Industry must pull together as coronavirus threatens to reshape TV

Chris Curtis

It is the speed of change that has been most unsettling.

For the past couple of weeks, the coronavirus conversations have been about coping. About double records of panel shows, of fast turnarounds, of finding a way. Now, those conversations are about changing – about the potentially lasting impacts of a crisis that is paralysing much of the world, its economy and, with it, the British TV industry.

Already, senior figures are suggesting our sector could be fundamentally reshaped by the crisis. The shift from linear viewing to on-demand could be accelerated by the dearth in summer and autumn schedules compared with the depth on offer via iPlayer, the commercial AVoDs and Netflix et al.

There are other theories too. One experienced broadcasting exec hypothesised that TV advertising could be subject to a “giant AB test”, with agencies and brands pulling budgets and assessing the impact. “There will be concerns that they simply won’t invest again next year.”

This sense of what might constitute the new normal in a post-corona world is only just starting to emerge, and it’s probably best not to gaze too far into the future. As one major indie figure told me this week: “It’s bleak.”

“For the BBC and the old guard of British TV, coronavirus represents a chance to illustrate why they are more than just another content service in the era of direct-to-consumer giants”

But there are some positive signs out there. There will undoubtedly be opportunities for non-scripted indies when production does come back. Broadcasters will be desperate for fresh content and efficient, entertaining formats will be at a huge premium.

And for the BBC and the old guard of British TV, coronavirus represents a chance to illustrate why they are more than just another content service in the era of direct-to-consumer giants.

One well-known industry figure expressed it well: “This is a fast-moving global event, and the SVoDs are dumb. They don’t speak to a world that is alive, they’re purely an escape.”

The latter might seem rather appealing at present, but people want more from TV than just sci-fi and superstar actors – they want a sense of connection to the people around them, and to know that the channel they are watching understands something about their lives. That sounds a lot like public service broadcasting.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden had warm words for the BBC this week over its decision to postpone the change to licence fee payments for over-75s. Now, in the grips of a national crisis, the corporation and its PSB peers have the chance to restate their relevance to people’s lives and re-establish relations with the political class.

Broadcasters must do their best to look after producers, indies in turn must look after freelancers, and everyone must pull together.

At our best, we help British society function more effectively – and that will be an important contribution in the months ahead.

  • Chris Curtis is the editor in chief of Broadcast