COVID TV Transformation Stories Part 1: Are PSBs Losing Their Heartland?


Back in the summer of 2019, Red Bee Creative started a research collaboration with The University of Huddersfield.  Renowned media academic Professor Catherine Johnson and her team conducted qualitative research as part of a study to understand real audience behaviour in the UK’s new TV ecology.

One global pandemic later, in the summer of 2020, they had the opportunity to talk to the very same people again.  In many cases, COVID-19 had transformed their TV viewing habits and these changes have significant implications for our industry.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Three themes strike us as particularly worthy of exploration.  The first is that extended periods of lockdown may have generated a new audience of “silver streamers”.

Our public service broadcasters (PSBs) have served the UK and its diverse audiences phenomenally during this turbulent year. They have provided clarity and a trusted source of news, as we observed in our Audiences in Lockdown report back in May 2020. Their shows and talent have provided structure and comforting familiarity: when so much else around us has been unravelling, we have still been able to rely on Pointless, Lorraine and The One Show. PSBs’ purpose, their point and value have somehow been distilled and amplified. They get us, they are us, we are together in this. And, as ITV not only says but proves with its mental health campaign, Britain Get Talking, they are indeed More than TV.

As the nights have drawn in this autumn and we have been learning how to cope with lockdown all over again, the return of GBBO, Strictly and a re-imagined I’m a Celebrity has made things feel a bit more bearable.  Despite the huge short-term challenges of cancelled productions and, for the commercial PSBs, plummeting ad revenue, surely the renewed trust in PSBs by their citizens reported by the EBU will see them emerge from the pandemic with their audience relationships reinforced?

However, while they have won the trust battle, they may have started to lose the streaming-on-demand war.  In their research study, Professor Johnson and her team observed a worrying shift in the relationship between our PSBs and their more mature primetime audiences.

Before COVID-19, there was a strong generational divide. The youngsters (under 35) were default streamers and the oldsters defaulted to linear: many had never used a subscription-video-on-demand (SVoD) service and, for others, their subscription went untouched. They were happy discovering content from linear listing guides, their hairdresser and recordings on their set-top box. This was an audience that PSBs could bank on to “show up” for them for their beloved soaps and primetime dramas.

After COVID-19, the divide had gone. The older linear audiences had become confident streamers.  As we reported in Audiences in Lockdown, the crisis had accelerated digitisation and upskilling across all audience segments and ages. Whilst their need for trusted information, comfort and familiarity was well sated by linear PSBs, a stronger need to escape to new story worlds was not. They criticised PSBs for their repeats and they perceived a lack of drama choice. Tellingly, they did not view the PSB broadcaster-video-on-demand (BVoD) brands as streaming services. So, they didn’t see BBC iPlayer, All 4 and ITV Hub as competitors or alternatives to Netflix or Amazon Prime, but rather as offering a more limited catch-up service. They would still start their journey on the linear EPG but then, if they didn’t find something, they wouldn’t go to a BVoD but would defect straight to Netflix.

In a bid to help their parents in any way they could, grown-up kids had shared Netflix log-ins: unable to visit their shielding folks, it’s the least they could do. And a striking finding was that it was then mostly the primetime drama need that PSBs failed to meet. 


Gemma is a 60-year-old drama lover.  Before COVID-19, she strongly associated quality drama with PSBs and, while she would have loved to have seen The Crown on Netflix, with so much freely available an extra subscription was a little superfluous.

“Right, I go to the TV guide (EPG) and this is where I pick quite a lot of things…oh there we go…that’s Deep Water, that one’s the new one on last night.  
I’d really like to have watched one called The Crown (…) but it was on something we haven’t got (…) there was so many other things to watch at the time, I have sort of let that one go”

After COVID-19, just pre-lockdown, Gemma got a new Sky Q Box and, encouraged by her daughter, she discovered that Orange is the New Black was preferable to revisiting Poldark.

“I would say it's probably a good 50-50, actually. Half Netflix, half-Normal (…). 
We'll have a flip round, have a look what's on. If there's nothing we want to watch or whatever then we'll move over to Netflix. I just feel blessed that we got Netflix.”


Polly is a 69-year-old Scottish retiree whose husband has dementia, so TV viewing is shaped around his needs for routine.

Before COVID-19, she structured their TV viewing with military discipline: buying a guide for meticulous planning of the week’s combination of live, ‘+1’ and recorded shows. They were big PSB fans, finding most of their content from channels 1-3.

