The big streaming platforms are piling on new subscribers during the pandemic. But there could be tough questions to come, particularly over how they handle news and information
Should Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video carry news? Should they, in fact, be required to do so? As the UK limbers up for another few years arguing about the future funding of the public broadcasters, what about the public responsibilities of those well-funded streamers?
I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and this week we began a series of ThinkIns on “The Battle for Truth”. Yesterday, we discussed how to regulate online platforms, and this evening, we are considering freedom of speech and cancel culture. And so, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to consider another front in the fight for a free, safe and responsible public square in the digital age: I want to talk about the entertainment platforms.
There are some things that will change irrevocably as a result of the pandemic. The high street is one. Television is another. The first lockdown was exceptionally good for the traditional broadcasters, such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. But, through the course of the year, the streamers have increased the number of subscribers by more than a third. By the end of 2020, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and Netflix had signed up more than 32 million subscribers in the UK.
In the summer, Ofcom reported that people have been spending as much as 40 per cent of their time watching television during lockdown. That’s 45 hours a week – and the streamers’ share of those hours is rapidly rising. Of course, streaming didn’t start with the coronavirus, but it’s really caught on since March. Not only are younger people streaming more, but the silver streamers have succumbed to the joys of The Crown and Queen’s Gambit, Soul and The Mandalorian, Premier League on Prime.
The growing number of hours now spent on streaming platforms is time in a world without news bulletins and current affairs; without programmes, in fact, that question the powerful; without documentaries that speak to local or national issues; and without comedy that mocks and embarrasses our politicians here in the UK.
The streamers run a programming regime that is dominated by scripted drama, by family values entertainment and, at its most cutting edge, culture wars comedy. Their documentaries are global, impactful and largely apolitical: they’re generally on climate change, big tech, past scandals and strange-but-true tales. Taken together, they offer chocolate fondue for the mind. Let’s make no mistake – I love it. But also let’s not overstate its nutritional value.
So far, the streamers have not been drawn into the battle for truth. Quite deliberately. By all accounts, Reed Hastings, the Netflix chief executive, has watched Google battered by the news industry over copyright, and then witnessed Facebook and Twitter dragged to Capitol Hill to get a kicking for what they’ve done to democracy, and concluded that Netflix is never going near news.
But avoiding news is an editorial decision, too. For a century, most people have got their news on their entertainment platforms, i.e. on television or radio. And in the US, in the UK, in fact in most western countries, governments have licensed broadcasters to mix entertaining programming with public goods such as news; the one guaranteeing the audience for the other. The principle that underpinned it all was that citizens could only make good choices if a range of reliable information was widely available to them, and TV and radio ensured that it was.
Sooner or later, then, societies are going to have to decide whether the thinking that underpinned that broadcast era should now hold in the internet age.
Perhaps it doesn’t. One option is to do nothing. The streamers can reasonably say that they’re not inhibiting news consumption, nor are they amplifying lies. The battle for truth, they might well say, is nothing to do with them.
But another possibility is that they begin to face growing political pressure. This might be over other gaps in their scheduling, say regionally and nationally made content or programming that meets certain public value tests. But, at some point, attention will turn to news, not least because TV is one of the last mass markets for local news and, as broadcast audiences are eaten by the streamers, there will be demands for new outlets for local information and accountability.
In response to this pressure, or possibly even public service regulation, the streamers are going to have a choice. They can either build newsrooms – and that’s expensive and difficult– or they can host them, i.e. they can put the BBC or ITN, The Times, Reuters or Sky on their platforms. But then, let’s be clear, at that point they will be players in the news business and they will be on the playing field in the battle for truth.
Of course you might say I have a dog in this fight. Even a Tortoise. And I do. But I also think that we have a tendency in our accelerating digital age of working on future solutions to yesterday’s problems, only ignoring the revolutions taking place in our lives now. The pandemic is going to change TV forever. And the streamers will potentially change news viewing habits more, even, than 24 hour cable channels or social media news feeds. It’s not dumbing down the news. It’s tuning it out.
The world is clearly going to need places to go for information it can trust. It’s had it in the past; and the streamers might be the answer in the future. Providing independent, trusted information to the global public needn’t be a penance – but a purpose.
Thank you for listening. And do join us for the ThinkIns on the battle for truth; it’s a subject close to our hearts.