Raymond Snoddy's review of the year
From ferocious video streaming wars to dwindling trust in advertising, or the growth of commercial radio to the BBC's annus horribilis, Ray Snoddy reviews a year in media
While there was never any doubt that Ben Stokes would win the BBC sports personality of the year award, there is equally no doubt that the television phenomenon of 2019 goes to the streamers.
The international players have been threatening to do it for years and suddenly there they all were from Apple to Amazon, and Disney, NBC and Discovery et al trying to take a bite out of Netflix, which also had a decent if slightly up and down year. Many media groups would like to have its problems - the 160 million subscriber mark will soon be reached if it hasn’t already.
All the streamers have a worldwide canvas and the money to invest what it takes to establish new subscription businesses.
Amazon, the parcel delivery company, had a breakthrough year in television with Prime video after cornering a large slice of the tennis world and producing the splendid Andy Murray recovery documentary, Resurfacing.
And if you want to watch Liverpool’s visit to Leicester live on Boxing Day then it’s to Amazon Prime you must go. It sounds like merely the beginning for the ever-expanding tech company.
The cumulative impact of the rise of streamers must inevitably put continuing pressure on the existing national broadcasters, particularly among young audiences.
As Ofcom found, around half of UK adults subscribe to at least one streaming service and adults watch YouTube for an average half an hour a day.
While public service broadcasting still accounts for the majority of viewing its use is falling as viewers take up online services. By 2018 broadcasters had lost 49 minutes a day of viewing compared with 2012 and further minutes have almost certainly melted away since then.
BritBox did finally get going in the UK, minus BBC programming for a year after transmission. Good luck to the project but it feels a bit like a sniper rifle aimed at the big bazookas.
It was also a good year for Sky with the Murdoch name no longer on the masthead. New owner Comcast plans to build a new Hollywood style studio complex in north London with 14 sound stages and the creation of 2,000 jobs.
It’s designed to feed the apparently insatiable demand for international content and a buoyant British film industry benefiting from a relatively low pound and a highly qualified workforce.
Good to see that consolidation and changes of ownership are not always just about cost-cutting and job losses.
It was a bad year for the advertising industry. The creativity is still there but, according to the Advertising Association, trust has fallen from 50 per cent to a new low of 25 per cent.
You don’t need to look too far to understand why. Although online advertising revenue continues to rise beyond £13 billion it is despite fake news, hate crime and top brands finding themselves associated with self-harm teenage suicide material.
It has been a good year for commercial radio with the sector reaching a record 36 million listeners opening up clear water over the combined forces of the BBC.
Commercial radio even managed, with the help of Simon Mayo, to launch with Scala Radio, a more casual rival to Classic FM.
Perversely, you might think, it is entirely rational, despite appearances, to say that the newspaper industry has had a good year apart from the right-wing nationals descending into the purest of propaganda.
It’s the numbers that look good when viewed through the proper lens – overall reach on all devices.
The latest PAMCo figures show that a total of 48 million adults engage monthly with news brands – a number that continues to show real growth and will probably push through the 50 million barrier.
At the same time concern about fake, conspiracy and downright malign news, increased trust in established publishers, according to Edelman, from 48 to 60 per cent between 2017 and 2018.
Whether the industry can use such positive numbers to push forward on raising revenue remains an open question.
Channel 4, under chief executive Alex Mahon, has also had a good year – at least until the absent Boris Johnson was replaced by a block of melting ice in a leader’s debate.
It was entirely reasonable for Boris Johnson to be empty-chaired, particularly when he sent his dad Stanley along instead. It is a moot point whether the block of ice was entirely wise given the Parliamentary landslide which subsequently followed.
The channel faces the threat of a review of its licence and the current iteration of the Conservative government might decide to re-open the privatisation debate.
The BBC also got itself in a pickle over the non-appearance of Boris Johnson on Andrew Neil’s chopping block. It was a mistake to lure the other leaders into a blood bath without Johnson being formally signed up. The BBC’s error was compounded by the decision to allow Johnson to appear on the Marr Show, using the spurious rationale that there had been a terrorist attack.
While Andrew Marr acquitted himself well it was obvious Johnson had been given a pass to avoid Neil, who has also had a good year.
But that was neither the beginning nor the end of what is turning into an annus horribilis for the BBC.
First the Corporation was backed into a corner over free licence fees for the over 75s before taking the unpopular but entirely rational decision that only those on income support should receive the concession.
With his notorious command of detail Prime Minister Johnson said on the campaign trail that the BBC should simply “cough up” either not knowing, or caring, that coughing up would cost the BBC £750 million rising to £1 billion.
Then there was the threat of a review of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee, apparently oblivious to the fact that the government conducted just such an independent inquiry in 2015 led by criminal QC David Perry.
It concluded that the current system was “appropriate and fair.”
The greatest threat, and one that is close to existential for the BBC, is a review which will look at whether the licence fee remains relevant in current circumstances - a review that will probably be conducted by the disappearing Culture Secretary Nikki Morgan who mysteriously is now due to reappear in the House of Lords.
The impetus is apparently coming from a belief that the BBC’s election coverage was biased against the Conservatives.
As former Culture minister Ed Vaizey observed on Radio 4’s Today programme, given the size of the Conservative majority if the BBC was biased it wasn’t very good at it.
At least there was some good news for the BBC in 2019. Desert Island Discs was voted the best radio programme of all time.
It was first broadcast in 1942.