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BBC's Bodyguard sets ratings record as OTT players step up UK investments

Media analysts hailed strong viewing figures for the BBC's new political thriller "Bodyguard" as a boost for the U.K.'s TV production sector, amid moves by tech giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and Netflix Inc. to increasingly rival the country's broadcasters.

With a consolidated figure of 10.4 million viewers, the BBC One show's first episode delivered the highest launch figure for a new drama across all U.K. channels in more than a decade, according to a Sept. 4 press release.

SNL ImageKeeley Hawes and Richard Madden in the BBC's "Bodyguard"
Source: BBC/World Productions/Des Willie

The six-part series opener also drew 1.2 million 16-34-year-old viewers and 3 million requests to date on BBC iPlayer, the BBC's internet streaming service.

The impressive viewing figures were welcome news at the BBC, particularly since an industrywide shift to online, on-demand content alongside M&A consolidation in the U.K. market as U.S. media giants push for scale has placed huge pressure on the public service broadcaster's budget. This year the BBC announced its funding for U.K. audiences is down 18% in real terms compared to 2010.

In a recent speech, the BBC's Director General, Tony Hall, likened the challenge of competing with overseas players with deeper pockets to a "David versus Goliath" scenario.

The strain has been felt across the U.K.'s creative industry, which is now home to less than 40% of U.K. or European-owned independent production companies, representing a decline from 83% a decade ago, according to BBC figures.

Meanwhile, U.K. commissioning revenue from overseas subscription video on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon's Prime Video was up 19% year over year to £150 million in 2017, according to the latest findings by Pact, a British trade association that represents independent TV, film, digital and children's media companies.

In an interview, Tom Harrington, senior research analyst at research firm Enders Analysis, said that the international scale and total content spend of Facebook Inc., Apple Inc., Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet Inc.'s Google also known as the FAANGs will continue to put pressure on local broadcasters relying on non-expanding revenue streams such as TV advertising and the licence fee, an annual levy paid by the general public to fund the BBC.

That said, he noted that television is still a very localized medium, which means the vast majority of popular programs in the U.K. are home-grown.

"At this point Netflix, Amazon and Apple make and commission a comparably small amount of British content, and so most major hits are going to be from the domestic broadcasters who harbor the knowledge of what works best in this market," Harrington said.

More crucially, industry observers also believe that the success of "Bodyguard" makes a strong case for the quality of content in Britain and its ability to compete with big-budget series on the international scene.

"British broadcasters and producers are in a solid position to compete on a global scale," said Richard Broughton, research director at London-based research firm Ampere Analysis.

While any international market is at a disadvantage compared to the U.S., the fact that English language productions travel well means that home-grown British players are better-placed than most to capitalize on the growing international TV market, he explained.

In that regard, "Bodyguard" is a good example of a show that not only resonates with U.K. audiences but will likely do well internationally, Broughton said.