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Talking down the TV and radio industry will ultimately destroy it

Ashley Byrne

Radio and TV are far from ‘dead’, the industry is still thriving. But we’ve been reduced from being broadcasters to niche-casters scurrying round for audience dregs on social media, writes Ashley Byrne, creative director at independent production company Made in Manchester.

When we first launched Made in Manchester on to the radio and TV scene in May 2005 there was already a plethora of press, conferences and so-called media experts writing off the industry or talking it down. Not quite the welcome you need when you’re trying to build a creative business from scratch…

The constant mantra was that TV and radio were either dead or dying and we all desperately needed to future-proof everything. The reality was that radio and TV were far from dead. In fact, both have been thriving for much of the last two decades. Of course, the way people consume both mediums has changed but nonetheless they are still with us.

But it doesn’t stop the corrosive narrative continuing. Only recently, we had a much hyped study suggesting linear TV was in crisis because only just short of 80% of the population were watching it. That’s 80, yes 80, you read it right – not 20% but 80%. It’s all over and the streamers are now the only game in town, you know. The same narrative prevails in radio where the future-proofing suggests everything must be poured into the radio equivalent of streaming – podcasts (listened to by 20% of the population).

That’s despite overall linear radio listening being at just short of 90%. Myths take on a life of their own and, before you know it, the bang the drum mantra has achieved its original aim, and there’s no industry left.

Don’t get me wrong, streaming and podcasts have their place. Though, I’ve always thought podcast as a word to be too technical and boring. Surely the audio sector could have branded things a bit more showbiz, sexy and exciting?

Don’t tell me it’s the only way I can consume TV or audio and somehow, if I don’t stream and binge watch on Netflix or spend hours searching for great podcasts on my phone, I’m missing out. It feels the industry won’t be satisfied until it’s herded everyone to be an exclusive streamer or podcaster and to force us to give up linear TV and radio altogether.

As someone who makes programmes, I find these mantras limiting for both creative people and our audiences. We should be trying to use the different ways we can consume content to maximise audiences. instead, by often now prioritising streaming and podcasting over releasing programmes where more people may stumble across them by chance, we’re turning broadcasters into niche-casters.

So many shows are being denied exposure

ITV recently released six new sitcoms on ITVX. How many of you reading this had any inkling they were there? Most people I knew who watched them only found out through recommendations on social media. Great shows with some brilliant comedy talent going completely under the radar. I’d hazard a guess their viewing figures are very small.

The same thing is happening in radio. Several times recently we’ve made programmes in which podcasting has been the priority and linear radio outings have been relegated to the middle of the night. Again, some great programmes and series are missing out on good audiences as we deny mass exposure and limit the number of listeners enjoying quality shows. Not everyone has the time to go searching for things online. Not everyone knows what they want either but they might be drawn in by something they discover by chance while listening to linear radio stations or flicking through channels on linear TV.

So many shows are being denied exposure because of the way broadcasters are prioritising their release. Rather than maximising audiences and truly using linear to help viewers and listeners find more via streaming, we’re narrowing down the opportunity for people to find things because we’re obsessed with trying to condition people into consuming in a particular way.

Why can’t we allow different ways to emerge and see them all as legitimate options to enjoy programmes? Young people, who the industry is obsessed with, aren’t stupid and will realise the joy of linear if it’s promoted to them.

If we kill linear off altogether, we will soon miss it and like the emperor’s new clothes, suddenly be told watching live TV and listening to live radio is actually exciting after all, as all the streamers pile in to create their own channels.

We’ve been reduced from broadcasters to niche-casters

But my serious concern is the financial sustainability of the industry. We’ve been reduced from being broadcasters to niche-casters scurrying round for audience dregs on social media – the equivalent of handing out leaflets for a garden fete in the local village hall or buy-one-get-one-free tickets to the city’s nightclub. Money to make quality programmes, to create great drama, comedy, entertainment, quiz shows and documentaries will run out as sponsors, investors and advertisers withdraw funding due to audiences getting smaller and smaller.

Ultimately then, the so-called democracy of our age, the more choice and variety media will disappear as only the big conglomerates can afford to create. A once thriving industry of writers, actors, producers, animators, musicians would be destroyed as everything becomes a homogenised Amazon one-stop shop.

It’s time to stop talking our industry down, to stop the corrosive narrative that radio and TV is dying when it clearly isn’t and to instead start celebrating and promoting a variety of ways to enjoy great programmes. The BBC’s decision to axe Doctors, a soap with a one million daytime audience (a big niche like all the soaps which continue to thrive even in a fragmented market) is a bad decision and adds to the overplayed narrative myth of decline.  BBC, we don’t need more news and current affairs shows to replace it. Reconsider this crazy decision.

Let’s stop chasing American viewing and listening trends and instead put the focus on making quality shows of our own and maximising their audiences across the generations through all and any means possible.

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