Picture the scene:
At the end of a hard day’s work down the media pit, we’re at the workingmen’s club having a few half milds and playing snooker. A guy walks in, mouthing-off; claiming evolving technologies have brought the UK media industry to its knees. We contest his provocative statement, but after this there’s literally nothing to do but roll up our shirtsleeves, stub out our fag (we share one) and have a good, hard fight. With ourselves. On a blog. About the effect of evolving technology on the UK media industry. That’s right people; like our forefather’s before us we’re having a nice old-fashioned DEBATE. Today we’re reaching deep within ourselves and asking; is the advent of more and faster, on-demand content damaging the UK film and media industry?
Here’s the thing then. By 2015 it’s predicted that 20% of homes will have 3 or more pay TV subscriptions, with 50 million homes worldwide possessing 2 or more by the end of this year. Hot chuff! In a kind of embrace-the-future, spangly, happy way it is GREAT that technology is evolving so that more and more stuff is readily accessible to mass international audiences. That can only be a good thing right? What is not to love about lying alone on a couch at 3am on a Thursday morning watching Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and back-to-back House of Cards episodes on Netflix? It’s kind of liberating realizing that you no longer have to rely on old-fashioned, out-moded concepts like friends and family for your mental input and entertainment. It’s also kind of addictive, the more you watch, the more you want, the more they make. Being able to watch an entire series in a day is effectively the crack-cocaine of the entertainment world. On the other hand, who is it exactly, that’s commissioning all this new content flooding our eyes? What are the politics and structures at play that get all this stuff made, who’s talent is being developed and who is benefitting?
The good thing about the Internet has always been that it was a kind of egalitarian free-for-all when it came to content. You could be an overweight sprout farmer from Arkansas and a YouTube hero at the same time, you could be a toothless meth head from Berlin and still get online adulation, or most importantly you could be a cat. A big famous cat. The thing was that it just didn’t matter about where you were from, how much money you spent on production, no commissioners or PR people in sight. Instead, on the strength of just your talent/weirdness/nice fur; you could be the next big THING. As far as playing fields go it was a pretty level one. You could film a sit-com in your living room and have millions of people watch it. And then the people who worked in TV realized this, and they wanted in. Hence Netflix, Yahoo, Amazon and AOL all becoming content commissioners.
This is surely a good thing for the media though no? Netflix has a queue of 2 million titles on it’s roster, as far as diversity and choice goes that’s pretty generous. No more suicidey waits through Antiques Roadshow to wait for the Simpsons to come on. And in media-world terms, the demand for instant, never-ending, any-time fun times means more and more content has to be produced. Fresh content therefore leads to more demand for actors, writers, producers etc. More lovely fluffy media work to go round for everyone. Right?
WRONG. That angry guy who burst into our imaginary workingmen’s club before had a bit of a point. Notice something about all those companies commissioning scripted content? They’re all American. Why? Mass appeal and money basically. Why commission a bbc2-esque piece of extremely niche British low-budget humor when 99.9% of your audience won’t get it? Commission something big, bolshie, slick and most importantly American and the world will latch on. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, for example ITV’s Downton Abbey does brilliantly in the States and abroad pedaling a rosy look at our very English past. But can you see a show like The Young Ones doing well stateside? Or Vic and Bob? NO. It just wouldn’t work and most importantly it wouldn’t make money.
But what of the content these online groups are making, how does it stand up? Well for a start it’s got a much, MUCH bigger budget than almost anything our homegrown channels could cook up. Try $100 million for a 13 episode series on Netflix, that makes the BBC’s average of around £6 million for a home-grown drama of the same length look pretty low-rent in comparison. With international distribution comes the international budget, inverting the whole idea of the level, borderless playing field that the Internet brings to the table. Fudge. BBC world wide digital officer Dan Heaf was recently quoted saying, “The global media market will grow at roughly six per cent over the next five years but about 45 per cent will come from the US. You can’t be a global media brand unless you have a US presence.”
Do’h! Where does that leave our homegrown talent? Brawling with itself in an imaginary pub at the moment I’m afraid. The answer is probably to stop thinking of British shows and think of “world” appeal shows, which are the only one likely to be able to compete for the big bucks. Comedy leviathan Armando Iannuci is calling for the licence fee to be scrapped and replaced with a subscription so that we can start “ruthlessly” selling ourselves abroad. When you can’t beat them up in your make-believe club, join them.