BBC vs. Netflix: quality or quantity?

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Immediate gratification has quickly become the default in a world where many of our trivial, material desires can now be instantaneously satisfied with the tap of a touchscreen. The explosive popularity of Netflix and other online streaming services over the past decade confirms that television is certainly no anomaly in this ‘on demand’ society. 

Over time the merit of a serial drama has come to be judged by how ‘binge-worthy’ it is, which realistically translates to: “how willing am I to sacrifice a healthy sleep schedule and consequent day of productivity for this group of fictional characters?”

With the vast majority of shows on Netflix being released in ‘bulk’, we as impatient consumers are unleashed into an illimitable vortex of episode after episode, until we can no longer tell where our bodies end and the couch begins. 

I sometimes wonder if we’ve forgotten about the ‘old days’, when weekly episode releases guaranteed a whole seven days’ worth of agonising anticipation and stirred up heated debates among families, friends, and work colleagues as to ‘whodunnit’. 

Recent hype surrounding shows such as Line of DutyKilling Eve and Doctor Foster, however, have allowed the BBC to prove that the ‘slow-release’ serial drama is far from losing its appeal. 

There’s something uniquely exciting about sitting down to watch a climactic series finale, knowing the whole country is watching alongside you

There’s something uniquely exciting about sitting down to watch a climactic series finale, knowing the whole country is watching alongside you. A weekly episode release allows you to coast through each day without the threat of spoilers hidden around every corner, and it also keeps the intolerable plot-explainers at bay – that is, the people who manage to ruin entire shows by word-vomiting out the whole storyline until it’s no longer worth the time it takes to watch it yourself. 

While Netflix has also had major hits with the likes of The Crown, Bridgerton and Stranger Things, an underlying suspicion persists. Namely, that the streaming service sometimes prefers to opt for quantity over quality, churning out series after series and sequel after sequel like a money-making machine. For every 20 Netflix Originals, you generally only get a handful that really hit the mark. 

While Netflix bombards viewers with new episodes to keep them interested in paying their subscription fees, the publicly-funded BBC faces no such pressures. Yet, BBC iPlayer appears to function much like its international rival regardless. 

As each episode of a serial drama is unleashed, it is made available for ‘on demand’ catch-up almost immediately. And let’s face it, workaholism is back for our post-pandemic society. Whilst we had nothing else to do in lockdown but wait for each new episode to materialise on a Tuesday night, normal life is getting in the way again, and many people are just too busy to make mid-week commitments. It’s much easier to wait until the whole thing’s on iPlayer and then binge-watch it in its entirety when you’re hungover on a Sunday instead. 

I would argue that the BBC has the edge in allowing viewers the opportunity to choose which viewing experience they actually prefer

While it may not always be the healthiest choice, binge-watching drama is arguably just as effective a method of keeping a grip on viewers as week-by-week watching. Once you’re immersed in a fictional world you enjoy, there’s no immediate reason to come out of it. There’s no forced plummet back into reality. You’re so absorbed in the storyline that nothing else in that moment is more important than finding out what happens next. If anything, I would argue that the BBC has the edge in allowing viewers the opportunity to choose which viewing experience they actually prefer. 

Ultimately, I don’t think that either the BBC or Netflix threaten each other’s long-term survival. While the BBC exists as a historic British institution, Netflix doesn’t need to rely on British customers with such a vast international clientele. I would be shocked to see one significantly endangered as a direct result of the other’s success. 

As demand for content and formidability as a force in the industry continues to grow for Netflix for various reasons (including the pandemic and its growing appeal to A-list Hollywood actors) the BBC, I maintain, continues to prove that quality is just as important as quantity. 

While it may take a lot for the BBC to match the sheer extent of Netflix’s global reach, for us here in the UK, we can generally be pretty confident that whatever we do get – whether that’s drama, gameshow or documentary – will be worth the watch. 

Image: Nicolas J Leclercq via Unsplash

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