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Bandersnatch and the key to eternal life


Refinery Group’s Head of Strategy Alex Ashby talks about technological changes to content consumption, his obsession with Netlfix’s Bandersnatch and what media channels need to do to live forever.

TV is dying. Radio was meant to have died. Cinema is next. Although some of its defibrillators, Picturehouses and Secret Cinema, might disagree with you.

Yet, whilst it’s very popular to make oversimplified and exaggerated predictions about the death of mass media, these forecasts are woefully inaccurate and biased. Watching Netflix and Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch the other night served as a timely reminder of an oft-forgotten rule that entire channels very rarely die (try thinking of one) and if they do, it’s never sudden (again try thinking of one). 

The telegram died though?

The telegram was a coded message transmitted along a cable. It died, but the technology behind it later created the internet. Definitely not dead.

What does happen is that parts of them die, and do so slowly over time. For channels that survive, parts of them evolve and eventually take over. But that doesn’t sound very sexy. It’s the equivalent of an 80’s action hero flinching and cowering their way out of frame as they escape an explosion, instead of the usual walking towards camera. Without expression, and with very dirty clothes.

There is still a significant audience for traditional, linear TV of course. But going forward, TV will have to become increasingly non-traditional and non-linear to stand out, compete, and stay relevant to growing audiences who are native to those channel behaviours. The only way that linear TV broadcasters can maintain their competitive edge in the meantime is to continuously produce marvellous, captivating content time and time again – a tall order. There are few with the skill and scale to master the demands. Sky (from Game of Thrones to addressable TV and SkyGo) and the BBC (from Attenborough to iPlayer) being the standout examples.

Sky continues to succeed with content like Game of Thrones

Digital radio hasn’t fundamentally changed what radio is. The technology has simply proliferated and eased access to it. Over 50% of us now access digital radio at least once a week. 

The major social media channels – post Cambridge Analytica and with declining user engagement on core platforms – are still trying to work out which parts of their technologies, offerings, and behaviours they should either evolve or cauterise. Because they are so ingrained in our lives now and whilst still being relatively new, they probably won’t completely die. What’s much more likely is that they will become a Frankenstein’s monster version of themselves in years to come. And we will hardly have noticed… see exhibit G.

Exhibit G: Then and now

Bandersnatch from the hauntingly prophetic Black Mirror series on Netflix allows the viewer to choose the protagonist’s fate by choosing one of two paths at key moments in the story. It’s about as wonky and untraditional as you can get. 

The reward? I for one was totally engrossed, even switching my phone off, yes off, to ensure I didn’t miss any clues or detail. No doubt some boffin over at Netflix will have worked out some scarily complex (possibly useless) ‘Return on Engagement’ metric for their content. After having gone back into the story several times to explore different narrative paths for alternate endings, I’ve made that algorithm beg for mercy.

Bandersnatch is “as wonky and nontraditional as you can get”

All of this resurfaces an old lesson about innovation, that it is a two-way street. Yes, the onus is on producers, brands, and advertisers to think more innovatively about how they tell and sell. We agencies and brands hear a lot about that.

But let’s not forget that it is also on the owners of these channels. More of them need to create the conditions of opportunity instead of environments of restrictions because they are vital to forging innovative relationships and their shared end product – material, effective invention that engages en masse. Bandersnatch shows that being committed to innovation has, and always will be, about investing meaningful resources and time to do brave things with the right people.

Channels that live by these rules will never die.

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