The History & Future Of British Television

Posted by Andrew Watts

February 2, 2018

Who knew that under a hundred years after the first public demonstration of television to members of the Royal Institution of John Logie Baird in 1926, we would now be able to create our own augmented reality in which we can become our very own television. Many would assume that this rapid evolution has seen TV move further and further away from its roots, which is true to some degree, yet whilst the technology and habits of viewers has changed monumentally, the most popular content amongst UK viewers remains that of the main national broadcasters BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

In the beginning viewers had little choice in what they were able to watch, it was either the BBC or ITV, the original PSB’s. The BBC decided what the public should see and what constituted entertainment, decisions made by an educated elite far removed from the general populace it provided for. This created an opportunity for the ITV network to create more diverse content to reach a wider, arguably more representative, market something that was taken further with the emergence of Channel 4 and finally Channel 5. Yet there was still plenty of room for more content, different services, and international programming, something that took its time coming but transformed the UK when it did arrive.

That was the introduction of Sky TV. Originally the Sky Channel was available to cable subscription viewers via the OTS-2 satellite, but Murdoch was not happy with the amount of custom he received. Therefore, Murdoch joined forces with Alan Sugar to attract more viewers. Amstrad Consumer Electronics would manufacture and market receiving satellite dishes to show Murdoch’s Sky Channels, this deal was revolutionary for British TV as viewers could now watch hundreds of channels in an instant. Long gone were the days of relying only on PSBs as sole providers of entertainment.  At the time, consumers likely believed that the forefront of Television technology was being able to watch your favourite sports team in standard definition. How wrong they were.

On the 6th of August 1991, a small project known in the industry as the ‘World Wide Web’ was launched, to no media attention and little public knowledge, the internet was born. The internet acted as a catalyst for the true and most significant revolution ever seen in Television, one that tops Murdoch’s Sky Channel launch ten-fold. The revolution did not come in the immediacy of the internet, it took TV networks and production companies a while to realise the true potential of the internet, and for technology to deliver a quality viewing experience. Whilst the birth of the Internet saw a few teething problems, once we had moved past the dial-up era of internet into something more instantaneous, the habits of consumers also began to change. The public no longer had to wait for information or news, they could simply go onto the internet and search for it and receive results instantly. This undoubtedly affected the publics approach to TV, people did not want to have to wait to watch their favourite shows, they wanted their entertainment instantly just like they received their news and other information. 

The demand for constantly available entertainment resulted in arguably the most dramatic revolution of Television in its entire history (even more than colour TV!).  Television in Britain began with the BBC so not surprisingly the BBC were at the forefront of tapping into the potential of internet based content. In December 2007 the BBC launched the iPlayer, a revolutionary development that allowed for viewers to catch up instantly on any content they may have missed. This began the OnDemand boom and where instant entertainment truly became a reality. Whilst the iPlayer was revolutionary to traditional Television, the year before the launch of iPlayer saw the birth of instant amateur content sharing through Google’s YouTube.  Entertainment was quite clearly only moving in one direction, to on demand content online.

The birth of OTT  (Over-The-Top) services really challenged the traditional ways of viewing content. Consumers had become disillusioned with the high prices and restrictive contracts of pay-TV but wanted more than Freeview channels. These conditions, along with the internet boom, resulted in a new market for Television. OTT services aimed to provide the highest quality content at an affordable price instantly, without being tied to long contracts paying for shows they often would never watch, with personalised content and great user experience. Services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime delivered this.  

With forecasted growth in the VOD category expected to reach $90.8 Billion globally by 2022 it is hard to see any return to the traditional way experiencing our entertainment. Instant, bespoke services have become the norm and any deviation from this model would surely be seen as regression for the consumer. The OTT players know this, and are investing in content accordingly – Netflix announced that in 2018 they will be creating 80 original films (an increase of 30 since 2017). It is clear that VOD and OTT services are not only here to stay but they are also now the status quo.