on an unsettlingly alien element that made a retreat into a parallel universe preferable. This pattern for the populace as a whole reached a peak in 2020 and ’21, though the payback for lockdown in terms of industry and the economy grinding to an ill-advised halt has seen 2022 take on a very different tone for the viewer.

According to data released last week, this year has seen a telling reversal of the lockdown trend when it comes to subscribing to streaming services – 1.51 million subscriptions were cancelled during the first three months of 2022 as (what is already – inevitably – being called) the Cost of Living Crisis begins to bite. Despite 58% of UK homes being signed-up to one streaming service or another, 38% of those asked in a survey by market research company Kantar revealed they intended to cancel such subscriptions in order to save a few quid; the same time period also saw a noticeable decline in new subscribers. In the case of market leader Netflix, last year’s intake was approximately half of those who joined the club the year before. Evidence suggests Netflix and Amazon seem to be the last resort cancellations when others, such as Disney + or BritBox, tend to be first in line when it’s time for streaming services to walk the plank. But even the mighty Netflix is seeing its omnipotence challenged not just by competition, but by economic necessity. In 2022 so far, shares in the company have dropped by 35%, with over $50bn wiped off Netflix’s market value.

Still a relatively recent phenomenon in TV-land, streaming has followed a route all innovations on the small screen have followed, whether colour television, the home VCR, satellite, cable or the DVD, in that it had a rapid take-off, marched into the nation’s homes with a seemingly unstoppable pace, and has now levelled out a little, finding its feet and its permanent place as a steady option for the viewer. There was bound to be a slowing down eventually, and the expected incursion of competition for audiences was inevitable; less so the pandemic, which undoubtedly aided the rise of streaming in the first place and has now contributed to the abrupt halt of its speedy ascent. As a lazy leisure pursuit, watching the telly has been with us now for longer than most of us have been alive, yet compared to food or heating our homes it remains something of a luxury, with the additional payment required for streaming services a further indulgence that the current economic crisis has indeed forced some subscribers to confront as a luxury and to prioritise accordingly.

Globally, Netflix’s total subscribers have fallen by 200,000 this year and experts predict a further two million will follow suit by the summer. The post-pandemic economic situation has evidently been a factor in this, whilst many feel the excess of streaming choice is simply too much when the working-from-home aspect that fuelled the astronomical surge in subscription to streaming means there’s less time available to binge than there was a couple of years ago. Analyst Michael Hewson said, ‘Netflix’s wider problem, along with the rest of the sector, is that customers don’t have unlimited funds and that one or two subscriptions is usually enough. Once you move above that, something has to give in a cost-of-living crisis, and while Netflix is still the market leader, it doesn’t have the deeper pockets of Apple, Amazon or Disney, which makes it much more vulnerable to a margin squeeze.’

Even taking into account the unusual circumstances which facilitated Netflix’s rise to its apogee of popularity, it could only realistically go so far before its progress eased up a little. As things stand, it’s still ahead of the game with 220 million subscribers and constant flow of shows that excite TV reviewers, Twitter and audiences alike in its upgraded equivalent of ‘water-cooler television’. The quarterly growth Netflix has experienced ever since 2011 couldn’t be sustained forever, and price increases have also played their part in prompting a partial exodus from the service, costing it 600,000 subscribers across North America; Netflix’s voluntary withdrawal from the profitable Russian market due to Ukraine has clearly done a fair bit of damage, too – with the loss of 700,000 Russian subscribers to date. Mind you, the price increases have probably aided revenue, which has continued to grow despite everything.

For me, streaming services are something friends tend to have, and I don’t say that as a roundabout way of pleading poverty either. It’s a bit like how friends had toys I didn’t as a child, in that it doesn’t unduly bother me; I was content to play with them when in their presence, but I didn’t cry myself to sleep because I didn’t have them as well. I don’t mind watching some of these talked-about shows if I happen to be at the house of someone who does subscribe – or if someone kindly bungs them on a memory stick for me; but I find I simply don’t have the time to invest in binge-watching on a regular basis. Even the DVD box-sets of vintage shows I’ve often written about tend to be viewed in daily instalments – making use of a spare hour I might have before moving on. We each have our own brand of televisual escapism, after all.

© The Editor

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8 thoughts on “TV TIMES

  1. The relatively short attention-span evident in later generations may be reflected in a similarly short survival-span amongst companies targeting that demographic.

    My (entirely unqualified) advice to any investors in those services woud be to get out early and bank the profits, then leap onto the next fashionable bandwagon that passes by. Long-term ‘bankers’ they are not.

    I’ve never felt to need to subscribe to any of the additional services, finding Freeview and a smart TV more than covers my limited viewing needs. I may be sad, or the others may be sad, but it takes all sorts, so each to their own.

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    1. I only have Freeview myself, and even then I’ve a constant backlog of shows I’ve series linked and have had sitting in the queue for months. When it comes to viewing habits, DVDs and YT tend to claim the majority of my time these days.

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  2. I quite like what Talking Pictures TV has on offer. I’m not subscribed though I see its listings regularly on Facebook. As a result Public Eye and Justice became viewing fare for me via Youtube in 2021. Justice especially has been a revelation.

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    1. I’ve watched some of the Talking Pictures TV output when visiting friends and was reintroduced to an early 70s ITV anthology series called ‘Shadows of Fear’ on there, bringing back some long-buried childhood nightmares in the process. If ‘Justice’ is the legal drama starring Margaret Lockwood, I haven’t got round to watching that yet, though as with ‘Public Eye’ and ‘The Main Chance’ it seems to be one of those overlooked archive series that make you wonder why they haven’t received the repeat runs others have enjoyed over the years.

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  3. Yes, the series with Margaret Lockwood. It’s excellent. My only memory of it from childhood is the opening title sequence and the music, Crown Imperial by William Walton. Somehow I recalled it on watching an episode last year. Reminds me of the beginning of the current affairs show This Week from the same era, similarly grand opening music.

    From the description alone, Shadows of Fear looks very good. It certainly has an evocative theme tune.

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    1. I remember ‘Justice’ from childhood solely due to Margaret Lockwood’s beauty spot, though it wasn’t until I saw the opening titles on some cable channel in the 90s that I realised Armley Jail was used as a backdrop – a menacing blot on the landscape where I spent my formative years. I’ve been meaning to check it out on YT for a while, so I must get round to it. ‘Shadows of Fear’ contains a scene in an episode starring Edward Fox that haunted me for years without me knowing what it had come from – a woman looking in the mirror suddenly sees a man in a gas mask behind her. I virtually leapt out of my seat when it came on the screen earlier this year and found out it was almost 50 years to the day when it first freaked me out. Amazing what turns up on vintage TV channels.

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    1. I once lived in a very ‘Rising Damp’-type house with a female equivalent of Rigsby as the landlady. The situation was nowhere near as funny, but it made the series more relevant than ever to me. I haven’t seen an episode for a few years now, but I’m pretty sure it’d still make me laugh, which is the litmus test of all the great sitcoms. The article has a valid point that the genre is largely dead in the water these days.

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