This week UK public broadcaster the BBC launched youth-oriented channel BBC Three as a linear service across a range of platforms including Freeview, Sky, Virgin and Freesat. This reverses the decision, six years ago, to make the channel an online only service.
At a time when most media headlines are about the launch of on-demand streaming services such as Disney+, Peacock and HBO Max, it seems counter-intuitive to launch a linear service. So why exactly would be the BBC seem to be playing King Canute with audience trends?
The first reason is that linear TV is not quite as obsolete as some commentators would have us believe. Recent data from the US and UK suggests that linear viewing still accounts for around 70% of all TV consumption – in markets like Italy it’s even higher. And while this may be eroding annually, it’s still a significant target for broadcasters like the BBC to aim at.
In addition, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that linear viewing can continue to play a key role in the film and TV ecosystem even when the majority of people have signed up to streaming services. In the same way that radio has survived podcasts, books co-exist with e-readers and theatrical release has carved out a place alongside streaming platforms, linear TV channels will continue to thrive as long as they pursue a focused and aggressive game plan.
So what exactly does that entail? Well based on recent strategic developments at successful linear channels, the following guidelines seem to be critical to their long-term survival.
Prioritise live content: Fundamental to the survival of any linear TV channel is doing what streamers can’t. News, sport and live entertainment are all mainstays of the linear experience and will continue to be so. So much the better if it’s possible to add compelling interactive elements (competitions, voting, chat). It’s no accident that BBC 3’s launch line-up included live coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). Fiona Campbell, controller at BBC Three, said AFCON is “an incredibly exciting tournament with some of the best players in the World on show and its brilliant news that we will be showing the climax of the competition on free to air TV.’ A spike in news and current affairs viewing during the early stages of Covid-19 show just how important it is to have a live function as part of the linear line-up. Expect another spike if the Russians decide to invade Ukraine or UK PM Boris Johnson eventually quits.
Promote scheduled events: Linear channels need to invest in water cooler events – appointment to view programming that audiences would rather not miss. BBC3 has pinned its hopes on a Ru Paul Drag Race commission, and it is standard practice for linear commissioners to turn to elimination-base juggernauts like Strictly Come Dancing, Got Talent, The Voice and The Masked Singer. Some people will, of course, still time shift this content. But many will seize the earliest opportunity to watch it to avoid the risk of finding out the result. Linear channels have been tempted in recent times to release all episodes of event dramas in one go – but this is high risk. The week by week release of shows like ITV’s Trigger Point and BBC1’s The Responder is a reason for audiences to keep coming back to a channel.
Insist on local relevance: Ozark, Squid Game and The Maid on Netflix are all great series. But none of them say much about the cultural experience of someone living in the UK, Brazil or Italy. The streamers are attempting to invest in local content, but their focus is always going to be more on global content because it is easier to amortise the eye-watering cost. For linear broadcasters, then, it is crucial that they see local content as a priority investment. The success of UK dramas like Happy Valley, Line Of Duty, The Bodyguard, The Responder and Trigger Point are all examples of how effective specific content can be. It’s not cheap to make – but done well it can also sell through distribution. Happy Valley was an early example of that, showing that culturally specific content will travel if it taps into universal sensitivities. In the same way, post World War 1 gangster drama Peaky Blinders grew from a left field BBC2 experiment into a globally-acclaimed scripted epic (available now to view on Netflix).
Offer shared experiences: Streamers can do multi-generational content too. But there’s something about the on-demand world that seems to pull audiences in the direction of shows that are more narrowly-defined by taste and demographic. Linear channels, by contrast, are great at producing shows that get 2 or 3 generations sitting round the campfire together. In my household, this role is performed by shows like BBC1’s The Apprentice and C4’s Bake Off. But the above mentioned formats, as well as ITV’s I’m A Celebrity, also do this. Embedded within this point is the fact that it is crucial to reach out to younger audiences. Streamers are clearly very strong in this respect, but linear channels can’t end up as the TV equivalent of care homes. BBC3, interestingly, is a linear channel that specifically targets a young demo.
Learn from radio: Part of the reason radio has survived is that it is personality-driven. While it is easy to rail against irritating DJs who talk too much and play too little, the fact is that people like the sense of belonging that radio delivers. The message for linear TV is that it must do the same, nurturing onscreen talent that audiences want to spend time with. This can be continuity personalities or show presenters. It doesn’t matter – just as long as the editorial tone is right for the channel brand. Still on radio, part of the medium’s appeal is the element of surprise – the idea that you don’t know what’s coming next. It could be 1980s nostalgia or a new artist you’ve never heard of (this is true even in the context of tightly-defined station formats). The curators of linear TV channels need to embrace a similar approach because it acts as a counterweight to the recommendation-led model at streamers. Too much algorithm-driven personalisation and the viewing range becomes homogenous and dull. It’s interesting to note that UK regulator Ofcom recently advised the BBC to ‘dare to be different’.
Find the ad load sweet spot: Streamers have introduced viewers to the joy of watching content without ads. So that makes it even more irritating when linear commercial broadcasters load up their own schedules with too many branded interruptions. Obviously there is a business imperative here, but get the ad load wrong and viewers will drift away. Leading broadcasters are aware of the problem and have experimented with fewer ads. But this of course means less revenue. Possibly the answer is targeted addressable advertising, which raises the possibility of greater revenue against fewer interruptions. Or maybe it’s about being more creative with ad formats and related areas such as sponsorship. Whatever the solution, the critical thing will be to avoid pushing viewers towards streaming rivals.
Take the fight to the streamers: Linear TV can survive in the new ecosystem, but not if it is preserved in aspic. A crucial element of the linear broadcaster defence is to have on-demand services alongside their traditional model (for example catch up, SVOD, AVOD). This means that content launched on linear can have an extended life in on-demand. Hybrid approaches can be developed, that fit the commercial imperatives of being a linear business but also engage with young audiences. Services like ITV Hub, My5, BritBox, Joyn, Salto all show that linear players have grasped the opportunity that digital represents. None of these services can compete financially with Netflix and Disney+ but they can play a complementary role.
Extend brands through spin-offs: Linear channels are often part of a family of channels. This is a valuable asset because it means they can extend their key brands into new areas through shoulder programming and spin-offs. Love Island: What Happened Next?, The Apprentice: You’re Fired and Britain’s Got Talent: Unseen are just a few examples. The last of these shows was available via ITV’s on-demand platform ITV Hub, which underlines the above point about linear channels expanding into the digital ecosystem. The key benefit of this bonus content is that it further cements the relationship between channels and popular content brands. It also provides a vehicle to bring through new faces. A classic example is comedian Joel Dommett who progressed through the ITV system from panel show participant to I’m A Celebrity contestant to I’m A Celebrity spin-off host; and now hosts The Masked Singer.