A highlight of the past week was to be in the audience when Bill Bryson was interviewed at the end of a long, two-day conference. He is a master raconteur, demonstrating his skill when he told how he’d been poleaxed by a car parking barrier as he walked underneath. Lying on the ground seeing stars, his one thought was that he was sure he could weave it into his next tale. Near the end of the session, he got talking about attitudes to ebooks, and how, after predictions that hard copy books would soon be a thing of the past, many genres appear to be holding their own
It’s been a bit like that with broadcast media. Back in the late ’80s, I was writing about how, in the not too distant future, all media would be integrated and we’d be watching films, current affairs and soaps from our computer. Did it happen? Well, sort of. But given the pace of change, we’re more likely to be viewing stuff on a tablet or a mobile than a desktop PC, and we’ve decided that we don’t want content to be projected on to a wall, as was once visualised.
And there again, that’s only half the story. This vision of the future was meant to go hand in hand with the death of TV, the fragmentation of audiences, the rise of satellite channels, pay-per-view (PPV) and video-on-demand (VOD). So yes, we have seen an uptake in demand for services like Netflix, Amazon (Prime Video), HBO (HBO Now) and we wait with bated breath for Apple’s streaming service, apparently scheduled for later in the year…but not everything in the garden is rosy.
Earlier this year Netflix reported numbers seen as disappointing by many investors, despite a hike in subscribers, while Amazon is betting the bank on new shows, such as its investment in the one headed up by the former Top Gear trio: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. These companies are hoping that the material they produce will pull new audiences in, that they’ll generate more ‘street cred’ than the traditional broadcasters of old possess.
But these so-called dinosaurs are proving surprisingly fleet of foot. Think Happy Valley, The Fall, Shetland, Sherlock – the list goes on. And these dinosaurs are selling their most popular programmes to their on-demand rivals. Which means that though we might not be sitting round playing happy families on a Saturday night in front of the box (in actual fact, we could all be sitting in different rooms watching different programmes on different platforms), it’s less a case of the demise of TV, more an accommodation. Which is rather like what’s been happening in the world of books.
In fact, the only fly in the ointment could be the dismantling of the BBC, and Channel 4, as we know it – and if we let it. Yes, there’s probably still a lot of dead wood around in these organisations, and yes, the structure creaks, there are instances of misogyny (and we won’t even touch on Saville) – but they’re not run purely for profit, and to date they have fought off political interference. Yet all that could change. John Whittingdale, the minister who’s deciding our BBC’s future, recently announced he wants the government to choose the people who run the BBC. It means our most trusted news source could become government-controlled.
If you want to keep the BBC free from government control, click on this link and sign the petition. It will take less than a minute.