Is straight-to-streaming the way forward for TV imports?

Better Call Saul and Constantine have both dodged traditional UK channels in favour of online streaming services. Is a trend on the way?

Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul
Photo: AMC Networks

There’s no denying that Netflix is becoming a behemoth of the entertainment world. With 2015 set to be its biggest year yet, the home entertainment platform is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon boasting yearly profits in the billions, a queue of new countries joining the party and fresh original content consistently picking up shed-loads of fans.

Following on from the deal made for the hugely anticipated final season of Breaking Bad, AMC and Netflix renewed their exclusive partnership regarding spin-off Better Call Saul. The episodes now reach Netflix in the UK (and other Netflix-enabled European countries) the morning following their premiere in the United States. When you think about Breaking Bad’s fuddling treatment from Channel 5 back in the day, it hardly comes as a surprise.

Constantine too, arrived in the UK straight from NBC to Amazon Prime Instant Video, bypassing the late-night digital channel slot that would likely have been its home just a few years ago, that’s if a UK broadcaster picked it up at all.

Could this set a precedent then, we wonder? Will American networks, particularly those worried about their content being messed around by UK channels, just dodge them all and sign a deal with their online entertainment provider of choice instead? We mull it over…

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The old method

Rewind the clock back a few years – before torrents, streaming and smart telly boxes really took off – and the TV channels of the UK had all the control. Back in that mystical time, your best bet for keeping up with a TV show was to actually sit down and watch that TV show, on a TV, when it was shown. That is, unless you fancied waiting months for a DVD release.

The primary example for this writer would be JJ Abrams’ Lost, which some of you may have had similar experiences with. Until 2006, I was an avid watcher of the show. The first two seasons had aired on the terrestrially available Channel 4 in the UK, and had been enjoyed thoroughly by many. However, my household didn’t have Sky at the time.

To reveal my youth a bit, I wasn’t a bill-paying adult, or any form of adult, at the time. Despite my begging and pleading, my parents couldn’t be convinced to shell out on a Sky subscription, seeing as their favourite shows were still all on Freeview. Additionally, although our internet was fairly standard for the mid-noughties, I didn’t know how to use it to find episodes of Lost, or even if it was available on there. By the time the next season of the show came out on DVD, everyone had stopped talking about it and I didn’t bother spending on it.

Lost was a great event show, just like Breaking Bad, Broadchurch, Game Of Thrones and House Of Cards have been in the years since. I’m sure that plenty of folks slightly older than me took the plunge and bought a Sky box just for the sake of carrying on with Lost at the socially acceptable speed. Peer pressure purchasing, if you will.

It was accepted, at the time, that the biggest and best-loved American shows would probably go to the bigger (and crucially, dearer) channels, and that many of the biggest TV fans would – begrudgingly or otherwise – probably invest in Sky or similar, just in order to keep up.

As many shows still do (Gotham and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are prime examples), American imports like Lost often came to the UK at a delayed rate. So people would be paying for it, getting it late, and normally having to watch it with loads of adverts in it too, so the channels made even more money. TV networks really had us in the palm of their hand until recently, didn’t they?

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When you think about it like that, it’s not surprising that technology – through both legal streaming and illegal torrents – has had paid-for TV in its sights ever since internet connections began reaching an appropriate speed at which to compete with them.

The rise of torrents

To put it simply: now, you can watch any episode, of anything, as soon as it airs. This is regardless of whether you have a Sky box, a Virgin Media account, a BT TV package or indeed any sort of telly whatsoever. If you have a laptop with an internet connection you will be able to find any episode of any decent-profile programme one way or another, very soon after it has aired. To achieve this, you might be a naughty torrenter, someone with a sneaky way of watching American networks, or a home entertainment villain with an even more nefarious televisual scheme going on.

With modern catch-up capabilities, you might also be the sort of person who whacks a ‘series record’ on and waits patiently to binge watch the whole thing. Indeed, you could also be a vehemently online-only type who is waiting for said show to turn up on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV or similar so you don’t have to fork out for a TV package or illegally torrent something.

