The world’s first regular television service was launched by the BBC in November 1936. However, it was considered a minority interest for much of its early existence and less than 20,000 sets were in operation by 1939. It was not until 1953, when Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was watched by 27 million people in the UK that television became mainstream. ITV would be established soon after, and Channel 4 would arrive in the 80s to herald in a new age of entertainment.
In the years since, broadcast television had long been the dominant source of entertainment but has recently faced stiff competition from more convenient streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Young people aged 16-24 in particular are known to be turning away from traditional media en masse, and since 2010 the time they spend watching traditional TV has halved. Where the BBC once dominated TV and radio, young people are now shown to prefer Netflix and Spotify. This also extends to children aged 5-15 who now spend more time online than they do watching TV. This raises questions about the future of TV and traditional broadcast media.
Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a renaissance of sorts for television. Ofcom statistics showed that compared to the previous year, in 2020 UK viewers spent 32 minutes more each day on average watching TV, with most of the increase due to news viewing. The same applied to streaming services, with people spending 37 minutes more watching these compared to the previous year. Although in turn, once lockdowns began to be lifted, the time spent watching TV fell back to more normal levels.
One of the many challenges facing traditional media like the BBC is the deep pockets of their streaming competitors. His Dark Materials, the most expensive BBC series ever made, has a budget of around £50 million. In comparison, Netflix’s most expensive series, The Crown, has cost Netflix over half a billion dollars so far. To compete, this means the BBC and traditional media must do more with less.
In response to this competition, broadcast television companies have begun to embrace streaming. Sky recently launched “Sky Glass” which streams content via the internet rather than through the traditional satellite. The BBC and ITV have also joined forces to launch Britbox, a streaming service intended to be an alternative to Netflix. However, this may be too little too late.
Among the streaming giants themselves, their main competition is each other rather than traditional media. While Netflix once had a monopoly on streaming, it now faces competition from companies keen to capitalise on a growing market. The new kid on the block, Disney+, has harnessed the power of their library to provide Netflix with a strong challenge resulting in the success of shows like The Mandalorian and Wandavision. AppleTV has also tried to replicate Netflix’s business model with shows like Ted Lasso enjoying success. As a result of the choices available, the average UK household has at least 2 paid subscriptions to streaming services and this rises to 3 in the USA. This also has knock-on effects on other industries, with smart TVs in particular becoming more and more popular as a way for people to conveniently watch streaming services at home.
In the future, as companies such as Facebook and Google experiment with virtual reality, it seems possible that the use of traditional television screens may eventually decline in favour of new technologies. Samsung is known to be experimenting with technology that turns phones into virtual reality machines. In the short term, however, as young people change the way they consume entertainment; the rise of streaming services is all but unstoppable and the continuing decline of traditional broadcast media is inevitable.