The revolution will not be televised: 2016 was the year TV turned upside down

It’s crunch time for television as we’ve always known it: 2016 was the first year the most must-see shows went missing from terrestrial channels. Streaming has changed the game for ever

This was the year British television underwent one of the most profound changes in its history. The upheaval was as significant as in 1955, when ITV launched as the first commercial rival to the BBC; 1982, when the duopoly was challenged by Channel 4; and 1989-90, when Sky TV and BSB introduced the first non-terrestrial competition.

But much of the audience may not have noticed this time, for the nature of the revolution involved where key work could be watched. Although the arrival of satellite and cable channels a quarter of a century ago broke the tradition of programming being available to all possessors of a TV set, it was initially a transformation of technology rather than content. In 2016 the difference was this: the shows that couldn’t be seen in the old ways were frequently the must-see ones.

Three of the most talked-about series of the year neither occupied a time-slot in the schedules nor required a conventional TV: the royal drama The Crown and the retro-thriller Stranger Things were streamed by Netflix, and The Grand Tour, Jeremy Clarkson’s post-BBC vehicle, on Amazon. Having started as a film rental business, Netflix also had on its 2016 slate Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, while Amazon, still at core an online shop and innovator in taxation arrangements, hosted the third run of another hit series, Transparent.

Stranger Things.
The most talked-about shows of the year neither occupied a time-slot in the schedules nor required the possession ofa conventional TV … Stranger Things. Photograph: Netflix

Transparently, the Guardian list of the year’s 50 best TV shows is subjective rather than scientific, but the 2016 roll call strongly reflects a shift. The top 10 includes two spots for Netflix (Stranger Things, Black Mirror), and one each for Amazon (Transparent) and Sky Atlantic (The Night Of).

The other six slots are taken by the BBC, which looks at first sight like business as usual. Certainly, the emperor of public-service TV remains on his throne (David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II conquered all before it) and the corporation’s long-running strength in crime and thriller fiction continued with the third series of Line of Duty, the second of Happy Valley and the John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager.

But, strikingly, two other BBC highlights of the period – Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (an 18-certificate Bridget Jones) and Adam Curtis’s latest conspiracy documentary, HyperNormalisation – were shown in ways that Lord Reith would not have recognised: the former was originally streamed on the online BBC3, the latter has only ever been available on iPlayer. Although the concept (if not the value) of the licence fee has been preserved in the BBC’s latest renegotiations with the government, the quality of the material available on BBC3 and iPlayer clearly feels like an experiment with subscription models for the future.

Hypernormalisation
Only available on iPlayer … Adam Curtis’s latest conspiracy documentary, HyperNormalisation. Photograph: Courtesy of Adam Curtis

And, across the board, much of the creative energy now seems to be in fee-paying TV. If the quality of Amazon Originals is depressing for those opposed to the company, then opponents of Rupert Murdoch must find themselves torn by the confirmation this year that his UK television interests (soon to be under his sole control if the government agrees the 21st Century Fox takeover of part-owned Sky) now have an artistic strength to match their economic clout.

Sky, which in the past often led its programming with products (football, cricket, Mad Men, The Simpsons) expensively nicked from terrestrial channels, now regularly has original content that traditional networks would envy. A particular source of strength is its investment in the HBO dramas that show on Sky Atlantic, such as The Night Of, The Young Pope and Westworld (all new this year) and the continuing Game of Thrones.

Westworld.
Sky now has original content that traditional networks would envy … Westworld. Photograph: HBO

Tellingly, ITV is struggling in both the most-watched charts and the best-of lists. Intermittent flashes of originality included the James Nesbitt-led Northern Irish murder story The Secret, although even that raised concerns about the ethics of fictionalising recent real-life cases. Otherwise, there was heavy reliance on an emergency dust-off (the revived Cold Feet), the 14-year-old I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and the 10-year-old Britain’s Got Talent, although the struggles of The X Factor served as a warning that all ratings goldmines eventually start to scrape the bottom. The popularity next year of The Voice (its move from BBC1 further evidence of the new free market in content) and the topical satire show planned to displace News at Ten will be a test of ITV’s viability.

Despite suffering clear brand damage from casting Mary, Mel and Sue out of their tent, Channel 4 continued to make the sort of new and distinctive shows that create, at awards ceremonies and among opinion-formers, an impact disproportionate to their ratings. Standout work included the post-Savile drama National Treasure and the comedy Flowers, which, as a co-production with the American streamer Seeso, showed an alertness to the new means of production.

