UK becomes a nation of streamers says Ofcom, but it can’t help being protective of ‘traditional’ TV

Source Ericsson

Source Ericsson

  • Ofcom bemoans the apparent diminution of homegrown content
  • Part of its role is to foster and protect it, we get that
  • But maybe it’s getting its medium and message confused?
  • After all streaming is just a medium - anything can and is being pumped across it, including ‘traditional’ TV and up-market ‘public service’ content

Ofcom has charted the progress of TV streaming services in its latest report on the state of the TV market in the UK and has found that the traditional channels still carve out 70% of total Brit viewing time, but that viewers are now watching 50 minutes less traditional TV each day than in 2010. That shift is most pronounced among younger people (16-24s), whose viewing of traditional TV has halved in that time. 

Meanwhile average daily viewing of streaming services rose by seven minutes last year, to 26 minutes; while viewing to YouTube rose by six minutes, to 34 minutes. 

For the first time, says Ofcom, young people now spend more than an hour on YouTube every day (64 minutes, up from 59 minutes).


But while Ofcom presumably approves of the increase in choice for UK consumers that increased streamed viewing represents, it can’t help itself conflating ‘streaming’ services with Netflix-style ‘internationalised’ content, and sounding rather disapproving of the trend. 

Around half of all UK homes now subscribe to TV streaming services. Ofcom calculates that the number of UK households signed up to the most popular streaming platforms – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV and Disney Life – increased from 11.2m (39%) in 2018 to 13.3m (47%) in 2019.

With many homes using more than one service, the total number of UK streaming subscriptions rose by a quarter in 2018 – from 15.6m to 19.1m, while traditional TV viewing continued to decline in 2018. 

The problem from Ofcom’s standpoint is that the UK’s public service broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C – ‘showed’ more than 100 times more original, homegrown shows than the overseas streaming platforms did (showed by the broadcaster is not the same as consumed by the viewer, note), so the gradual switch to streaming services (dominated, apparently, by the US-controlled giants such as Disney, Amazon and Netflix) will by definition slowly tip the balance away from indigenous programme viewing to the sort of ‘internationalised’ content favoured by the global streamers, it thinks. 

There’s a few things wrong with the Ofcom calculus, that’s even supposing that you accept that it’s desirable that Ofcom should be worried about such balances at all (who out there can remember the execrable ‘Quota Quickies’ that cinema chains were forced to screen in the interests of injecting local content for the movie-going public back in the 60s and 70s? Do we want regulation trying to tip the balance again?)

First of all, streaming does or could carry any sort of content and in the fullness of time will. It can and does carry ‘conventional’ serial TV programming already. The BBC is a pioneer streamer here with its iPlayer 

International streaming is two way traffic culturally. For better or worse, Jeremy Clarkson’s The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime is Brit culture heading in the opposite direction, as are Sir David Attenborough’s many nature programmes. The blockbuster Game of Thrones is demonstrably British in character, because it mostly is, and there are many more examples. 

Then there’s YouTube. Ofcom says that 16 to 24-year-olds are watching 73 minutes of YouTube every day, compared to the 53 minutes watched by 25 to 34-year-olds.

While almost half of children aged 3 to 17 years old said that they "watched more YouTube this week" than they did live television, Netflix or Amazon services. YouTubers' content made up the most popular videos viewed by children up to the age of 11, while music videos became the content of choice for 12 to 17-year-olds.

But YouTube shouldn’t be presented by Ofcom as less local than, say, conventional broadcast television.  There’s endless ‘local’ content on YouTube too, much of it user generated, along with TV excerpts (British), news clips (British), music videos and a universe of instructional videos mansplaining everything  from flat pack furniture assembly to bonsai plant collecting.

“The way we watch TV is changing faster than ever before. In the space of seven years, streaming services have grown from nothing to reach nearly half of British homes,” says Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom.“But traditional broadcasters still have a vital role to play, producing the kind of brilliant UK programmes that overseas tech giants struggle to match. We want to sustain that content for future generations, so we’re leading a nationwide debate on the future of public service broadcasting.”

Understood, but traditional broadcasters will master streaming and ‘online’ and develop ‘brilliant’ content models to exploit it. Streaming should be seen as its friend rather than a threat.


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