From catch-up to catch-on: what TV can gain from going online first

You’ll be hard pressed to have missed the hype surrounding Netflix’s new House of Cards series. A high-profile ad campaign has accompanied its launch, including blanket coverage on London’s Underground, among other places.

The big deal about House of Cards, of course, is that it was commissioned by Netflix and, so far, can only be streamed, and not watched on TV. Online commissions aren’t new – even Tom Hanks has had a dabble before – but House Of Cards is by far the most high-profile (and expensive, at a cool $100m) yet. Based on the British programme of the same name and featuring Kevin Spacey as scheming, devious politico Frank Underwood, House of Cards is being talked about seriously as an Emmy contender, something unthinkable for an online programme a few years ago.

But Netflix is not the only company looking at streaming first. The BBC is looking to premiere some of its programmes via iPlayer, a fairly radical move for a broadcaster. And ITV has already offered the first episode of one programme, 666 Park Avenue, on ITV Player, before its broadcast on ITV2 the next day.

Changes are a-foot, for sure. But does all this mean the death of traditional TV in much the same way that online downloading of music content has led to the demise of the high street record shop? Freesat thinks not. Let me explain why.

The great advantage of broadcast TV is that it helps programmes reach large audiences cheaply and easily. For major programmes, TV still rules. A fraction of viewing of the London Olympics, to take one high-profile example, took place online – in fact, more viewing took place via the red button than online.

But we think online has an intriguing role to play when it comes to newer shows. On average, only about 1 in 5 pilots get made into whole series. TV commissioners have an uncanny knack of tapping in to what people want to watch on telly. Witness the current clamour for Scandi crime drama, something few would have predicted a few years ago. But inevitably, some programmes slip through the cracks, and there is simply not room on TV for every pilot that gets made to be spun into a whole series.

But launching a show online can bring a whole new angle to programme commissioning. It is arguably the perfect test-bed for new programmes. There is less at stake for a programme if it is shown online first, rather than taking up a valuable prime time slot. Instead, users can discover the programmes at a time that suits them, and the audience can build around the programme rather than around a time slot. Programmes which find success on an ITV Player or 4oD could easily graduate to broadcast TV, with much greater certainty surrounding the size and make-up of the expected audience. This can also help programmes build a buzz, not just from critics, but from punters too.

The net result of all this? Very simply, more great TV and programmes for the British public to enjoy, which, after all, is what Freesat is all about.

But even where programmes are “online first”, shared viewing of linear TV still has a key role to play in helping a broader audience to discover and socialise the content. Freesat thinks the vision of an ideal hybrid TV service is one which unites the best of broadband and broadcast content and offers consumers choice as to how they consume it. Television democracy in action, so to speak – something even Frank Underwood can stand by.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

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By Freesat

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