We all need a little light in the current times of pandemic and political betrayal. So I thought I’d tackle this tongue-in-cheek question from Fiona on my #AskAFuturist thread on Twitter: “Will Strictly go on forever?”
Fiona is referring to Strictly Come Dancing, the somewhat oddly named BBC TV series, now at 17 seasons and named the most successful reality TV format by Guinness World Records. In a world of on-demand entertainment it remains appointment viewing, attracting on average over ten million viewers per episode in the last few seasons. Can it continue this run of success?
The answer to that question brings in the subject that is most obsessing me at the moment: choice. And it raises the most challenging issue for futurists in making predictions: the unpredictability of human taste and behaviour.
The choice explosion
Today we have more choice about what we watch and when we watch it than ever before. Not only that, we have more choice about how we spend our leisure time than ever, albeit arguably with more leisure time to spend as well. The natural assumption from this is that each form of entertainment might take a smaller share of our total time. And this largely appears to be true. As the internet rose, so linear (broadcast) TV consumption declined around the world. But what’s fascinating as someone who watches and listens to very little real-time/broadcast content* is just how dominant broadcast media remains in the UK. According to the 2019 Ofcom report, 89.4% of us listen to the radio and spend an average of almost three hours a day listening. 88.5% of us watch television, and spend an average of over three hours in front of the gogglebox. 71% of that viewing is still accounted for by the primary five broadcast channels and their subsidiaries.
Compare these figures to those for Netflix consumption and you see just how dominant the old forms of media remain. The average Netflix subscriber (about 40% of UK households) consumes about 7 hours of content per week.
What can we take from this? Strictly has achieved an incredible feat by growing its audience over the seasons to the level it is at today. But it has done so in the context of a choice explosion that is only just beginning. We are at, as the saying goes, the b of the bang. While there are many more options out there, most people have yet to migrate their tastes away from the dominant broadcasters, if they ever will. Though the trend is most pronounced amongst the youngest viewers, as ever. If they maintain their behaviour as they age, consuming more short-form and on-demand content, the strictly could suffer.
This said, it’s hard to discount the idea of continued success for Strictly. After all, part of its appeal comes from the stars who they attract to appear on it. The careful curation of these celebrities ensures that the show attracts a broad demographic. If that successful curation were to continue, and new generations of stars continue to value an appearance there, then it’s possible that the show could sustain its success. But, I think this is where the show may struggle.
The media through which the new generation of celebrities are emerging are very detached from the traditional world of carefully curated linear programming, or even reality TV. The style is very different and so is the audience. Creators are often auteurs with complete control of their output and image. Their audience comes from all across the world. Appearing on a show like Strictly might be a big leap for them, and one that doesn’t necessarily hold that much appeal. If you have ever watched YouTube stars appear on ‘normal’ television then you will know what I mean. Even the most famous and polished frequently look awkward and out of place. It’s just a different discipline. Learning it may not hold sufficient reward unless the financial prize is very large and the crossover with your own audience is significant.
Strictly and other popular linear programming is likely to face another challenge in the next decade as we go through another format shift and mixed reality becomes more accessible. Exactly how and when this happens is unclear, but as I have written about in the past, the physical and digital worlds have been coming closer together for decades. Blending them in a form of augmented reality interface seems like a very obvious next step.
This creates enormous possibilities for programming that is somewhere between television and computer gaming. People have demonstrated systems where you can be the director of your own show, for example, using the huge amounts of raw footage captured by the falling cost and rising pixel count of cameras. That’s a very different experience from the passive consumption of television, but it might appeal to some.
Whatever happens, there will be a new dimension of choice and competition for established formats in the future.
Re-use and recycle
If I were to be forced to bet on what will happen with Strictly, I would guess it follows a fairly traditional TV arc. Ratings start to decline, and after a couple of years of them falling the BBC decides to stick the idea back in the vault to resurrect at a later date when the time seems right – much as it already did with Come Dancing when it added the ‘Strictly’. When will that happen? Well, the numbers are still strong. I would guess we have at least another three to five seasons of Strictly yet before they decide to pull the plug.
*Apart from all the shows I appear on. Clearly I listen to/watch you all, every week, without fail…