What does the future hold for archive television? 

9 June 2023 tbs.pm/79573

AI image of dusty archives

 

As the television industry adapts to an era of rapid change, a remarkable opportunity is opening up for archive TV to be seen and enjoyed by a wider audience than ever before.

Booksellers talk about “the long tail”, the phenomenon that most of their sales and profits come not from the latest high-profile ghost-written celebrity biographies and cookbooks, but actually from the backlist. At any given time, millions of books are in print, most of which will only sell in relatively small quantities each year. But, collectively, they are the beating heart of the publishing industry. This “long tail” of books, many of which have been in continuous print for decades, is far more important to the industry’s profitability than the much smaller number of books which top the sales charts.

The British television industry has traditionally followed a very different model. For the most part it has always been built on the foundations of producing new content, because this was what the audience was seen to be demanding. Both the BBC and ITV were very conscious that there was widespread public disapproval of “repeats”, which were viewed as nothing less than cynical penny-pinching by much of the audience. It fuelled an industry belief that the lifespan of any television programme was limited. Older programmes might have an extended life with foreign sales, but domestically the industry was always focused on creating something new. The notion of the “long tail” in television terms, the concept that archive programming might continue to be of interest to part of the overall tv audience, simply didn’t exist.

Other factors also reinforced this situation. One especially big hurdle was the actors’ union, Equity, which saw repeated programming as a threat to the livelihood of its members. Likewise, for the small army of people working behind the cameras, there was little or no incentive to be positive about archive content, as their living depended on making new programming.

"Black~adder II"

Blackadder II (BBC)

The seeds of change can be found by at least the late 1970s. The BBC had become aware that there was a new market opening up in the form of home video. The US trade journal Variety noted this emerging trend in 1980,[1] and reported that, even at this early stage, the BBC was planning fifty hours’ worth of programming to be made available on home video. As the years rolled by, cheaper-priced VHS tapes were shifting in huge numbers as part of the booming “sell-through” market, which began to displace video rentals. Anecdotally, it is believed that the VHS release of Blackadder II“Bells, Head, Potato”, priced at around £10, sold more than a million copies.

By the time the era of DVD dawned in the early 2000s, the market for British programming, new and old, was continuing to flourish.

One of the most interesting developments was the extensive range of material released by Network DVD. A significant amount of content from the ITV archive, with whom they had a close working relationship, was issued on DVD. Especially notable was a willingness on the part of the late Tim Beddows[2] (Network’s former MD) to take risks. Interviewed by BBC Newsnight, he mentioned that he was happy that some titles might only sell in the hundreds of copies, whilst others would be surprise hits.

 

 

Public Eye title card

Public Eye (Thames)

This conscious move away from needing titles to sell in vast quantities was arguably a breakthrough moment for British archive television. One significant success story for Network was their range of DVDs featuring Southern Television’s Out of Town, which have been consistently high sellers. Another had been their releases of the 1960s/70s ABC/Thames drama Public Eye, which was re-launched in new packaging this year. Off the back of the DVDs’ success, the programme has now been shown several times on Talking Pictures TV. Neither of these programmes have gone stratospheric, but they are without question good examples of how the “long tail” effect has been gradually seeping into the mainstream of British television.

Very sadly, Network went into liquidation in May 2023, and at the time of writing this article it is unclear if any other company will take over their activities. It is easy to imagine, however, that the business had been dealt a fatal blow by the long-term decline of DVD sales. Which poses the question – where does the future lie for archive television in the UK? The answer is streaming. Two very contrasting models have emerged in the last few years, one based on paid subscription and one based on advertising.

Amazon Prime is a key example of the subscription model, and one which also features a fair amount of British content, both new and archive. Amazon is also beginning to feature more advertising-supported content, as part of its Amazon Freevee brand.

Notably, however, the economics of subscription-based streaming are increasingly being questioned. A recent article in the Daily Telegraph observed[3] that the new Amazon series Citadel costs $50m per episode, compared to around $1m for each episode of Downton Abbey. It also comments that the $465m series Rings of Power “was released to widespread indifference”. It seems that the larger subscription streamers, such as Netflix and Apple TV, are facing escalating budgets for their original content, in tandem with subscriber numbers that are starting to plateau, or even fall. It is argued that the subscription model is both bloated and unprofitable.[4]

Which brings us to FAST – Free Ad-Supported Television. In terms of annual growth, FAST television is rapidly becoming a phenomenon that is changing the economic dynamics of streaming. In the UK we have examples such as ITVX, and the newly renamed Channel 4 (previously All4) streaming platforms. ITV has invested huge sums in creating the beefed-up ITVX, which is said to have 10,000 hours of available content.[5]

 

 

Whereas both the ITV and C4 platforms offer an advert-free subscription option (ITVX Premium is £59.99 per year and C4 is £39.99 per year), the UK also has a “pure” FAST service, in the form of the STV Player. One recent move made by STV was to feature original 1980s episodes of C4 soap opera Brookside, a decision which has almost overnight transformed the fortunes of the platform. Broadcast magazine reports that the STV Player had 11.4m streams in March 2023, more than 4m of which were of Brookside.[6] That 40-year-old episodes of a soap that has been off air for more than two decades should have had such an impact is clear evidence of the potential market for archive content.

