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Internet vs TV

October 2015

Recent events surrounding Top Gear, the fairly egregious TV programme, may have finally proved that the internet has spread its disruptive tentacles further than shopping, email and so on and is now seriously taking on television.  This is hardly news, but the Top Gear affair has thrown a spotlight on it, and demonstrates vividly that if you don’t get yourself a TV connected to the internet your viewing options are going to dwindle fairly quickly.  You’ll certainly run the risk of missing some good stuff.

Just in case you ignored it, as I tried to, there was a terrific row when the presenters of the very popular Top Gear were sacked or resigned.  At the time I couldn’t have cared less; what made me interested was that all of a sudden, the online shop Amazon popped up, filled the trio’s pockets with gold, and will be creating a new programme for them.

This programme won’t be broadcast to old fashioned televisions connected to an aerial; it will be delivered through the internet, and then only to those of us who pay Amazon in one way or another, probably about £80 per year.  That will doubtless also give us access to their archive of on-demand films and programmes.

To watch Amazon TV, your television needs to be one that connects to the internet, and has the right widgets installed to allow it to talk to Amazon’s computers, and your internet connection needs to be fast enough to cope.  I have such a television, and it’s great; I’ve realised that we hardly ever watch live aerial-based TV nowadays, apart from the news and sport, and not even always then.

You may have no interest in Top Gear, but this is a biggish moment in popular entertainment.  Think of it this way: if it’s worth Amazon’s while to take on Top Gear, what is to stop them, or Facebook, Google or Twitter or anyone else from making TV producers similar offers they can’t refuse?  It’s already happened to the BBC’s embarrassment; they cancelled the Victorian police drama Ripper Street after two series; lots of people complained, Amazon noticed, and produced a third series.  This has now been bought by, guess who, the BBC.

So what’s to stop the internet companies doing the same thing for Downton Abbey?  Or Call the Midwife?  Or Strictly Come Dancing, or any other popular programme?

The key point here is that anyone, absolutely anyone, can now set up a “TV” station.  You’ll need some money, but not much, in relative terms, and if you get the likes of Top Gear on board, you will attract viewers who can then be sold your other services. 

I could set up Webster TV; all I would need is the technical means to make my programmes available on the internet, and that is a tiny hurdle compared to the huge licencing, regulatory and legal difficulties associated with establishing a traditional TV station. 

This is bad news for the BBC and all the other traditional TV channels, who operate under rules and regulations that were largely written before the internet existed.  Webster TV would suffer no such constraints; it would probably be beyond the influence of the regulator Ofcom, and probably not subject to most of the laws that exist to temper the more unpleasant enthusiasm of television programme makers.  It could be based in any country in the world, whilst sending programmes to the UK.

Lew Grade famously referred to winning a franchise to run a commercial television station as “a licence to print money”; he knew a monopoly when he saw one. The internet has made it easier to attack monopolies in many areas; I think that another one has just bitten the dust.