The point we’re actually trying to make here is that TV channels aren’t the boss of us now, and they’re not so big. They’re not controlling when you view your favourite shows, and even if you’re a traditionalist who still only watches things live, you’ve now made that decision by choice rather than necessity.

The sadder side of this modern development is that even shows that travel here extremely quickly still end up on most-torrented lists, if they’re popular enough. Game Of Thrones is a prime example, ending up with a huge illegal audience despite the fact that it reaches Sky Atlantic only a day later than its US transmission. Of course, its ratings and DVD sales are handsome enough via legitimate means that it isn’t exactly in danger. The same can’t be said for every imported show, though.

The casualties

Recently, a few UK TV channels have been losing faith in shows that you would traditionally expect them to support, which is surely a signifier of a shift in thinking behind the scenes. Two examples come straight to mind – Supernatural and Agent Carter.

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Supernatural had spent four years at the same UK broadcaster – having stayed with Living TV when it got bought out and became rejigged into Sky Living. Sky clearly had the show on downward slope of confidence for some time, as they gradually moved it further away from Living TV’s original 9pm slot. Eventually, the show was being shown at silly o’clock at night and, shortly afterwards, got unceremoniously ditched after season 8.

In a similarly cruel twist of fate, Agent Carter was an assumed shoo-in at Channel 4, who had broadcast Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. since its pilot. Again, though, the warning signs were there beforehand when the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D. was regularly off the air due to random breaks for various events at the American end.

As such, Channel 4 ended up showing a load of repeats. Despite this, it still came as a shock, though, when Channel 4 told us they had ‘no plans’ to air the spin-off show Agent Carter which was intended to bridge the midseason gap that left a gaping scheduling hole last year.

On the one hand, Supernatural bounced back, finding a new UK home on E4 just in time for season 9 to air. A 9pm time slot and constant adverts on a youth-orientated channel was the best thing that could have happened to Supernatural, truth be told.

However, Agent Carter hasn’t been so lucky. The show – now past the halfway point in its American run – is still without a UK channel. Oddly, Marvel hasn’t even opted to upload the episodes to Netflix UK or any similar platform. The Better Call Saul model of next-day uploading surely would have been preferable to having no legal method of watching Agent Carter in the UK whatsoever.

Perhaps they decided to leave their Netflix telly-show debut to Daredevil, for fear of distracting from their lengthy upcoming Defenders project which will see four consecutive Marvel-based series come exclusively to Netflix, with a follow-up mini-series to tie them all together at the end. Or, equally likely that the decision was made to wait until the run has completed in the USA before legally putting Agent Carter online anywhere (pretending to be in another country via dark online magic is child’s play for morally corrupt telly fans, after all).

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It’s a shame, though, that so many people – essentially, everyone who doesn’t torrent – are missing out on Agent Carter especially as it’s a show that many of them may have loved. We have our fingers firmly crossed that this doesn’t affect its chances of renewal.

The solution?

Well, we would wager that the offices of American television networks have probably all featured conversations recently about the plausibility of dodging foreign channels altogether and opting to use Netflix or similar sites instead. The decision for Constantine and Better Call Saul to jump straight onto Amazon Prime and Netflix respectively, bypassing traditional channels could set one heck of a precedent when it inevitably brings in big UK viewership numbers.

It will be interesting to see how the American numbers fare on AMC though, seeing as anyone who misses the first airing of the show will be able to find it online in HD very quickly the following morning. Like we said, pretending to be in England when you’re actually in America would be very easy for someone who wanted to do such a thing.

Breaking Bad hardly harmed its reputation or audience numbers by jumping onto Netflix after being mishandled by Channel 5, though, so we wouldn’t expect the easy online availability to make too much of a dent in the show’s success.

Will Marvel Studios look on with envy and wonder what could have happened to Agent Carter if they had struck a similar deal? Probably. Will HBO be jealous when Better Call Saul inevitably gets torrented less due to its easy Netflix availability? Surely. Will both these reactions cause a huge shift a little ways down the road, though? Only time will tell, but we definitely wouldn’t bet against it.

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