There’s no place like home: domestic TV remains a crowd-puller
It’s easy to get carried away by the popularity of streaming platforms but they are no match for our domestic broadcasters in appealing to UK audiences.
Another minister in charge of media arrives to tackle the thorny questions of the internet age.
Michelle Donelan served as Secretary of State for Education for two whole days last year, so just enough time to sharpen her pencils for the Autumn term.
We should perhaps be grateful that she was granted nearly six months in charge of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, long enough to arrive at the obvious conclusion that Channel 4 should not be sold off.
Lucy Frazer is now in charge of the department (shorn of its ‘Digital’ part), and we have to hope that His Majesty’s Government doesn’t continue to change ministers within the lifetime of a gadfly.
The new minister picks up the debate about the future of the BBC, a subject that continues to vex people on both extremes of the political spectrum.
The readers of the Daily Telegraph, Mail and Express continue to bemoan the BBC’s apparent Left-wing bias while Guardian readers may see things differently. Meanwhile the upper management of the BBC is now in the hands of a chairman who was part of Boris Johnson’s inner circle in the London mayoralty and who has contributed to the Conservative party (and maybe helped Boris Johnson sort out his piggy bank).
Tim Davie, the director-general, has stood for office for the Conservative Party and Sir Robbie Gibb is on the BBC Board, having worked for the Conservatives between 2017 and 2019. So we should hope that a management team with this background will get the support of the present-day government.
We can also hope that we they will reinforce the special qualities of the BBC. There is inevitably much talk about its role in the ‘age of Netflix’ but the recent travails in the streaming market should temper some of the hysteria.
It is more instructive to look at some the BBC’s recent successes and the reasons for them.
Two examples stand out in particular; Happy Valley and Detectorists.
Both programmes first appeared in 2014 and both have recently enjoyed significant uplift in popularity. Happy Valley has been a critical, ratings and awards triumph. While its audiences were higher in the pre-streaming era, the final episode achieved over 7.5 million viewers, an amazing achievement for a drama in these more fluid times.
Detectorists may not have hit such giddy audience heights, but its history is another example of the value of long-term investment. It achieved nearly one million viewers in its early days and this settled down significantly in later years, but the Boxing Day 2022 episode achieved 3.8 million, helped by the transition from BBC Four to BBC Two.
For both programmes their recent success has sparked a substantial upswing in people going back to earlier episodes on catch-up, thus rewarding them for durability. People are discovering these programmes for the first time and appreciating what they find (a bit like metal detectors).
Streaming companies are investing in UK talent
What do they have in common, apart from plenty of BAFTA recognition?
Brilliant writing, acting, casting, direction and production all play their part, of course, and in Sally Wainwright (writer of Happy Valley) and Mackenzie Crook (Detectorists) we have two of the most talented creators active today, and there are many more. Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and Steven Knight spring to mind.
The other factor is their setting. Happy Valley is rooted in the Calder Valley and Detectorists in bucolic Essex (although filmed in Suffolk).
Both programmes are resolutely British and the combination of setting, cast and dialogue are rooted in domestic familiarity.
It’s easy to get carried away by the popularity of streaming platforms but they are no match for our domestic broadcasters in appealing to UK audiences, and nor can they be.
The BBC is especially good at long-term investment in British talent and this pays off over time. Our commercial channels may be less consistently successful and unable to make such bets, but the whole UK TV industry benefits from our vast talent pool.
It is no coincidence that the major Hollywood studios and even Netflix are investing heavily in UK-based talent and production.
And while the BBC is key to this, advertisers reap the benefit of the strength of the UK filmed content market, even if the commercial channels have to share the audience with the BBC.
We have to hope that the grown-ups in charge of the future of our media channels do not throw the baby out with the bath water. We have benefitted from several decades of high quality TV and the pressures on the BBC need to be moderated.
Yes, the ‘defund the BBC’ brigade will continue to stamp their feet over their perceptions of political bias and may even be serious about never watching any BBC (nor presumably listening to any BBC Radio or using, say, the BBC Weather site) and they may prefer the kind of talking heads current affairs coverage offered by GBNews, unsullied by actually having reporters based where the action is.
They are the ones who miss out on excellent programmes such as The Shamima Begum Story, another great example of BBC high-quality programme making.
So, let’s recognise that UK viewers seem to enjoy great local TV programmes which are created by great local talent in all departments of the content production industry. The streamers have their place but they can’t capture the hearts and minds of UK audiences as the local broadcasters can.
Long may this continue, and let’s hope the politicians are reading the room.
Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb Media (now MGOMD) and was CSO at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry. He writes for The Media Leader each month — read his columns here.