The fate of traditional TV is up to the over 55s

By Steph Ormond

It is no surprise to anyone that streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are seemingly becoming more popular across all age groups. The lockdowns and periods of self-isolation have meant that many of us have needed to hunker down at home multiple times, especially during the recent “Pingdemic”. 

According to a recent YouGov poll, Netflix was voted the most popular platform for TV viewing amongst all adults in 2021. However, it is common knowledge that those over 55 years old watch more mainstream and traditional television channels than subscription video-on-demand (SVoD). Understandably, this poses a few questions. How and why have they contributed to the streaming surge? Plus, are the future of platforms such as the BBC in jeopardy because of this?

Inevitably, the UK lockdowns during last year spring to mind once again. The Ofcom Media Nations 2020 report shows that the use of SVoD services by 55-64 year olds increased from 25% pre-lockdown to 32% in early lockdown. Meanwhile, the usage by over-64s followed a similar but less drastic trend, rising from 12% to 15% in the same period.

Curiosity arising from the increased time spent at home and perhaps the willingness to learn about new technology is partially responsible.  My parents, who fall into the over-55s demographic, gradually found themselves using the recording button on the remote less and scrolling through Netflix and Amazon Prime far more. A few months ago, I taught them how to make lists of their favourite shows and movies whilst they marvelled at titles they had first seen in cinemas for dollars and pence or even in black and white. 

Despite the spike in live TV viewing last year, Ofcom stated that viewership has returned to its downward trend

Of course, heightened interest in the idea of streaming programmes somewhat explains the figures above. Furthermore, it is no happy accident that older generations are discovering and sticking with the on-demand services. In the face of dwindling subscriber rates amongst 18-54 year-olds, Netflix and Amazon Prime have turned their attention to attracting older viewers by adding more crime dramas, soap operas, classic films, and documentaries. Essentially, content that is both appealing and nostalgic.

Meanwhile, many broadcasters have bolstered their efforts to entice younger audiences from the streaming giants by prioritising binge-worthy content. For instance, Channel 4 have gleefully reported record growth in younger audiences viewing their programmes, a logistical triumph when the average daily viewing time of Channel 4 by 18-34 year-olds was a shockingly low 8 minutes in 2019. 

Yet this progress appears to have neglected the task of retaining older viewers, corresponding with a widespread problem affecting mainstream television corporations. Despite the spike in live TV viewing last year, Ofcom stated that viewership has returned to its downward trend. But it does not end there. Recently, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the BBC, our national broadcaster, with some of the harshest criticisms coming from those it once relied upon to become internationally renowned.

There are now more viewing options than ever before, which has meant many have begun to doubt the value of the annual TV licence fee for adults in the UK. The fees currently stand at £159 if you want to watch your programmes in colour, £53.50 if you do not. As of June 2021, 66% of over-65s and 65% of 50-64-year-olds think that the licence fee does not offer good value for money, a harrowing statistic when back in 2017 just over half of over-55s considered it good value for money. 

 It is up to the over-55s who witnessed the rise and now seemingly the decline of terrestrial television to decide its fate

The past two years have witnessed a significant decline in the high praises of the BBC specifically. From yearly increases to licensing fees and the free-charge exception for over-75s no longer applying, the threat of older audiences becoming forced out of traditional TV viewing in the long term is definite. Additionally, the overwhelming disappointment has been seized upon and amplified by the #DefundtheBBC movement. Originating on Twitter last year, it calls for the license fee to become a subscription service instead of a compulsory charge, and for the decriminalisation of non-payment. Alongside this, some supporters accuse the corporation of being too woke. 

There is no doubt that over-55s are still the biggest consumers of traditional. Yet, broadcasters have become complacent in holding on to their most consistent viewers. Richard Broughton, a data analyst at Ampere, suggests that older generations are catching up when it comes to using streaming services, with 55-64s lagging behind the 45-54s “by just one year…”. Most younger generations have already settled with streaming services due to their cost, content, and convenience. Therefore, it is up to the over-55s who witnessed the rise and now seemingly the decline of terrestrial television to decide its fate.


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