Channel 4 also showed itself to be at the forefront of thinking about the reformation in broadcasting by becoming the first terrestrial British broadcaster to start an online network, through Walter Presents (launched on 3 January), a remarkable archive of foreign language dramas – a few (including Deutschland 83 and Spin) also shown on C4 or E4, but most (including the astonishing Brazilian series Magnifica 70) simply dropped as streamed box sets. Curated by Italian visionary Walter Iuzzolino, this was another game-changer for British audiences. Whereas the BBC launched its online channel (BBC3, in February) to save cash, Channel 4 created its with the aim of increasing viewer choice. Walter Presents has become such a vital viewing option that I just had to check it really has only been running for 12 months.

Magnifica 70.
A game-changer … Magnifica 70, part of the remarkable online foreign drama archive Walter Presents. Photograph: Dan Behr/Global Series Network

Almost all current trends look ominous for Britain’s first four broadcast networks. Of the Top 30 most-watched TV programmes in Britain so far this year – from the Great British Bake Off final with 15.9 million viewers to Euro 2016: England v Iceland with 11.42 million – every single one is a longstanding format (Planet Earth II, I’m a Celebrity …, Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing) or a perennial (football).

The absence of any new breakthrough show confirms fears of a creative crisis at the mainstream channels. There is a particular challenge to Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s impressive director of television. Although BBC1 shows occupy 20 of the Top 30 slots, 10 of these are taken by Bake Off (which has been lost to Channel 4), five by Planet Earth II (whose presenter might reasonably be seeking a quieter diary at the age of 90) and two by an international football tournament, of which there is not another until 2018. So the only big BBC hits available in 2017 are Sherlock and Strictly Come Dancing.

Moore will also be aware that the BBC2 listings would have been dominated by series 23 of Top Gear, if Clarkson, Hammond and May had presented it. And, beyond Bake Off, a key TV theme of the year was the free movement of programmes and talent.

The BBC chose to lose Clarkson from Top Gear after he hit a producer (and, inevitably, Richard Hammond and James May followed him), but Channel 4 had no choice but to surrender Black Mirror when its independent producers, Endemol Shine, got a better offer from Netflix.

Black Mirror.
Stars like Charlie Brooker are now able to find more lucrative employment on a new form of broadcasting … Netflix’s Black Mirror. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

What links those cases is that the ex-Top Gear three and Brooker were able to find more lucrative employment on a form of broadcasting that has only recently existed. Ironically, the furious comments made by the C4 chief creative officer, Jay Hunt, when her network lost Black Mirror to a higher bidder – “This couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show!” – are almost identical to those from the BBC when she offered the production company Love more money than the BBC felt it could afford. This new fluidity of copyright and employment in TV is changing the game.

Alan Yentob, the BBC’s former creative director, complained in a recent interview that the BBC is finding it hard to compete financially with the new drama streamers: he argued that they would have needed co-producers to afford The Crown, whereas Netflix could fully fund it.

But it’s not just about money. Would Peter Morgan, screenwriter of The Crown, really have preferred his scripts about a living monarch and her relatives to go through the terrified layers of editorial “compliance” that seem likely to have been applied at a historically pro-monarchist broadcaster that still employs a royal liaison officer?

Would The Crown have been able to exist on a historically pro-monarchist broadcaster like the BBC?
Would The Crown have been able to exist on a historically pro-monarchist broadcaster like the BBC? Photograph: Alex Bailey/Netflix

There must also be considerable doubt about whether the corporation – made increasingly cautious by successive controversies stoked by politicians and the media – would have wished to risk the daring ideas and storytelling in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope. There is a feeling in that HBO-Sky Atlantic series of talent revelling in creative freedom, just as Clarkson and chums tangibly feel released from BBC interference in The Grand Tour. Similarly, Julia Davis, one of the most dangerous comedy-makers of the day, has made her most recent series, Hunderby and Camping, for Sky.

The BBC can still produce edgy output – Fleabag, NW, Line of Duty, Happy Valley, Sherlock – but whoever succeeds Rona Fairhead and Lord Hall of Birkenhead as chair of the BBC Trust and director general must urgently ensure that a culture of obedience does not restrict the broadcaster to heritage TV: wildlife, classic novel adaptations, remade 70s sitcoms.

Although the ex-Top Gear team nodded to the old viewing speed limit by dropping one episode a week of The Grand Tour, Amazon, Netflix, Walter Presents and Sky Box-Sets represent a dramatic shift in where and when much of the most original and interesting TV is now shown. Many viewers may have understandable reasons for refusing to give money to Murdoch or Amazon, and sticking with what you can watch for your £145.50 licence fee. But such refuseniks are at ever greater risk of missing out on extraordinary television.

For at least a decade, speakers at TV conferences have been predicting that the medium was about to be changed for ever by multi-device viewing, self-scheduling, independent production and liberation from regulation; 2016 was the year the revolution finally happened. We will never look at television the same way again.

Contributor

Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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