Our viewing habits are changing at an unprecedented rate.
With catch-up services, time-shifting set-top boxes and illegal downloading, we’ve never had so much control of what, when and where we watch TV. With no one does this seem more prevalent than amongst my generation.
At my university, the majority of students spend at least a couple of hours a day watching TV shows, but no one is ever watching a television. The common room, where our TV is, is usually empty; it’s only full when people are watching a film or a major sporting event.
I ventured there once to flick through the channels and was met with bemused looks from fellow students. If I’d mentioned that I had stayed up late streaming Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’d have received a knowing pat on the shoulder and a “tell me about it.” When practically every episode of everything is available online somewhere, why would you sift through the TV guide to find something acceptable, only to sit through adverts?
Amongst students primetime isn’t 9pm; it is anything ranging from 11.30pm to half one in the morning. TV is something to do once everything else is done; once you’re too tired to work, or after last orders. Why rush back for your favourite show now when it’s all online, scheduled around you?
What my friends now watch seems more specialised than before. Few will sit and watch BBC4 but they’re far more likely to watch, for example, a documentary about 70s punk on iPlayer. If they’d have been on the sofa whilst that was broadcast, they’d be watching another repeat of South Park instead.
As part of Channel 4’s on-going research project, UK Tribes, the broadcaster has recently announced that one third of British 16-24 year olds are registered for their online services, including 4oD. Amongst my friends, our favourite part of 4oD is the long-forgotten content it features. We are excited by Nathan Barley, Brass Eye andThe Adam and Joe Show, years after their original transmission. Shows that did not receive particularly high ratings at the time, but built strong cult followings; their resurrection has generated new revenues for Channel 4.
This change in viewing habits raises a fundamental point about the future of TV. Previously, shows were created for a specific instance in time. The success of 4oD tells us that a good show can have a longer shelf life. A show’s primary audience of 16-24 year olds is not just for those who are that age in 2013, but for those who are that age in 2023. A great show might receive low ratings now, but could prove a wise investment as many more people discover it over time.
Why even broadcast on TV in the first place? A ‘web only’ series would not have to risk the more lucrative TV advertising slots, whilst still having the potential to draw in a good audience over a large period of time. Online streaming has revolutionised how the nation goes about its favourite pastime. As my generation become TV’s next ‘mainstream’ audience, I think it is the industry itself that will be forced to play ‘catch-up’.