There are more options than just Netflix and the other biggies, writes Pat Stacey
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on the entertainment industry globally. Virtually nothing is being made.
Production has shut down on movies, television series and even soap operas, which have already begun limiting their weekly episodes in order to make the ones that are already in the can stretch as far as possible. How far that will be is currently anyone’s guess.
The big streamers will be able to absorb the shock, no matter how long the crisis drags on, because of the sheer volume of content in their libraries. The snag, of course, is that they cost money. In the case of newest arrival Disney+, which launches here and in the UK today, the price is €6.99 per month or €69.99 for an annual subscription.
As my mother used to say, “It’s not much when you say it fast”. But with mass job losses now a daily reality and economic uncertainty likely to linger long after Covid-19 has been seen off, some people may decide that one subscription, never mind two, three or four, is a luxury they simply can’t afford right now.
Luckily, there are free alternatives. The RTE Player’s catalogue may be infuriatingly limited compared to other broadcasters’ video-on-demand sites, but at least it offers a handful of first-rate American box sets, including ER, Frasier, and The Shield, as well as a few notable homegrown successes, such as Bachelors Walk, Paths to Freedom, Trivia and, for those who fancy reliving all five seasons, Love/Hate.
The BBC iPlayer is not legally available in Ireland — although let’s not be coy: for anyone who wants to access it badly enough, there are said to be workarounds — but Channel 4’s All 4 is, and has been for many years. Why All 4 doesn’t garner more attention and praise is a mystery. It’s a great service.
There’s no subscription charge — unless you want to pay for the ad-free version. There’s a huge amount of content from Britain, Europe (under the Walter Presents banner) and the United States.
Best of all, it has just about everything shown on Channel 4 and its sister channels since 1982, including the Alan Bleasdale classic GBH, with Robert Lindsay and Michael Palin in his first dramatic role, the political thriller A Very British Coup, featuring the late Ray McAnally’s finest performance, and the stylish cult vampire series Ultraviolet, which starred Jack Davenport, fresh from the success of This Life, and helped launch the career of Idris Elba.
The drawback is that it streams only in standard definition (SD). If you can live with that, you could lose yourself in All 4 for months and still not use up all the goodies it has to offer.
All this being said, streaming is not an option for everyone, maybe because of financial circumstances, or because their internet connection is too slow, or maybe non-existent.
How do broadcasters cater for those viewers who rely on watching television the old-fashioned, no bells or whistles way when new content starts to dry up?
One option, you’d imagine, would be to dig down deep into the archives and excavate fondly remembered programmes that haven’t been seen in decades.
Surely there must be thousands of hours of programming in the vaults of RTE, the BBC and ITV that viewers would love to see again, or see for the first time? Alas, it’s not as simple as just taking them out, dusting them off and pressing “play”.
Many decades-old programmes are tied up with complicated rights, clearance and royalties issues, which makes it not only difficult to screen them again, but prohibitively expensive.
A typical example is the 1980 miniseries Strumpet City, based on James Larkin’s epic novel. RTE wanted to show it in 2013, the centenary of the Dublin Lockout that forms the backdrop to the story, but couldn’t secure the rights, which are now owned by Acorn Media.
Mind you, if your internet connection is up to snuff, the whole series is on YouTube, along with enough other old gems to make your own bespoke channel. I can think of worse ways to self-isolate.