Sunday 18 February 2018

Wait a week for the next episode? That's so over...

Traditional broadcasters will have to rethink their ­reason for existing in this age of instant access and the 'Internet of Everything'

Netflix has changed things by offering we the viewers the opportunity to control how and when we take in our favourite shows
Netflix has changed things by offering we the viewers the opportunity to control how and when we take in our favourite shows
Ed Power

Ed Power

In the future, the revolution WILL be televised. TV is on the brink of an era of upheaval and reinvention - indeed, that process is already under way as audiences in Ireland and globally abandon decades-old viewing habits. With more and more of us embracing the streaming model pioneered by Netflix, the challenges facing legacy broadcasters such as RTÉ are significant and perhaps existential. In a world of infinite choice, how are they to justify their existence?

Just a few years ago the idea that RTÉ, BBC et al could find their very raison d'être undermined by the internet would have sounded farcical. Netflix has changed that by offering we the viewers the opportunity to control how and when we take in our favourite shows. Yes, box sets have been around for more than a decade, but they could be expensive, whereas streaming services offer vast content for far less.

Where Netflix has ventured, others are following. In the US and Britain, Amazon Prime has emerged as the number two player in this new segment. When Jeremy Clarkson and his cohorts left Top Gear in 2015, it was Amazon that triumphed in the $200m bidding battle to secure their talents (the fruit of their labours, The Grand Tour, arrives in the autumn). It was also Amazon that lured Woody Allen into TV (his Crisis in Six Scenes debuts on September 30) and which is responsible for the most lauded drama of the past years in transgender comedy Transparent, up for nine Emmys.

In TV markets larger and more developed than Ireland's, the writing is perceived as already on the wall. Having for years refused to acknowledge this new reality, HBO, the network behind Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, last April launched a streaming-only service, HBO Now. In industry parlance, HBO had ventured "over the top". Similarly, when CBS announced a rebooted Star Trek, there was little surprise when it was revealed that the show would be exclusively available on its All Access platform (in this part of the world it will air on Netflix).

Others are piling in too. Sky has revamped Sky Go so that navigating for your favourite show more closely resembles the Netflix experience. Virgin Media is to begin producing original content over the next several months. In addition, the BBC's iPlayer can be watched here via a subscription service (the UK-only free version is easily accessible to anyone with rudimentary grasp of how to tweak their internet settings). Even in tiny Ireland, and even without Amazon's presence, the streaming space is increasingly crowded. The extent to which streaming and online viewership matters more than the traditional bums on couches was underlined just the other week when Comedy Central in the US announced it was pulling the plug on its late night satirical news series The Nightly Show.

Low ratings were one factor - the other was the lack of online traction. The Nightly Show simply wasn't picking up enough heat on social media and YouTube. In this new reality, conventional ratings aren't sufficient - you have to own online eyeballs also. Look at how James Corden went from late-night obscurity to American's favourite chat-show host after the viral success of his Carpool Karaoke skit (where Coldplay, Mariah Carey et al sing with him as they zip around LA).

Where does that leave RTÉ? While the state broadcaster already puts much of its content online via its 'player' service, questions must be asked about its ability to compete with the deluge of quality TV from overseas. This has always been a challenge, of course, with RTÉ unique among European broadcasters in having to vie with foreign networks on home soil (German broadcasters do not, for instance, have to worry about the French equivalent of the BBC or ITV stealing viewers).

The good news is that it IS possible to make quality drama on a micro budget, as demonstrated by the success, both in Ireland and Britain, of TV3's Red Rock (which recently began airing on the BBC lunchtime drama slot). Though unlikely to ever be mistaken for Breaking Bad, the series is efficient and moves at a gallop - exactly what is required in a world of infinite choice.

That RTÉ is still stuck in the sorry days where any old rubbish is deemed sufficient was demonstrated by its disastrous 1916 drama Rebellion, met with rolled eyes at home and dismissed as essentially unwatchable at Sundance TV in the US.

Longer term, it is possible smaller broadcasters such as RTÉ will have to rethink their reason for existing. Sitting down with the Irish Independent when Netflix launched in Ireland in 2012, founder Reed Hastings had little doubt as to how things would play out. "Internet TV is going to very transformative," he said. "It's like the mobile phone compared to the landline. We've had broadcast TV for 60 years now. With the internet you click and watch. Over the next 20 years, everything is going to become click and watch and on demand. We'll still have broadcast - after all, we still have landlines. It just won't get used very much."

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