Ofcom’s Commercial Failures

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.

Not all ads are like this. And even if they were, we’d still be better off without them.

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.

Has anyone, anywhere, ever switched broadband suppliers thanks to this man? Well, maybe away from Plusnet…

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.

This shit is on BBC1 every day.

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.

For All Mankind – inexplicably more popular than Escape to the Country.

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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  1. I know I’m missing the point, but however much our writer seems to want it, sci-fi programming isn’t my idea of TV heaven.

    I could happily live without reality shows, soaps and repeats of fucking soaps though. And however you want to slice it, GoT and its ilk are soaps. Think about that for a minute…

    The reason PSBs will give you for their bland programming is ‘lack of funds’. Dunno if it’s true or not, but something shifted when satellite TV arrived in the late 80s/early 90s. Those with long memories will recall that much of sat telly was utter shite, but for some inexplicable reason, PSBs began to follow that model too – especially the BBC.

    The science and other factual programming that the Beeb did well were slowly culled, and the ones that remained were watered down into horrible Discovery Lite complete with recaps every ten minutes for the hard of thinking who weren’t going to be watching anyway, and endless gimmickry – if I see Brian fucking Cox, sorry, PROFESSOR Brian fucking Cox (he was in D:Ream you know) drifting winsomely among the stars one more time I’ll chuck the TV out of the window.

    And it ALL went the same way. Quality drama? Nah give ’em Vikings. Music programming? Well, there’s the Proms, and Yoof shows going out of their way to be edgy and obnoxious and failing on both counts. Oh, and Glasto. Which BBC sound engineers seem unable to cope with, so it always sounds shite. Et cetera, et cetera, et bloody cetera.

    I find myself watching Talking Pictures TV a lot these days, preferring to watch old B&W progs from the sixties and seventies that do sometimes throw up some lost gems, albeit with very theatrical acting and shaky sets.

    If you made it this far, well done I’m beginning to bore myself.

    1. One reason that all the channels – psbs, satellite, whatever – all began to look the same with the same programming is probably down to the fact that execs just jump from channel to channel now, taking ntheir failed ideas with them. So the new boss of BBC1 will be a former ITV exec and so on. That and their absolute obsession with demographics, chasing a youth audience above everything else. It’s fine for commercial channels to chase ratings I guess – they depend on it – but there is no excuse for the BBC to do it. The entire point of publicly finded broadcasters is to allow space for non-commercial content, but now BBC1 looks like ITV, BBC2 looks like BBC1 and BBC4 is being cancelled.

      To be fair, I’m with you on modern sci-fi shows personally – but as you say, that’s not really the point of the piece. British TV has always sneered at genre content even as channels expand the soaps to daily (or twice daily). I always remember the BBC describing Being Human as a ‘comedy drama’ because they couldn’t bear admitting that they were showing a horror series.

    2. I’m not arguing that PSBs should go nuts on sci-fi programming. I’m arguing that if they expect to survive, they should stop going nuts on the programming they do go nuts for, and add some variety. In effect, to do what they are supposed to be doing as part of their public service broadcasting license – ‘something for everyone’.

      Ofcom doesn’t care about anyone who isn’t a PSB. This “let’s increase the ads” move isn’t designed to help out channels who aspire to a 0.5% viewing share, nor are they concerned about the plight of poor Sky or Warner Bros. Discovery weeping into their piles of cash. The only time Ofcom will even bother talking to anyone who isn’t a PSB is when someone has inadvertantly tuned in to The Dam Busters on a Thursday afternoon and wants to complain about the dog.

      But that hallowed PSB status confers upon the broadcaster a responsibility to appeal to a broad audience. It’s cool if you don’t like sci-fi, but it is currently the dominating pop culture trend. It won’t always be, of course. We’re already seeing the cracks start to emerge in the Marvel empire, and while Stranger Things maintains its overall popularity the audience response to it is starting to cool a little.

      While it is the in-thing, though, PSBs, particularly commercial ones like ITV should have tried to appeal to that particularly ravenous audience. They didn’t, and that’s just a bad way to run an entertainment business and even the cost argument doesn’t add up. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of producing Belgravia on ITV is comparable to the cost of the first six episodes of Battlestar Galactica. You can argue that it may well be cheaper to film in Canada (a lot of lower budget US network shows are filmed in Vancouver, so there must be some sort of tax break going on) but good sci-fi doesn’t need a Hollywood budget.

      Sci-fi isn’t the only crowd they offer little for. I’m not a fan of anime in the slightest, but there are fans of it out there. Huge fans. Dedicated fans. Other than children’s TV, however, I don’t recall the PSBs ever trying to appeal to that crowd. I don’t think horror fans are particularly well served by the PSBs. The BBC is probably the best overall choice for horror fans, but that’s damning them with faint praise.

      Meanwhile, there are more than 35 new period dramas being broadcast by the PSBs over the course of 2022. Some of them are one-off miniseries, and others are new series commissions. In fairness, some of them do cross genres. The BBC has The Battersea Poltergeist, for example, which will clearly fit into the horror genre… unless poltergeist is a weird euphemism I’m unaware of…

      Of course, the PSBs aren’t the only ones producing period dramas. Netflix has a new one. Starzplay has a new one. Amazon’s getting in on it as well. But the thing is, Netflix, Amazon, and Starzplay all offer variety. They’ve got sci-fi, they’ve got fantasy, they’ve got action and adventure, they’ve got anime… Pretty sure one of them even has a western on the slate too. And none of them go whining to Ofcom about how the mean old customer isn’t watching their shit. And there’s no getting around it, they do make some shit themselves but they’ll live and die by their ability to appeal to attract and retain mass audiences.

      There’s no regulator to try and change the rules to keep giving them an unfair advantage. On the contrary, Ofcom’s out to bury them.

  2. I was living in Australia, when the Oz government decided to allow more ads. From memory stations were allowed 7 mintues per hour, which was then completely deregulated. Australian TV was very dependent on imports. US programs, which are designed to fit in a 1 hour time slot with ads. After deregulation, these were cut to allow extra space for ads. ‘Allo ‘Allo! was being shown then and proved to be a problem, as some episodes are 35 minutes and won’t fit into a 30 minute slot and are too short for an hour slot. Every resourceful, they showed one and a half episodes a week, with a really awful Rene impersonator, telling you to tune in next week. I haven’t been home for a couple of years now, but it has gotten to the point where the program interupts the ads. Methinks the same will happen here.

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