Britain’s TV regulator thinks that more of this sort of thing will encourage people to watch traditional TV channels again. They are mistaken.
Ofcom is at it again. Desperately flailing to protect the fortunes of good ol’ British TV, they’ve noticed an issue. Although figures have consistently demonstrated that people, on average, are watching more TV than ever (and not just because of COVID), they’re not tuning into our precious live broadcasters. That’s a problem, isn’t it? Because most of those broadcasters rely on adverts, and if the audience share decreases, advertising revenue tumbles with it.
Never fear, because Ofcom has the answer – more ads!
It is becoming ever clearer that Ofcom doesn’t understand the industry it’s tasked with regulating, which could be considered a bit of a situation. Let’s try and help them out, eh?
There are many reasons why people are watching more TV but not watching it live. There’s the convenience factor, and I’d say that’s a fairly big one. Scheduling your week around television increasingly seems quaint. Yes, if you’re a sports fan, I can understand making time in your day to watch the match, but for everything else?
Perhaps if you’re really committed to episode discussions on subreddits, or even the hint of a spoiler causes you to break out in hives, you might make the time for the two or three big shows per year you follow. Beyond that? Hmm…
Ultimately, we now live in a world with so much choice that even keeping up to date with the big shows no longer seems a priority. Even ten years ago, a new episode of Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones felt like a big deal because there really wasn’t that much else to watch in a week. A night in front of the telly inevitably involved pressing the channel up button several dozen times until you eventually settled on that film you passed twenty minutes ago that you’ve already seen more often than is healthy, but there was fuck all else to watch.
That’s not the case, now. Thanks to everyone and their mother deciding they need a streaming service and populating it with content, we’re really spoiled for choice and the big shows don’t seem that big anymore. I’m a fan of Westworld – or I was, until that dire third season – but even though S4 has started running on Now TV, I’m currently working my way through Vikings on Prime Video and Gomorrah on Arrow TV… so, I guess I’ll get round to Westworld eventually?
Thus, convenience plays a significant role in moving people away from linear broadcast TV, but what else might do that? Oh, yeah… ads.
Ads are fucking everywhere, and we are bombarded with them. Ads in the post, in your email, through text messages, on websites, on the radio, in apps on your phone. I’ve seen the bloody things in video games. I’ve seen ads to encourage you to upgrade to get rid of ads. Half the time when I turn on my supposedly Smart TV an ad pops up in the corner. Billboards. Flyers. Grifters on the street. Cold callers on the phone and at the door. That scrap wanker with his loudhailer on a Sunday morning. Hell, even in the boxes of products you’ve just bought there are occasionally ads.
Do you know where I don’t see ads, Ofcom? In the middle of an episode of Gomorrah on Arrow TV and frankly, that’s a relief.
Because I can’t speak for anyone else, but I watch TV for fun, to unwind, to relax. Ads aren’t relaxing. At best, they’re a nuisance, and at worst they’re obnoxious. That Safestyle windows wanker. The Plusnet ‘trust me, I’m a northerner’ twat. Those ‘anything you say, cupcake’ Brummie buffoons. Barry Scott yelling at you about cleaning products, like his name is supposed to mean something. Twenty-something celebrities shilling anti-ageing cream. Hollywood A-listers attempting to convince me they use Sky Broadband. And every time I hear Ray Winstone and his ‘let’s get on it’ shit, I kinda wish he’d been the one taking the sock full of pool balls to the face in Scum.
My enjoyment of a poignant drama, a suspenseful horror film, or a riotous comedy is not at all enhanced by some loaded prick picking up supermodels in his brand-new Beamer, some dickhead salesman offering me a clock to countdown my remaining years if I take out their Mafia-esque life insurance policy, or a weirdly suggestive voiceover apparently near-orgasm over the very concept of a strawberry gateau.
It’s already a marvel that even with Ofcom’s current restrictions, the amount of curdled shit thrown at the viewer can extend a 45-minute episode of TV to a one-hour timeslot. Yes, I know they buffer it with stupid little inserts and continuity announcers, but that’s fifteen minutes of your finite existence offered in tribute to the turd-lobbing monkey gods of capitalist excess.
Still, Ofcom thinks this will help. More ads to cover for the losses in revenue from people ditching broadcast TV. Only they’re going to continue ditching broadcast TV, aren’t they? Adding another couple of minutes of ads every hour isn’t going to change that. If anything, it risks accelerating the problem. What’s your next step, Ofcom? Relaxing the rules on product placement so that an episode of Coronation Street is nothing but a fucking infomercial?
All this flailing about ignores the real issue. The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five operate the five ‘main’ channels. They’re the ones who are guaranteed the top five slots on every service provider’s EPG. They’re the ones that attract the highest number of dwindling viewers. They’re given innumerable advantages over everybody else – why? Because they are Public Service Broadcasters, a model that hasn’t worked as it should for years.
Public service broadcasting is valuable to an extent. I’m not interested in having a debate about impartiality, but as a general principle, impartial news services are a vital resource and should be supported. There’s also value in educational programming, and to an extent, certain types of documentary or other factual programming. When it’s working, such programming does serve the public.
The PSB problem is entertainment, which is by far the most popular form of TV. The PSBs are shit at this and Ofcom has not helped them. Ofcom believes that even entertainment should be regarded as a public service, and as such, PSBs need to provide something for everyone. The problem when you’re trying to provide something for everyone is that you end up providing a lot of people with fuck all if you only assume what they want.
