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Is scheduled television on its last legs? Or more loved?

On-demand TV has swept the nation and found a firm place in our lives, allowing us to view content like never before. But it hasn’t by any means taken the place of scheduled TV, which perhaps unexpectedly, is alive and kicking.

The way we consume television has changed – I don’t need to tell you that, you’ve probably noticed. Getting home from work, you can arrive in Gotham, Westeros or 1920s Birmingham in the blink of an eye. You can jump back into the drama you were watching on the train, or watch last week’s MasterChef on your phone while you prep the veg for dinner. Netflix now has 148.9 million paying members [1] (and of course many members will watch with others). It signed up 9.6 million new members in the first 3 months of this year, so it’s still very much growing, and Disney+ is about to join the game too, offering access to Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic… The BBC and ITV are hot on its tail with a BritBox offering, a place for new content combined with older boxsets like Poirot and The Office to be enjoyed for a small(er than Netflix) fee.

We’re slowly becoming binge-watchers, impulsively powering through episode after episode of whatever we feel like at every time of day. Have you seen that notification which says “Are you still watching Black Mirror?” when 3 hours pass without you touching the remote control? I have. Streaming has overtaken paid TV for the first time in the UK [2], and it’s enabling this new behaviour, with 55% of us binging at least once a month. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is higher among millennial Brits, 82% of whom claim to binge-watch something monthly. [3]

But what has this meant for things which are…not Netflix? Not Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer or Now TV? Things which we have to wait for and watch ads during? To get a first view on this, I asked around to get a sense of how people feel about having to wait to watch stuff on TV, now that most things are available on demand. Funnily enough, there were no complaints. They’re not impatient or resentful as you might expect them to be when faced with waiting longer. The opposite seems to be true:

“It makes it more of an ‘event’. I like the ability to look forward to something which is on at a specific time, rather than just procrastinating by tuning in to whatever I like”

“It makes it a fun event I look forward to – I’ll only do it for one or two shows a year though”

“I have legitimately reconnected with my school friends over Love Island in a Whatsapp group that was dead. We talk on it nearly every night”

So while TV on demand has become a new norm, the old norm of scheduled television has become a series of special occasions, events which are shared not just with friends, but with millions of strangers watching all together. For better or for worse, there’s a social media narrative and many thousands of conversations which tie everyone together and remind the viewer that they’re part of a vast audience. The Long Night, an episode from the last series of Game of Thrones, has become the most tweeted about episode of any television series ever with 7.8 million individual tweets [4]. It might be the case that the experience of sharing TV with other people has made scheduled TV more meaningful and engaging than anything viewed on demand will ever be. Doesn’t that warm the cockles of your soul?

To really understand why this is the case we’d need to look at why people are watching TV in the first place. I will admit that when I put on an episode of Killing Eve on my phone while I’m standing up on a crammed and muggy commuter train, all I want is a distraction and it almost doesn’t matter what it is – provided it’s not footage of other people stood clammily on trains. Intuitively this feels like a different need to the one that drives me to gather my friends and block all light from the room to better see the dark details of the Walking Dead season finale. A study commissioned by Thinkbox [5] has dug a little deeper into the difference and identified eight need states which currently drive us to watch tv, and the type of viewing which tends to satisfy them. Perhaps surprisingly, scheduled TV comes out on top for almost all of these, most prominently in the “In Touch” and “Experience” needs states (in short, we watch the news to be in touch with the world around us, and we watch Love Island to be part of a shared viewing experience and social conversation). On demand TV is a very poor competitor for this screen time because it simply isn’t about sharing, discussing and connecting in the same way.

According to HBO, 17.4 million people watched the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere [6]. It broke records. Love island has a smaller but growing following – peak viewership of 3.7 million this year so far – 4.2 million including views on ITV hub [7].  For context, this amounts to 18.5% of all viewers in the UK, and 57% of 16-35 year olds (so if you’re a 16-35 year old non-viewer who feels like the odd one out, yes, you kind of are, but it’s cool).

These shows and a selection of other favourites take up a healthy portion of our attention and are there for us in a variety of need states. And of course, where there are watchful eyes, there will inevitably be brands looking to dance in the limelight…

Game of Thrones has a list of brand partners longer than Michael Phelps’s arm. Some of the more fun examples include an Oreo version of the credits sequence built entirely out of biscuits, a limited-edition line of Adidas trainers to represent the 7 houses of Westeros and a Now TV pop-up which offered fans free Game of Thrones tattoos. No regrets.

M&S has chosen to align with another TV moment – Britain’s Got Talent – a choice which some suspect could risk the premium reputation of the brand [8]. You might notice at the self-checkout that the polite, anonymous voice guiding you through the process has been replaced by Ant and/or Dec. There’s also a range of ‘Big Night In’ meal deals on gloriously unhealthy food to feed BGT’s 11.2m audience – that’s a lot of oven pizza, even if you share!

Love Island seems like the ideal opportunity for some brand coverage, keeping young people off the streets almost every night of the week. Fashion brand Missguided has shouldered the (admittedly light) burden of clothing the contestants. Their app is updated daily, selling the outfits featured in the previous day’s episodes, turning the show itself into shoppable content.

Arguably, scheduled television is having its second coming – a new moment in which it can bring people together again - and brands would be wise to fuel the hype.


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