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Streaming facts from fiction

Amazon auto show, The Grand Tour

Amazon auto show, The Grand Tour

How big are the changes in UK viewing habits that Netflix and Amazon are fostering? Torin Douglas investigates.

Have Netflix and Amazon Prime Video finally come of age as viewing platforms in the UK, thanks to the uber-hyped The Crown and The Grand Tour? How many people have watched these, the first two big British commissions by the streaming companies, and what impact are the video-streaming companies having on our viewing habits more generally?

With their huge budgets and endless press and online coverage, there is a lot riding on the return of Jeremy Clarkson and co, and the drama series about the young Queen Elizabeth.

Since neither company will share its viewing figures or UK subscription numbers, it is not easy to gauge their real impact, but we can try to sift the fact from the fiction.

Rhetoric and reality

If you believe the headlines, services such as Netflix are carrying all before them. But, while everyone agrees that viewing habits are changing – particularly among the young – the stalwarts of terrestrial television insist that the change is far less dramatic than the internet cheerleaders would have us believe.

“We are experiencing profound change, with new ways to watch, and new global providers of content,” says Jonathan Thompson, Chief Executive of Digital UK, which co-ordinates the Freeview DTT platform. “But it is really important that we separate rhetoric from reality and not get carried away with a Silicon Valley view of the future of broadcast TV.”

There has been a fog of hype surrounding both shows. In December, the Mail on Sunday reported that Clarkson’s The Grand Tour was the most illegally-downloaded TV show in history. The source was a piracy data firm called Muso.

The story was picked up by the Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph, Fortune and other media.

But Variety checked the details with Muso and squashed the claim. It said The Grand Tour may have had piracy problems but it “was not even close to being the most-pirated show over the last three weeks” – let alone ever. Similarly, when Netflix launched The Crown, the Times proclaimed: “Streaming upstarts seize traditional television’s crown. Britain is turning into a digital couch-potato economy, with four in five of us subscribing to at least one streaming service.”

Thompson publicly challenged this claim at Digital UK’s stakeholder conference: “The survey’s ‘four in five’ figure was for people subscribing to any type of service, not just streaming – gym membership, publications, software, music and so on,” he said. “It was commissioned by a company called Zuora, which runs a subscription management programme.”

The headline on Zuora’s press release was dramatic, echoing a theme repeatedly peddled by internet businesses: “Is broadcast dead? Half of Brits now rarely watch ‘normal TV’ due to Netflix and Amazon Video, finds consumer research.”

This assertion was contradicted by the release itself. It stated that a quarter of British consumers subscribed to video streaming services and almost half of these subscribers said they rarely watched “normal” TV.

“That’s 12% of the UK adult population,” the release declared. But 12% is not “half of Brits”. And, as rigorous researchers know, what people say in a survey can be very different to what they actually do.

So how do The Crown and The Grand Tour compare with the most popular series on “normal” TV, such as The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing, and Planet Earth II? Their audiences can’t be compared directly, because Amazon and Netflix don’t publish figures or submit themselves to Barb’s strict rules, as broadcasters do – though Amazon has made an approach.

“We had an enquiry recently from a representative of Amazon about measuring audiences for The Grand Tour, but it came to nothing,” wrote Barb CEO Justin Sampson on its website. “I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

Number crunching 

Barb requires all programmes to be measured on a similar basis so that figures can be shared and compared. But Amazon won’t even tell its series producers how their shows are doing.

Clarkson has confirmed that The Grand Tour team has not been told – and will not be told – how many ­people have watched the programme. Amazon has revealed only that the show was its biggest premiere ever, “with millions of members streaming the first episode in the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan over the first weekend”.

Netflix’s recently published results for Q4 2016 reveal a record quarterly rise in subscriptions, up by 7 million to almost 94 million worldwide. At the same time, Netflix confirmed plans to spend US$6bn on content in 2017. But it remains as coy as Amazon about its viewing figures. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos told analysts simply that The Crown was “very popular” in the UK, and also did well across the US, Europe, and Asia.

Fortunately, the UK’s wealth of research expertise and viewing data means we can get a clearer picture.

Figures released to Television by GfK UK from its SVoD Content Tracker show that The Crown and The Grand Tour went straight to the top spots on their platforms in the UK.