Navigating ITV’s absolute UX clusterfuck of a TV guide, I’m not seeing a whole lot of content here targeted at me. I don’t watch soaps, so ITV3’s marathon of Classic Emmerdale offers scant appeal. Until 6 in the evening, ITV1 might as well be a simulcast of Challenge TV and then the soaps start until it’s period drama time. Rocky Balboa is showing tonight on ITV4, but I’ve seen it, and I don’t fancy watching it again with ads every twenty minutes and whatever the fuck ‘FYI Daily’ is rammed into the middle.
What ITV’s ill-designed TV guide demonstrates is the creative rut that pervades the current British TV landscape. The overabundance of regional detective shows was a joke in an episode of I’m Alan Partridge in 1997, and yet still to this day, when commissioning new programming, the PSBs fall back on the tedious ‘tried and tested’ formula of regional detective shows, police procedurals, soaps, period dramas, game shows, and reality TV.
The overwhelming majority of their output falls into one of those categories, and when it doesn’t, it’s usually because they’ve bought the rights to a show from somewhere else. Or they’ve decided to narratively butcher a well-known film with adverts and some weird mid-Act Two insert demonstrating a disturbing lack of knowledge in how stories develop and flow.
Yet a gander at IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes ranking of the most popular TV shows in the world right now indicates that the ‘tried and tested’ formula of our PSBs is well off the mark. While it’s true that the BBC’s Peaky Blinders competes alongside more traditional dramas such as Dark Winds, the majority of the most popular shows are science fiction – Stranger Things, The Boys, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Westworld, The Umbrella Academy, For All Mankind, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Chloe, Ms Marvel, etc.
You can quibble about money. About how Amazon’s got enough money to spend almost half of BBC One’s annual budget on a single season of a Lord of the Rings show, but at its core, the major issue is that audiences have wanted content that the PSBs have refused to provide them.
We can go back long before the rise of streaming services to spot the warning signs for the PSBs. Think back to that Alan Partridge episode I mentioned earlier. Alan starts riffing about a science-fiction movie extravaganza with Rutger Hauer but concludes that nobody would watch it. The joke is, of course, that many more people would watch that than a Millennium barn dance with Jet from Gladiators.
Around the same time that joke was made, however, the trend of audiences dropping away from the traditional ‘big four’ (and Channel 5) began. Because something happened around then—the digital switchover which brought with it a huge boost in subscribers to Pay TV services such as Sky, and the variously-named cable services. These ‘premium’ channels were offering shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe long before any of the PSBs were. While the PSBs continued commissioning and peddling tired formulaic TV, viewers wanted something fresh.
The irony is that Ofcom’s own rules are supposed to address this issue. They’re supposed to prevent a PSB from endlessly churning out the same old shit and then repeating it 16,000 times across an increasing number of unnecessary channels.
But they don’t, do they? The BBC thinks Doctor Who and importing the CW’s version of Superman suffices for sci-fi output. After all, it’s a packed schedule. Gotta make sure your ten daily repeats from the ‘doing simple things for idiots’ genre of reality TV isn’t affected by inconvenient ideas such as variety.
ITV tried their hand with Primeval, a show with CGI so impressive it made HBO’s ill-advised choice to graft the deceased Nancy Marchand’s head on another actress in The Sopranos look cutting edge. I’m sure Five has tried something, but at this point, the only thing I can really remember about Five’s illustrious history is Shannon Tweed’s tits every Friday night.
This is a problem that more ads on ITV isn’t going to solve. ITV’s revenue problems are completely of their own making. They’re due to a willful disregard for what larger audiences have craved for years. A complete failure to spot the trends and remain relevant as their viewership trickled away to Sky and Virgin. And now, with customers able to pay to see content unmolested by some twat barking at you to buy a sofa, the viewers are abandoning their creative black hole in droves.
Ofcom can piss and moan about the streamers. They can extend their remit to cover streaming services – regardless of whether customers actually want them there or not – and they can relax rules on adverts to try and bolster dwindling revenues. It’s futile.
Had Ofcom spent more time assessing whether the PSBs were truly delivering ‘something for everyone’ rather than encouraging absolute idiots to waste everyone’s time with complaints about the pre-watershed use of the word ‘fanny’, then they might have saved ITV and the other commercially-dependent PSBs from themselves. They might have concluded that you don’t need Lewis, Taggart, A Touch of Frost, Rebus and all the others on the schedule at once.
They didn’t do that, though. They let the PSBs dig their own graves, and now Ofcom is scrambling for a ladder to get them out of it. Whatever Ofcom’s purpose, they behave like little more than an industry lobbyist group, throwing ideas around to protect their precious member organisations at the continued expense of the end-user experience.
More ads on TV just punishes the people who actually like what the PSBs churn out. Ofcom encouraging legislators to force streaming platforms to push PSBs over everyone else spits in the face of consumer choice. Ofcom demanding that all streamers abide by their archaic regulatory guidelines that encourage easily offended crybabies to complain about women being depicted making a family dinner (sexism, innit?) stifles creativity, conversation, and being a fucking adult.
While I do think it would be a shame for the PSBs to fail completely, and it is entirely necessary for some of their programming to always have a home somewhere, it shouldn’t be Ofcom’s place to continually try and save the PSBs like they’re a group of fucking pandas. They’ve been given advantage after advantage for decades, and they are still in a hole that they dug themselves because they’re run by out-of-touch zombies who think ‘risk’ is just a board game that used to advertise with them.
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