'Til Streaming Do Us Part

4th September 2015

Television ownership is at its lowest level in 40 years, as more and more of us choose to stream content directly onto our tablets or laptops. Jennifer Lipman explores whether this means that the ‘golden age’ of families gathering around the TV is over ...

When Elizabeth II was crowned queen in 1953, it was a revolutionary moment – and not just in royal history. With the ceremony broadcast live from Westminster Abbey, it marked Britain’s first major shared experience of television. Some 20.4 million people switched on at home or at large-scale public screenings. 

“Viewers crowded around television receivers to witness the historic moment,” says Claire Hampton, curator of broadcast culture at the National Media Museum. “It really showed television was here to stay.”

In the subsequent sixty years, there’s been no shortage of landmark small-screen moments, from the 1966 World Cup final to multiple royal weddings. “We all have our favourite moments” says Claire. Hers – shared by a good many – is Colin Firth emerging from the lake as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

But if for decades television has been at the core of cultural conversation, recent years have seen a shift. For one, possessing a TV is no longer a given, with ownership at the lowest level in forty years. Equally, ratings are down. “The age of ‘water-cooler TV’ has now disappeared,” explains Rob Buckley, who runs television blog The Medium Is Not Enough. “Twenty years ago, any top soap opera was getting 20 million viewers but now they all sit at around five to six million. There are a few shows that can grab significant attention, but not many.”

The catalysts have been technology and competition for our attention. These days, ‘watching’ involves wifi and a laptop, tablet or smartphone to download or stream on, with industry ratings body BARB reporting that the number of TV-less households with broadband has grown threefold since 2009. According to technology analysts IHS more than six million Brits now pay for Netflix or a similar service, while DVD players and live-pause television have gone the way of VHS.  

And this trend is true across the generations. “It’s a phenomenon in anyone under 45,” says Matthew Guest, head of Deloitte’s digital strategy team, and author of a recent report on media consumption. He thinks that the hold-outs will eventually give in to watching online or streaming content, influenced by their children.

Not that it’s yet the end for the old-fashioned set, or indeed the television room. According to TV Licensing, we still only watch on mobile screens for three-and-a-half minutes daily – a drop in the ocean of total time in front of the box. “The living room is still, even with the rise of mobile devices, our favourite place to watch ‘must see’ programmes,” a spokesman tells me. “For most homes the big TV set in the lounge will be the best way to watch,” echoes television expert Gill Hind of Enders Analysis. “It’s a much better viewing experience.”

For the YouTube generation, what’s really changed is how they plug content into the television – for example using games consoles to access streaming services. And often, says Matt, “it’s not that kids dislike the large screen format. They just don’t have one.” As they become adults, he thinks that they will be persuaded of the benefits of the box for watching sport or films. “As you become more domesticated, having a TV is an important part of the social fabric. Whether that’s to the degree of your parents is another matter.” 

That being said, the fact that we no longer need a TV to ‘watch TV’ has had an impact, not least because we effectively control the schedule. These days, without resorting to piracy, we can watch what we want when we want. With handheld devices and improved mobile coverage, Claire thinks that within five years we’ll be able to watch anywhere we want too.

For week-by-week scheduling, the game is up. “Consumers will vote with their feet,” Matt says. No more poring over the TV guide or setting the video recorder, more time for downloading Breaking Bad for a weekend binge. “Bingeing is important to, say, couples,” he adds. “It’s a part of life that allows them to come together, so I think it’s here to stay.”

As Gill points out, binge-watching isn’t entirely new – “think of DVD box sets, or watching multiple episodes of series saved on your Sky” – but it is getting cheaper. One monthly subscription offers access to more programmes than we could ever feasibly enjoy. Is this constant access a good thing? We’ve all bemoaned the teenager who can’t take their eyes off a screen – but are we all heading that way?

Certainly, as Matt points out, we’re forming new habits around watching video content on-the-go. “When you first get a smartphone and you’ve only had a normal mobile you’re only used to picking it up when it rings. As you get more used to it you find more slots in the day to use it,” he says. The truth is, we’re probably watching more TV-type content simply because we can. 

At the same time, timeshifted viewing has gone up, and we have more satellite channels than ever to flick through. As a result of all this choice, watching television has become fragmented, less of a unifying social experience bringing people together. Is this something to mourn? After all, if we’d all had portable screens in 1953, families would hardly have enjoyed the Coronation as one.

“Hopefully we won’t see the death of scheduling altogether; we’ll still have those shared moments,” says Claire. “I hope we’ll still turn to television for those key sporting moments and possibly royal occasions.”

In any case, it’s easy to be overly nostalgic. “TV has always been a background to the social fabric in a household, and in some families entire life is constructed around what’s on, but people have always also read books and newspapers,” says Matt. There are plenty of other things to bring us together. 

One of those things – ironically enough – is social media. For all that ‘watching’ might be becoming a more solitary experience, there is enormous appetite these days for television that you can gossip about on Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram. “‘One-screen’ viewing seems to almost be a thing of the past,” says Claire. “There’s a new digital generation who won’t necessarily focus their attention on one screen - they’ll have the television on in the corner and also be on a tablet or phone.” 

For broadcasters, provided they get the social media buzz right, it’s the audience doing their advertising for them. But as Claire points out, a side-effect is that it encourages people to watch and comment live, making television a shared experience again. We might not have been tweeting during the Coronation, but when Wills and Kate tied the knot Twitter recorded 67 mentions every second.  

Beyond how we are viewing and where we are discussing it, the other big shift has been in what we are watching. For now, even if it’s online or on-the-go, most of us are lapping up the types of programmes we always did; hour long dramas like House of Cards, half hour sitcoms, and big-ticket sports events. “Much of what we are watching online is content that started life on TV, even if we are accessing it through iPlayer. It’s just a different delivery method,” Gill explains. “People still value TV-type content.”

Whether we always will is anyone’s guess. Already, says Matt, we’re logging on to watch light entertainment like short videos. Among the younger generation, vloggers like Alfie Deyes and Zoella, famous for self-published online content, are household names. Teens “are actively waiting for content to be published on their favourite YouTube channel,” he says. “They want to be first to watch.”

That said, beyond a few hits, vlogger audiences tend to be under the age of 25. And even then, it’s still only a small chunk of the entertainment they are consuming. “Zoella’s total audience in a month is less than one episode of Made in Chelsea in terms of minutes,” Gill says. “It’s also very difficult to monetise.”

On vlogs, the jury is out. But ultimately, whether or not they catch on, the industry’s future depends on whether what’s on screen in front of us is any good. And with sites like Netflix developing their own shows and myriad ways to indulge in everything from Scandi Noir to US comedies, it’s perhaps never been better to be a couch potato. Across the pond, anyway, TV is where the good roles are. “The movie industry has largely switched over to blockbusters that can be shown anywhere in the world so have minimal dialogue, maximum action,” says Rob. The serious creatives have gone into TV instead.

With such high-quality programming, from Game of Thrones to The Fall, we can only hope they will stay there. As to how we will be watching in the future, or on what; who knows. “About the only thing we can say is that it’ll be a lot clearer for some broadcasters who’s watching what, since ratings are far easier to measure on the internet,” says Rob.

For the time being, it looks like the screen will still bring us together, in one format or other, to lust after Poldark or bicker about Match of the Day. “It will still excite and entertain and deliver,” Matt says. “It’s easy to get really existential, but what other format can command an audience of seven million in one go?” Television in 2015 is having a midlife crisis, possibly, but it’s not dead yet.

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