state of the arts

The Traitors and Mr Bates show that appointment TV is back – streamers watch out

The dawn of streaming turned us into Netflix nation, eyes glued to a dazzling line-up of shows to watch whenever we wanted, writes our chief TV critic Nick Hilton. Now, with scheduled smash hits such as ‘The Traitors’ and ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’, the watercooler moment is well and truly back. And it’s got the big boys of the small screen tuning in to a very real threat from the terrestrial world…

Saturday 27 January 2024 06:56 GMT

If TS Eliot measured out his life in “coffee spoons” then I, like so many people, have punctuated my existence, thus far, with square-eyed, slack-jawed moments in front of the gogglebox. Zoe Slater yelling, “You ain’t my mother!” at her sister Kat, only for Kat to yell back, “Yes I am!”. Ronaldinho lobbing David Seaman, or Mo Farah streaking home in Stratford. A leaping Arya Stark dispatching the Night King, or Elizabeth II’s funeral procession weaving through the streets of London. These are the moments that serve as the markers of a lifetime, and they share one quality: they all unfolded as appointment TV.

And, after a decade where content providers – from Netflix and Disney+ to BBC iPlayer and whatever Channel 4 is calling its streaming platform this week – have tried to supply audiences with, in the words of comedian Bo Burnham, “everything, all of the time”, live (or linear, as it’s sometimes called) TV is starting to reassert itself. It is a process that has privileged quantity over quality, to the detriment of television as a creative medium. But, whether it’s terrestrial game shows, prestigious international productions, or domestic dramas, likely starring Julie Hesmoldhalgh, live TV is coming back in a big way. Even the streamers, who set out to kill this model, are increasingly returning their programming to a drip-feed, rather like an arsonist smearing himself with ash and telling you you’ve “got a lovely home”. But why is 2024 the year that TV went live (again)?

Live television has long been the backbone of its industry, providing viewers with two comforting things: curation and community. Twenty years ago, most households only had a smattering of channels. A couple of BBCs, ITV and Channel 4, maybe Channel 5 if you were lucky. It meant that what you watched was dictated by what was on, and commissioners, for all their flaws, knew how to fill primetime slots with exciting, suspenseful programming. Think about the 30 million people who tuned in, back in 1986, to watch “Dirty” Den Watts serve his wife, Angie, with divorce papers in EastEnders. The population of the UK at that time was just 57 million; you were more likely to be watching than not. It rendered the question of whether EastEnders was “good” or not largely irrelevant. Watching became a way of understanding the national psyche.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in