Across November and December 2016, 9% of Netflix users watched The Crown, putting it well ahead of proven US hits such as Breaking Bad, Narcos, Orange Is the New Black and Gilmore Girls. On average, these viewers watched 3.9 of The Crown’s 10 episodes.

A massive 37% of the UK’s Amazon Prime users watched The Grand Tour, four times the figure for the number-two show, The Man in the High Castle. But on average they only watched 1.8 episodes, considerably fewer than the top US shows on Amazon.

GfK says that this could be because viewers were disappointed after the first episode or they simply hadn’t caught up yet. Amazon releases a new Grand Tour show every Friday (in contrast to Netflix, which puts out a whole series straight away); there were eight episodes in November and December.

The Grand Tour is astonishing,” says Julia Lamaison, insight director of GfK UK. “I’ve never seen a pattern like that for any other original programme launch. It certainly attracted a massive number of Amazon users and it will be interesting to see whether the interest continues through time.”

But how many people have actually watched the show? GfK keeps this sort of analysis for the broadcasters and platforms that subscribe to its tracker, but we can make some assumptions.

The latest Barb Establishment survey shows that 6.13 million UK households subscribed to Netflix in the third quarter of 2016, while Amazon Prime membership grew strongly to 2.55 million.

The survey shows that 13.8 million adults had access to Netflix and 5.4 million to Amazon. A third of adults – 16.9 million – had at least one SVoD service, including Now TV.

Assuming, as GfK says, that The Crown reached 9% of 13.8 million Netflix adults, it would mean that 1.2 million saw at least part of an episode. If The Grand Tour reached 37% of Amazon’s 5.4 million adults, the audience would work out at 2 million – at least for part of the first episode.

That is good for a show that is not on “normal” TV – the best-watched episode of Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic got an average audience of 2 million. But it’s not large in UK audience terms (the Bake Off final topped 15 million) and it’s a lot less than Clarkson and chums got on Top Gear.

Viewing habits

So, what impact is internet video having on our viewing habits generally?

UK subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime are undoubtedly growing, boosted by The Crown and The Grand Tour, but most viewers seem to use them as additions to broadcast TV, not as replacements.

And change is happening faster among the young. A much higher proportion of the 16-34 age group have access to an SVoD service and they are watching less live TV than they did two years ago.

According to Barb, this group’s average viewing fell to 1 hour 54 minutes a day in 2016, from 2 hours 4 minutes in 2015. Ofcom’s Digital Day diary survey agrees, and records a steeper fall over the past two years.

But the young have always watched less TV than all adults and, among viewers as a whole, the drop in viewing to “normal” TV is much lower. Barb and Thinkbox say it is down by just three minutes a day, from 3 hours 26 minutes in 2015 to 3 hours 23 minutes last year. They insist that broadcast TV remains easily the most popular form of video.

“TV – live, playback or on-demand, across all screens – had a 76% share of total video viewing in 2015 in the UK,” declared a recent publication, “TV in the video world”, published by Thinkbox and the Marketing Society. “SVoD viewing – Netflix, Amazon Prime and other SVoD services – totalled 4%,” it said. The YouTube figure was 4.4%.

Yet, many people in TV find it hard to accept this. Nigel Walley, Managing Director of Decipher, the media strategy consultancy, wrote recently: “Speaking at a conference, I quoted an Ofcom figure about the resilience of linear broadcast viewing in UK TV.

“After my talk, I was accused of lying about it by an audience member. It was a strangely shocking moment. They were convinced that the truth they felt in their gut was more true than an exhaustively researched Ofcom number.”

The Chair of Thinkbox, Tess Alps, tirelessly challenges all misleading claims about “the death of TV”. She says: “We’ve recently published a study through Ipsos, called ‘TV nation/ad nation‘, which looks at marketers’ opinions of what consumers do. It’s pretty terrifying. If you ask marketers how much time they think the average person is watching YouTube, they say over an hour a day – the real number is 16 minutes.”

It may be apocryphal, but an Amazon executive was recently quoted as saying that no one in north London watches broadcast TV any more. To which the response was “in your dreams”.

This article was written by Torin Douglas. The original article features in the February issue of RTS members magazine Television. To read more, click here to visit the RTS website