Is FAST the way forward for archive television? The evidence certainly suggests so. An example from the USA highlights the huge potential of harnessing television’s “long tail”.

Tubi, in operation since 2014, and now owned by Fox, is a genuine success story. An online article in April 2023 commented that “free ad-supported streaming TV (or FAST), …has been steadily building [over] the past ten years and started to skyrocket around 2020, when pandemic lockdowns sent audiences looking for more entertainment to watch”. It went on to note that “Tubi and its chief challengers in the space — Pluto TV, the Roku Channel, and Amazon’s Freevee — are connecting with subscription-wary consumers who want the volume and variety offered by cable without the monthly bill or the commitment”.[7]

 

 

Tubi’s recipe for success is essentially the “long tail” in action. The platform claims to have 50,000 shows (about 8 times as many as Netflix), and has built archive television and film into its DNA. In 2020 it had a reported 25m monthly active users, and as of 2023 that same figure has risen to 64m. Its determined focus on niche programming, much of it archive, and all of it free from any subscription charge, is proving to be a winning formula.

Sadly, Tubi is unavailable in the UK. Perhaps the nearest equivalent we have is actually YouTube, which is anecdotally believed by industry insiders to have an audience share of around 15% of UK television viewers, although it doesn’t feature in the official BARB ratings. A great deal of archive television has been uploaded to the platform, mostly without the consent of rights owners. In the past this has often been the source of much unhappiness within the industry, with significant efforts being made to identify and remove offending footage. More recently, however, rightsholders have been able to claim ownership of such illegally uploaded material and monetise it, based on the accompanying advertising. It is essentially FAST television by the back door.

So, is this the moment when archive television goes fully mainstream?

As things stand, each of the UK’s main public service broadcasters now have their own streaming platforms.

An example of the kind of programming that is ripe for exploitation is the long-running ITV strand, About Britain, which was a daytime documentary series for which all of the ITV regional companies made contributions. Broadcast between 1972 until around 1989, and mostly shot on 16mm film by experienced crews, the programme is now a remarkable historical record of the British regions. An example 1976 edition, made by Tyne Tees and held by the Yorkshire Film Archive, can be freely screened. If ITVX were to find space for this rich archive strand, which would likely be of interest to the affluent ABC1 advertising demographic, it would find an appreciative audience. Would it appeal to everybody? Absolutely not, but in the FAST/”long tail” model it doesn’t have to.

 

 

The technology is there, the vast and rich programming archives are there, and the potential audience is there. The era when programmes had to have 10m+ viewers to be counted as a success is long gone, and instead we have an audience that has become used to seeking out content that appeals to them, not what simply happens to be “on tv” at any given time. Tubi has shown that a platform with a wide selection of archive content can be a winner, both for rightsholders, and especially viewers.

Will the UK’s public service streamers follow suit, and start to fully harness the enormous potential of their extraordinary archives? Let’s hope so!

 

Footnotes

  1. “Home Video BBC Sales Arm’s Strongest Potential Growth Area”, Variety, 9 January 1980
  2. “Tim Beddows 1963-2022”, Network Distributing [Wayback Machine], 25 November 2022
  3. “Why did Amazon pay $300 million for five hours of Richard Madden?”, Daily Telegraph [£], 27 April 2023
  4. “Why It’s Been Such a Brutal Summer for Streaming”, Slate, 29 August 2022
  5. “ITVX: How to watch, prices, plans, Smart TV availability”, Radio Times, 19 January 2023
  6. “Brookside drives STV Player to new heights”, Broadcast [£], 6 April 2023
  7. “It’s Tubi’s Time: How the weird, free streamer won the internet’s heart”, Vulture, 26 April 2023

 

“Philip Renfrew” is a pseudonym

 

You Say

1 response to this article

Jamie Medhurst 10 June 2023 at 6:48 am

Thanks for a very interesting and informative article! Am I right in thinking that ITV companies weren’t required to archive programmes pre-1981 (but that the Broadcasting Act that year changed that)?

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