The BBC’s licence fee settlement process for 2022 to 2027 is now underway. This time there seems to be greater transparency than the previous negotiations in 2010 and 2015 which led to outcomes that effectively reduced licence fee income by c. 30%

It comes at a pivotal time for the BBC, and by extension the creative community across the UK which it supports. Recovery of this important sector relies heavily on the ability of the BBC to operate in the way that its remit requires: with investment, skills, intellectual property and talent flowing to the wider environment

But with £1.6 billion falling due over the next decade on its pension obligations and its Nations & Regions footprint alone, there is little room for manoeuvre if there are further reductions in revenues or top-slicing. The result will be less investment on the screen and a wound to a struggling sector

In this report, we examine the completion rates of every scripted series since 2018 across all the major UK broadcast channels.

Comparing scripted programmes across different channels by overall viewing is difficult as these numbers are affected by promotion, prominence, competition, the quality of online player UIs and availability.

The rate that series are completed—viewing of the final episode as a proportion of the first episode—eliminates these and allows comparison.

Despite numerous examples of critical acclaim for BBC Three programming over the last couple of years, the evidence suggests that its audience has collapsed since the closure of its linear TV channel in 2016.

Annual viewing minutes of BBC Three programming are down by more than 70% compared to its last year of linear TV broadcasting, and weekly reach amongst its target demographic of 16-34s has fallen by c. 70%—a loss far greater than those of other TV channels.

More difficult to assess are the effects of the shift in content strategy. Comedy programming, for example, proportionally shrank in terms of the total volume available while receiving a greater share of consumption, in direct contrast to factual content’s fate. 

Over the past few months we have outlined the evolving challenges that the pandemic has presented broadcasters—from plummeting ad revenues and production stoppages, to increasing SVOD viewing share

Now, however, is the time to shift thinking towards what can be taken forward from this time. There are strategies that were launched through necessity that will provide continued value beyond this period

The opportunity to reduce cost bases, leverage the greater reach of online services, forge better relationships with advertisers and better understand operational needs and limits presents the potential for more nimble, streetwise businesses

Admissions and box office revenues in 2020 will be the lowest in over three decades. The pandemic forced the closure of theatres, putting pressure on cinema to a degree unlike ever before.

The reasonable success of the straight-to-TVOD releases under lockdown has some studios suggesting TVOD distribution will live alongside theatrical in the future. However, simultaneous releases are unacceptable for cinemas and TVOD’s sub-optimal financial reality means theatrical release will remain essential for most films.

TVOD distribution will temporarily play an expanded role, while SVOD will pursue its climb up the distribution chain and big studios will assert their increased power to negotiate more favourable terms with cinema owners.

Even with lockdown continuing and competition for time still almost non-existent, linear viewing is heading back towards 2019 levels after its big, early boost

The inevitable fatigue around COVID-19 news, along with the growing staleness of the TV schedule caused by content supply struggles, are behind the decline

Unmatched TV set use, made up predominantly of streaming and gaming, has held onto much of its growth, not affected by many of the challenges that linear schedules face. This trend will inform future viewing patterns

The UK lockdown since mid-March has boosted TV time to levels not seen since 2014, with broadcast TV and online video each growing by nearly 40 minutes/person/day.

While trends vary significantly by demographic, news consumption has been a common catalyst for linear TV’s growth, benefitting the BBC above all. Although Sky News has also flourished, Sky’s portfolio has been seriously impacted by the lack of live sport.

2019 extended many of the long-running trends of the last decade, but, notably, online video’s growth rate appeared to slow among youngsters, in contrast to older demographics. 35-54-year-olds watching more VOD will have significant implications for linear broadcasters down the line.

COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented decline in advertiser demand for TV, and while the steepest drop has occurred, broadcasters will feel the impact over a long period of time.

Programming costs are being cut or deferred, but it is not possible—or even sensible—to reduce total programming budgets significantly in the mid-term due to existing contractual commitments.

Increased government support in the form of advertising spend, a loosening of Channel 4's programming obligations—the lifeblood of the independent production sector—and revisions to existing measures (to capture a greater proportion of freelancers) will be required to ensure a flourishing, vibrant sector for the future.

Although increases are moderate so far, it is inevitable that overall video viewing will rise given a reduction in competition for people’s time. So far, unsurprisingly, TV news consumption has ballooned while unmatched viewing—a proxy for SVOD usage—has increased.

However, disruption to production of TV content and cancellation of live events will leave holes to fill in the schedule.

Flexibility is built into some types of programming, however nothing can replace live sport, while disruption in the production of scripted programming—especially high-volume soaps—will have knock-on effects that continue for years.

DCMS has launched a new consultation on whether to decriminalise TV licence fee evasion—revisiting a question to which an independent, Government-commissioned review delivered a definitive, thorough "no" verdict in 2015.

The Perry Review concluded there was "no compelling basis for change" because decriminalisation would be inefficient, impair BBC income by leading to higher evasion and collection costs, and probably have a more damaging impact on low-income households.

Support for decriminalisation seems less the result of a serious concern for low-income households than a desire to reduce BBC funding or move to a subscription-funded BBC. Other policies would better redistribute the burden of BBC funding while keeping it a truly public broadcaster.