This year I turned 30, which is pretty much the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when one turns thirty. Whilst nothing noteworthy changes immediately – it’s not like you can get your ‘tank license’ or abstain from voting – there is a dramatic shift in others’ perception of you. You are now considered “old”, particularly by those younger than you. No matter how much you claim to use “the Facebooks” or pretend to know who Ariana Grande is, you can’t escape this inevitable branding. Damn you, sands of time!
I don’t think I look particularly old. I certainly don’t feel particularly old…although my knees might tell you otherwise (if they were talking knees). But I’m now considered old, and that is far worse. This fact was confirmed several weeks ago when I was talking with my eleven year old cousin. We were discussing Instagram and she asked me whether I had an account; I answered that I did (much to her shock and horror) and asked her whether she used the narcissistic, voyeuristic, discontent-inducing app (although not quite in those words). She answered that “of course” she did, and proceeded to advise me of her username. She informed me that her name included an “underscore”, and then she did it; she sealed my insecurities and cut straight to my vulnerable, aging core. She asked whether I had “heard of an underscore?” How old did she think I was? In what year did she think I was born?
I informed her that the keys on a computer keyboard were not the exclusive domain of tweenagers (again, not quite in those words) and clarified that I had in fact heard of an underscore – I’m thirty, not one hundred and thirty.
But whatever youthful ‘cred’ I managed to salvage was swiftly undone by my next question. Trying to steer the conversation away from our obvious generation gap, I asked her what TV shows she watched. Big mistake. Her two-word response was as poignant as it was insolent – “TV? Ew!” Whether I liked it or not, I was cripplingly out of touch with the ‘youth of today’, and the fact that I am using a phrase like ‘youth of today’ certainly isn’t helping. But her borderline offensive response also frightened me in a far more profound way…
Had my eleven year old cousin confirmed the ultimate death of television?
Once I stopped thinking in bold, capital letters and processed this absurd question, I realised that no, she hadn’t!
For years, people have been predicting the death of TV, and for years, they have been wrong. Ever since the introduction of the VCR, advertisers and television networks alike have feared that our ability to manipulate our viewing habits would mean the demise of the medium via supersession by a smarter, more personalised screen offering. Despite our best attempts at embodying modern-day Nostradamus’ (or is it Nostradami?), advertisers continue to invest (a lot of) money in the medium, networks continue to make (a lot of) money from the medium, and television still accounts for 88% of all screen viewing according to the Australian Multiscreen Report Q1 2015. There can be no denying that television viewership has declined in recent years, however this is to be expected with the continual introduction of new offerings to the market. The declines can hardly be described as ‘fatal’ and certainly not sufficient to render this medium obsolete. So what fuelled my latest wave of panic? How is my cousin distracting herself from the woes of her selfie-taking, eleven year old life if not through television? Why do three questions in a row just feel so much better than two? The answers (to the first two, at least) can be found in a simple acronym – SVOD.
When Netflix launched in Australia I thought people’s heads were literally going to explode. The hype, anticipation and expectations were on par with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign – “Change, change, everything’s going to change!” But like most fads and live-action remakes of animated films, our hopes were not entirely realised. Slow internet speeds in Australia coupled with a fraction of the content available in the US has left some SVOD users wanting slightly more. What has ultimately set subscription services like Netflix, Stan, Presto and Quickflix (if that’s even a thing) apart from free to air (FTA) and subscription TV (STV) offerings is the fact that viewers can choose what they want to watch, when they want to watch it. They have empowered the binge generation, yet this is certainly not enough to render traditional broadcast mediums like FTA/STV obsolete. ‘TV binging’ is not a past-time unique to the current brand of on-demand consumer; it has been around since Tobias Funke first divulged that he was a “never-nude!”
There is a very simple reason why one the funniest sitcoms ever written was cancelled after just three seasons. Arrested Development was simply too smart for its format. The show’s layered jokes, interrelated storylines and constant references to previous episodes were lost on an audience that were forced to wait seven days between episodes. It wasn’t until the entire series was released on DVD and audiences were given the opportunity to plough through all three seasons in a single day, that the show found its niche and was consumed in the way that the writers intended – through binge watching. This appetite for consecutive, autonomous viewing is not novel, it’s just that SVOD services have enabled this behaviour through a more cost effective and centralised model.
Whether my 11-year-old cousin likes it or not, I am part of Generation Y and we crave the freedom offered by these streaming services. But we’re also humans – we’re lazy, entitled and apathetic. Sometimes, we humans just like to sit back and flick channels, switching off our brains whilst we switch on the TV. My cousin might think TV is “Ew”, but there is still an abundance of viewers who turn to FTV/STV services for their daily dose of escapism, avoiding such first world problems as ‘what new series should I choose to watch?’ The question is not whether TV networks will survive this SVOD onslaught, it is a question of how well they will compete? Their success will not depend on innovation or technology, it will depend on one simple word – content.
With the introduction of catch-up services across all FTA networks and with the gradual migration to full HBBTV integration, we will see the networks more aggressively vying for popular international content as they try to compete directly with Netflix’s ‘choose to watch’ streaming model. However, TV networks must understand what makes their offering unique and differentiated from purely on-demand services – their live, reality and event television. Whilst some reality formats have started to get tired – newer shows like The Bachelor, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and The Great Australian Spelling Bee have proven there is still a strong audience who turn to free-to-air TV for their frivolous entertainment – way to go, Channel Ten!
Even seasoned formats like The Voice, Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules attract large audiences on a weekly basis, and perform exceptionally well when it comes to finals weeks. Events like The Brownlow Medal, Carols By Candlelight, The Logies and a host of other key calendar events are best consumed live, not to mention the plethora of sport that is spread across the various networks, both FTA and STV.
For television networks to best mitigate the damage caused by Netflix et al, they must continue to play to these strengths inherent in their format as purely on-demand services cannot replicate these benefits. Much like Liam Neeson, just because something is old doesn’t mean it can’t still kick some butt.
And on that note, I’m off to the chiropractor. Damn you, sands of time!