What broadcast does that streaming hasn’t replaced

The BBC's Mobile Television Unit, 1938
The BBC’s Mobile Television Unit, 1938

Broadcast media’s transition into the digital era has devalued it. Broadcast is truly excellent when two criteria are met: timeliness and inclusion. It’s the best way to watch sport, for example, as well as events such as the Superbowl, Eurovision and coverage of the Queen’s jubilee. It was the latter that has reminded me of broadcast media’s tremendous strength.

On-demand services try to stage ‘events’ of their own, with a combination of season launches, one-offs and rampant promotion. But overall, people watching a show within the same couple of weeks isn’t as inclusive as everyone sitting down together. There are water-cooler moments, and then there’s the more powerful feeling that your household is somehow united with millions of others, right this moment.

Digital-era behaviours around media consumption have changed too, obviously. An enormous breadth of choice sets a hard limit on the possible participation in any particular one. But cut back further is that sense of inclusion that heyday broadcast commanded. It’s analogous to a festival: a massively shared experience.

In the Eighties, BBC One’s Saturday schedule was built around this model, even if the terminology was different. Live kids’ TV in the morning, sports coverage in the afternoon, live shiny-floor entertainment in the evening, movie at night. On-demand services can reach the same levels of inclusion, but they have to spend tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

It might be a frequency bias, but I feel like I’m noticing repeated references to a golden age of television—but with some saying it’s ending and others saying it’s just beginning. I’m minded to think of Disney’s purchase of, and then investment in, the Star Wars franchise: including making the transition out of the cinema and into the living room. As I write, Obi-Wan Kenobi is mid-season: I don’t know the budget, but you can tell it’s considerable. It likely dwarfs the movie budgets. Massive budget allows for the best writing, stagecraft, acting, directing, editing and marketing.

These shows are objectively excellent. Not just this franchise: the big productions from all on-demand services are, by any measure, astonishing. Had it been possible to make them 40 years ago, the viewing figures would be stratospheric and viewers’ enthusiasm would be considerable and long-lasting. Today, though, budgets are high, audiences are comparably modest, enthusiasm is only good to middling. All this in spite of these big shows being among the greatest ever made.

What this demonstrates is the various facets of the behavioural change. Viewers’ dissipation across media channels and changes to consumption habits are well-documented. But in addition, perhaps in result, the sense of timeliness and inclusion has eroded. The digital-era behaviour is based upon feeling like you’re consuming something, rather than you’re involved in something.

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