What’s next in this “golden age of television”? Streaming services are a boon to everyone – especially those confined at home now – but regional and niche broadcasters are taking up the challenge posed by the big players. The future of the small screen is a real cliffhanger.
Is there such a thing as too much TV? When many are spending their days indoors, being able to dip into the vast catalogues of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple tv+ feels like a blessing – and the arrival of Disney + in many markets in late March was perfectly timed.
But it’s not just the big US-based companies vying for the attention of audiences in what are known as the “streaming wars”. Around the globe, smaller regional players are fighting to keep hold of their national audiences against competition from the well-stocked cavalcade of platforms. In terms of scale and budget, they might not be able to square up to their rivals – Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries, Apple tv+ in at least 100 and Amazon Prime in 17 – but regional players have an important weapon in their arsenal.
“We are not competing against Netflix but we need to differentiate our offering to stay relevant,” says Max Conze, ceo of German media company ProSiebenSat.1, which runs TV channels and streaming platform Joyn (a joint venture with Discovery). “The solution is local, live and sticky content tailored to the local taste, that is relevant and close to [a viewer’s] life. Content that they find only with us.”
For Joyn, that means programmes such as Jerks – an edgy, unusual show about two actors playing themselves – or family comedy-drama Check Check, commissions that play to a German sense of humour and that, though they might not travel far and wide, can still become the talk of a country. When much of the world is bingeing on the same show, specificity and national identity still have power.
This might explain the success of platforms such as Yle Areena: in its native Finland, the on-demand offering from the country’s national broadcaster remains more popular than Netflix. The eight or so original series it produces every year may have something to do with it but for head of media Ismo Silvo, other factors are also at play. “For some reason in Finland there’s never been too much of an appetite for pay TV,” he says. “I think there’s an important attachment to a broadcaster that is familiar. As an interesting fact, Yle Areena is the most valued media brand in the country; people feel that this is their brand.”
If the way to penetrate international markets is to make shows that speak the residents’ language, the giants have cottoned on. Netflix has been investing heavily in non-English-language programming, and players such as WarnerMedia’s hbo Max (slated to debut in the US in May and to expand into Latin America next) know it very well too.
“International [reach] will be a significant part of our expansion plans,” says Gerhard Zeiler, president of WarnerMedia International Networks. “We cannot create a streaming offering that isn’t global. But we are taking a market-by-market approach.” Co-productions with foreign companies have long been standard practice for hbo – whether it’s Romanian cybercrime thriller Hackerville or sci-fi Norwegian noir Beforeigners – and this bank of series will help when the time comes to join the European fray.
This approach might be where the biggest threat to national services lies. “The argument stood that regional players have a local connection and know their markets – or at least they did,” says Manori Ravindran, international editor at entertainment magazine Variety. “But now big players have started localising and hiring the best people from the regional broadcasters.” Also, when the Hollywood studios further restrict what they’re willing to distribute, many smaller players will have to come up with new strategies. “That’s going to be the turning point,” adds Ravindran. “A lot of services will have to band together and aggregate.”
“Companies need more content to stay competitive; audiences want to have choice. Are we overly saturated? If the demand is there – the more platforms, the better the opportunity”
Marriages between former enemies are now happening across Europe. In France, for example, France Télévisions has joined forces with tf1 and M6 to create Salto, the “French Netflix”. But in the UK, alliances started forming early. Britbox, a joint venture between the public bbc and private network itv, launched in the US three years ago and came to its home country last year. “We realised that we’re much better together,” says Reemah Sakaan, Britbox’s chief creative and brand officer. Despite starting off in the world’s most saturated market – there are about 250 services to choose from in the US – Britbox landed well and its subscriber count soon surpassed one million. For Sakaan, it’s all due to the streamer’s well-defined remit. “You have to have one clear proposition: what makes you different and special?” she says. “What can you do that nobody else can? We are the best of British.” With a reputation for good acting, well-written crime series and endearing comedy, British TV is a fairly easy sell abroad. “Although it’s very well known, it’s a ‘mass’ niche: it occupies a big potential space but is a distinct alternative to the US stuff that comes out,” says Sakaan. Relying on exclusives and a huge back catalogue, including flagship shows such as Broadchurch and Downton Abbey, has so far stood Britbox in good stead. Even its first original, due for release later this year, is a reprise of popular 1980s satirical puppet show Spitting Image.
Britbox is not the only service looking beyond its borders. After launching in the US with a service mainly aimed at expats, Brazil’s Globoplay has now embarked on making English-language shows. “Globo has always produced telenovelas [soap operas] that have been hugely popular worldwide – and have sold to more than 150 countries,” says Erick Bretas, head of Globoplay. “But series are more popular among younger audiences now.” That’s why the nation’s leading broadcaster has started experimenting with edgier programmes that follow a global shift in taste towards crime thrillers and true-crime documentaries. The Angel of Hamburg, a collaboration with Sony Pictures Television, is about a Brazilian embassy clerk who saved hundreds of Jews during the Second World War. With expected investment to the tune of $200m (€182m) a year, enthusiasm for shooting new shows is also fuelling a ramp-up of operations for production houses across Brazil.
None of these companies are showing any signs of giving up and the competition is leading to the production of ever more hours of high-quality series. “There’s quite a lot around and more on the way,” says John Elmes, international editor at TV-focused industry title Broadcast. “Companies need more content to stay competitive; audiences want to have choice. Are we overly saturated? If the demand is there – the more platforms, the better the opportunity.”
Regional streaming platforms making their mark:
Viaplay (Norway, Denmark, Sweden & Finland)
ORIGINAL SHOWS: Love Me, Honour, Wisting
ORIGINAL SHOWS: The Other Guy, Wolf Creek, No Activity
TVNZ OnDemand (New Zealand)
ORIGINAL SHOWS: Black Hands, The Luminaries, One Lane Bridge
Hooq (Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, India & Thailand)
ORIGINAL SHOWS: Brata, She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her, Someone
ORIGINAL SHOWS: Tell Me Who I Am, The Plague, Perfect Life