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COULD LOVE ISLAND EXIST IN A WORLD OF TV ON DEMAND?

31/07/18

Now that it’s all over for another season and Jack and Dani have left the Love Island villa with (as her dad confidently predicted) "the readies", there will be many posts popping up on your feeds claiming to draw lessons from ITV2’s hit show about leadership or strategy or even just about, er, love.  But there’s one big thing Love Island can definitely teach us about television.

People like watching shows that other people are also watching.

To quote the brilliant narrator Iain Stirling, "Love Island has become a social phenomenon.  With 3.2 million viewers a night...it's fair to say it has captured the hearts of the British public".

A huge part of the joy of the show is the workplace banter it fuels: who was pied, who feels mugged off and which couple are going to, like, crack on next?  You don't have to tune in on the dot of 9pm every night (and we know many viewers were watching online), but it's tough to feel part of it if you're three episodes or five ("I've got a…") texts behind.  The value of the show to commercial partners like Superdrug depends a lot on this collective engagement and few of us would want to carry water bottles emblazoned with our names in shocking pink unless everyone else knew why.

This year's Love Island saga unfolded against a backdrop of pretty seismic disruptions in the ecology of television.  Disney and Fox shareholders have approved a deal for Disney to buy the lion's share of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in a move that CEO Bob Iger says will "greatly accelerate our direct-to-consumer strategy".  Hot on the heels of AT&T's planned acquisition of Time Warner and Discovery buying Scripps Networks, it's clear that rapidly growing competition from Netflix and Amazon, in particular, is convincing the traditional media giants that, in a video on demand world, they need to control both content and distribution.

Meanwhile, in the UK, an ugly row between Virgin Media and UKTV has been playing out after Virgin dropped UKTV's channels in a dispute about on-demand content, claiming that UKTV is a "linear dinosaur" with a "seriously outdated" business model.  And ITV's new CEO Carolyn McCall has been talking about a new strategy with a much greater focus on direct-to-consumer offers, with (intriguingly) "a range of potential partners".

It's safe to assume that one big outcome of all these moves will be the emergence of a new breed of video streaming services from these TV megabrands, all fighting for a place on the home screens of our smart TVs and mobile phones and all with video libraries they'll want to convince us are full of "must-watch" content.

But herein lies a problem for them all.

The trend towards online viewing is crystal clear and it seems only a matter of time before streaming will be the predominant mode for most viewers.  However, the current arms race for the best libraries of content seems to be based on an assumption that online TV will give us all, as individual viewers, an almost unlimited choice of programmes to watch whenever and wherever we want to watch them (and surfaced for us by increasingly sophisticated data analytics and personalisation).

As the early days of Netflix demonstrated with House of Cards, for example, if you can create a blockbuster show that millions of people want to watch and promote it heavily in mainstream media, it's possible to generate a shared viewing experience even if people in your office or friendship group are at different stages of the box set.  But it seems impossible for the streaming services to replicate that across even a small percentage of their libraries, beyond the perennial classics they'll all be fighting for the rights to.

Have you ever tried watching a show on demand that you absolutely love while literally no one else amongst your household, workmates and friends are into it? To give you one personal example, I found HBO's Treme, about post-Katrina New Orleans, to be a joyous and superbly crafted drama with a wonderful ensemble cast.  But early in season three I dropped out because I was fed up with having no one to share it with.

One of Netflix’s cleverest ad campaigns was based on the concept of "Netflix adultery" – sneakily watching episodes ahead of your partner.  But the flip side of that is trying to watch a box set your partner and friends haven't engaged with.  It's a lonely pursuit.

Since the dawn of television, commissioners and schedulers have known about a handy technique to let viewers know about new programmes and bring people together in shared viewing experiences.  It's called a TV channel.

Following the UKTV/Virgin spat on social media, it’s interesting that many disgruntled UKTV fans have been complaining about their favourite channels being removed rather than individual shows.  For example, irate viewers aren't bombarding the Virgin Media call centre and asking "what’s happened to my menu of comedy panel shows?".  They’re saying “bring back Dave”.  

Strong TV channel brands have distinctive identities based on communities of viewers with shared passions and an instinctive feel for the kind of new programmes those channels will serve up. The winners in the new on demand TV landscape will be those that combine the most appealing libraries of content with smart marketing that understands the psychology of TV watching, alongside methods to foster collective (if not necessarily simultaneous) viewing experiences. If they recognise the continued value of their existing brand assets (notably TV channels) to give viewers cues about what to watch, they'll be the ones whose businesses will be really, as they would say in the villa, "buzzin’".

Andy Bryant, Managing Director