Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothing On
News media carry reports that Disney is going to withdraw its material from Netflix, distributing their own material on their own platform will be presumably be much more lucrative. One report pondered whether the commercial power of Amazon would be too great for Netflix or whether Netflix would retain its subscribers through commissioning and distributing their own original material such as their hugely successful series “The Crown.” Meanwhile, media analysts observe that it is not only the platforms on which we watch programmes that are changing, but the way in which we watch those programmes. On-demand programming means that we can watch what we want when we want, leading to forecasts of an end to “linear programming.” In plain terms, there is a belief that the idea of watching a programme at the same time each evening or on the same evening each week will become a thing of the past; the old schedules will disappear. The days of buying Radio Times, or even the days of looking at online television guides to check transmission times, will become activities of a former age. Television viewing will mean going to a platform and choosing a programme from a menu offering hundreds of options.
Yet the evolution of new broadcasting platforms and the multiplication of the number of channels has not meant that one does not sit down in the evening channel-hopping because, whatever the number of channels, there is nothing on. The massive advertising billboard campaigns by the media companies are a testimony not to the dominance of the present broadcasters, but to their need to constantly strive for market share in order to maintain profitability. The posters try to persuade us to pay to watch programmes; in former times, the programmes commended themselves.
At root, there is a failure to recognize basic economics. The budget available to programme makers and broadcasters is limited. Whether it is through license fees, advertising income or subscriptions, the total is finite. When there were two BBC channels and two commercial channels, the finance available for programming was significantly larger. Subscription channels may bring in new money, but take viewers from the commercial channels that are depending upon ratings for selling their advertising slots. The more platforms that are developed, the more channels that go on air, the fewer viewers there are for each; the slices of the viewing cake are growing smaller and smaller. Fewer resources bring poorer programming; cheap quiz and reality shows, repeats, imports, cringeworthy chat programmes.
We have fifty-seven channels and nothing on because that is what the reality of scarce resources means for the broadcasting schedules. In his song of the name, Bruce Springsteen takes a gun and shoots the television set. His defence before the judge is that there were fifty-seven channels and nothing on. It is an attractive option at times.
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