Something strange is happening with old-fashioned linear TV: we’re watching it in our droves.
Six million Brits tuned into BBC One to watch the first episodes of Gladiators, the physically-demanding show where athletes dangle from the ceiling and you, at home — regardless of your physical ability — think: "Yeah, I could do that."
Some 5.5 million people – with a peak of 6.9 million viewers – watched the final dramatic moments of The Traitors (poor Mollie), with pubs across the country airing viewing parties; one gay bar selling fizzy pink rosé in honour of our favourite contestant, Diane.
But it’s not just lycra and fizzy rosé drawing people to live television: it is also happening with drama too. Around 3.5 million people tuned into each episode of Mr Bates vs The Post Office on ITV1, even though all episodes were available to watch on their own streaming service ITVX. I know what you’re thinking: this is ITVX we’re talking about. But surely swerving the service wasn’t the reason for every single viewer.
Now, these recent traditional television hits doesn’t mean that the streaming age is in any way reversing. Last year, Ofcom said that traditional broadcast viewing is currently experiencing the biggest fall since records began, and there’s nothing in recent months to suggest a swing back the other way.
Streaming and catch-up is also integral to the success of many television shows, including all the ones I’ve mentioned. Up to an additional three million viewers have caught up with the first episode of Gladiators on iPlayer, and just over 13 million viewers have watched Mr Bates when you include streaming and catch-up over the past month. Streaming is also a driver of viewers to The Traitors, with figures from the BBC indicating that for earlier episodes more than half of its viewers are bingeing the series rather than watching them live.
But yet, after so much frenzied speculation that the old way of watching television is literally dying, it is still there, packing a punch, keeping us glued, when we all least expect. Why?
It could be something relatively straightforward: that by watching live television you’re avoiding spoilers. This feels especially true with The Traitors. Nothing drives you to be watching an episode of a show live than the anger and frustration you’ll experience from stumbling across a meme highlighting something you haven’t seen yet.
Old habits could also be an influence in watching live television, especially with older viewers. Thanks to confusing television setups and boxes, there are still too many hoops you have to jump through, just to watch certain shows on streaming. My parents, for instance, own four remote controls for their television, and neither them nor myself know what two of them do.
Or it could also be down to the fact that traditional television does something that streaming or catch-up rarely makes you feel – making you feel like you’re part of something.
Nothing compares to watching live TV with the knowledge that millions of people are watching the same moment as you. It provides a national moment, an added edge, knowing that the same scene that resonates with you is being felt by millions of other people watching across the country at the same time.
There is also a knowledge that these moments are at the heart of our culture and are driving the national conversation. By watching the biggest show live, you know it’ll likely be talked about by your friends, at work, or online the next day.
There are, of course, big streaming releases too, but as we all might be watching the same programme days or even weeks apart, those sparks feel rarer. Take Fool Me Once, the latest Harlan Coben thriller, for instance. 6.3 million of us watched the first episode of the suspenseful thriller during the first week of the year on Netflix.
It is a big hit for the streamer, but reading those viewing figures surprised me. I just didn’t think that it was that popular, because I hadn’t seen as many people in my social circles or online talking about it. With a big TV show on linear, it feels near impossible to not know.
It could also be the fact that to viewers the streaming age may not be all what it is cracked up to be either. As well as streamers cutting back on the number of big releases, they have also been raising their prices and clamping down on password sharing. Then there’s the adverts. Later this month Amazon's Prime Video users will be forced to watch adverts unless they pay an additional £2.99 to remove them, not long after Netflix and Disney+ introduced ad-tiers of their own.
It doesn’t mean it is great for traditional broadcasters, however. An advertising slowdown has caused cutbacks and fewer new shows at Channel 4, whilst the BBC is making fewer shows due to the cost of inflation and the freezing of the licence fee. Doubling down on expanding your online offering to compete with the streamers, while still catering to live viewers is expensive for these broadcasters, and potentially unsustainable, in the long run.
So I hope that broadcasters don’t back out of traditional television, thinking that the future is all streaming, when actually it might not be the case.
Otherwise us, and them, might not realise how great and impactful traditional television was until it is gone.
Read more: Streaming vs linear TV
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