“On a Sunday morning, we sit and read the papers (…my husband will) go into Thursday’s and (say) 'make sure you’re recording that'…So we do that a lot, you get old, you forget (...)
I’m quite anal with that, making sure it’s no clashing, so I’ll go to plus one a lot. Whereas BBC’s not got plus one, you have to go into the iPlayer for that. We’ve got it all down to a fine art.”

After COVID-19 hit, Polly was deeply frustrated.  She hated all the repeats and felt that there was nothing new to watch. Her daughter recommended Netflix but, to be sensitive to her partner's dementia and related needs, Polly pretended that this content was from 'normal' TV.

“I didn't have Netflix before. So my daughter says, ‘mum you need tae get Netflix’. You know, she says ‘21st century’!
It’s confusing him when I say ‘we’ve got Netflix…’ so I just don’t tell him. (…) And he went, ‘God, it’s really good this lockdown, they’re getting good shows on’, not realising he's now watching Netflix!”


Melissa, 55, has always been a heavy TV viewer.  Before COVID-19, she was a big fan of daytime quizzes and primetime dramas, and strongly associates quality primetime drama with PSBs.

“Quite like a bit of Countdown and if I was around at the Tipping Point time in the afternoon, I might watch that.
They (linear PSBs) show you something that is coming up.  You think ‘oh that looks good, Deep Water, I am going to watch that’. (…on) ITV…but we like the BBC dramas as well, and I can’t think what it is called that was massive and we was all talking about it and it was a girl …hell you see…she was a bit weird, talking in a tutu and she ran people down, violent …(Killing Eve!)"

After COVID-19, Netflix content had filled Melissa’s primetime drama slot and her perception of PSBs had diminished, due to their relative lack of range and new content. While she still flicked through linear she now more often than not ended up watching Netflix, especially in the evenings.

“My friend let me use Netflix (…)  So we've found we really like that. Then my son says you can use our code, if the other one's busy. And now we're thinking you know what, I think we're gonna have our own Netflix. (…) £5.99 we get real value on there. (…) There's some real wacky, weird, frightening, thrillers, and comedy things!”

Gemma, Polly and Melissa are part of a new and growing segment of “Silver Streamers” and the PSBs risk losing out, with Netflix rapidly “One story away” from becoming their new normal.  How might PSBs tackle this in their marketing?

This research suggests that older people simply don’t understand BVoD propositions, let alone their various functions beyond catch up: live, live-restart, on demand.  Perhaps the BBC has seen similar research data because its latest campaign for iPlayer has recruited stars like Sir Alan Sugar, Ru Paul and the Line of Duty gang to do a fairly basic education job on these functions. 

However, the research suggests a deeper problem: that “Silver Streamers” don’t fully appreciate the available range of BVoD content, nor are they sufficiently aware of new content, especially dramas. Across both waves of the research, there was a persistent association of PSBs’ BVoD services with catch-up only.  These services are not the same as SVoD but, in the words of Professor Johnson, “they play a unique and valuable role in providing access to a wide range of programmes.  Through marketing and user interface design, PSBs could do more to communicate the value of their BVoD services as places to find rich, deep and varied catalogues of content to meet a wider range of needs than SVoD”. Targeted campaigns could educate and help to disrupt their “COVID new” content discovery journey: from linear EPG direct to Netflix.

Let’s also think about the fact that it was their grown-up kids who were the key influencers in Netflix becoming part of their core repertoire. We suggest there is a bigger BVoD marketing job to be done, reaching a much wider audience and influencing the influencers.

Beyond that, we feel that this research highlights that a key challenge and opportunity for PSBs in a post-COVID era of streaming, TV appisation and fragmentation is that audiences value them less for their on demand-ness than for the fact that they wake up on the same day.  Our national broadcasters have both a physical and emotional closeness and an authentic real-world, real-time connection that no global SVoD can. The key things that PSB streaming brands offer that Netflix never will is not only a live and insightful component that only comes from being “up close and local”, but humanity:  the loved and trusted talent that makes Netflix et al feel somewhat anonymous by comparison.  How can PSBs increase awareness of the depth and breadth of their content offers while building on these foundations?  It’s no wonder that the new BBC iPlayer campaign also features Sir David Attenborough.  In the time of COVID-19, our national treasures have never been more treasured.

Lisa Matchett, Head of Planning

The qualitative research was conducted at the Centre for Participatory Culture at the University of Huddersfield by Professor Catherine Johnson, Laurie Dempsey and Professor Matt Hills.