The debate around the effects of streaming on live television viewership is one that seems never-ending. For years now, commentators have consistently sounded the death knell for watching TV in real time, yet here we are still having the same discussion in 2021. Audiences are undeniably not at the heights they once were, but linear TV is not dead yet!
Streaming is a substantial phenomenon which has established itself in the British television landscape extraordinarily quickly. It is hard to believe that just ten years ago Netflix, which now plays such a big role in the public consciousness when it comes to entertainment media, was yet to begin streaming in the UK. Jump forward to 2020, and Ofcom’s recent Media Nations report found that 60% of UK households used such services, a figure that will inevitably continue to grow as more people are converted by the choice of time and titles provided by them.
Yet in that same report, when analysing the average person’s viewing preferences per day in 2020, it was found that 61% was of broadcast content, with the majority of that being watched live, and far smaller amounts recorded and on-demand. It should also be considered that the other 39% was not solely traditional streaming services, with other video platforms like YouTube also forming a sizeable chunk. In 2020 then, despite it being a brilliant year for streaming services, live broadcasts still took up more of our viewing time.
This is not really surprising since 2020, in all of its negativity, demonstrated the value of live television, and particularly the importance of public service broadcasting. For a large proportion of the population, live BBC broadcasts were where people turned to discover the latest Coronavirus developments. The Prime Minister’s announcement of the third lockdown in January, for instance, pulled in an average of 14.3 million viewers, a very respectable figure. Television news in the UK is, whatever people’s views on it, seen as one of the main sources for important information, and by its very nature it is live. 2020 showed why this still matters, and ultimately streaming services do not show live news, a vital service.
Yet live television could not really survive on news alone, and nor should it want to. Audiences love it because it creates unique moments in time, connecting people across the country. Given that sport can create similar effects, it is perhaps unsurprising that sporting events frequently top the ratings, with Euro 2020 matches currently being the most watched programmes of 2021. These games united England in a way that simply would not have been possible without live, free-to-air television.
The popularity of sports broadcasts is perhaps unsurprising though and what is more interesting is that the third most watched programme of the year so far is Line of Duty. This was a show that brought people together in a way that goes against what many of the punters predicted for linear TV. Social media was abuzz with theories and interest in a show that went out at the same time every week. When the quality of the programme is high enough, people are still willing to be driven by the broadcasters, and actively enjoy the sense of communal viewing that live broadcasts provide. Moreover, original British content like this primarily thrives in the live broadcasting environment, as the major streaming services focus most heavily on American content.
Streaming is certainly hard competition, but there is definitely a place for live broadcasts in the television landscape when the quality of the content is good enough. The schedulers should still be in work for years to come.