A future of TV lies in reviving its past

Thanks to technology, music fans can time travel through the ages. With a single tap, a ten year-old can skip effortlessly from Rudimental (an English Drum and Bass band) to the Rolling Stones (an English rock band). She can move, effortlessly, over half a century from 2018 (Rudimental’s These Days reached number one on 30 March 2018)i back to 1968 (the Stone’s Sympathy for the Devil was released in December of that year).

The coalescence of smartphones, broadband and music streaming services has enabled this revolution in audio consumption. It is video’s turn next.

Over the next five years, broadcasters and dedicated on-demand platforms will increasingly differentiate not just on their brand new productions, but increasingly on the calibre (titles and technical quality) of their back catalogue. Additionally, the number of classic series that are renewed will ramp up, sometimes resuming after a decades-long hiatus.

A core enabler of this change is, again technology. A mere ten years ago, the easiest way to watch back catalogue content was to purchase a DVD box set. A cheaper, but more haphazard option, would be to watch a repeats channel, and hope to catch a favoured episode. With 236 episodes of Friends, and 639 episodes of the Simpsons, this may require extreme serendipity.

Now, broadband speeds to the majority of homes permit a wide library of content to be streamed directly to a television set. Viewers no longer have to rely on what’s being broadcast at the point in time, or what they have recorded on a personal video recorder (PVR), or a rummage through their DVD collection. They can select their rerun. Adults can relive their childhoods; kids might understand their parents better.

The opportunity served up by technological advances has encouraged multiple new entrants into the streaming market. Some are licensing a back catalogue to bolster their libraries. Others are aggregating specialist content, and serving niches, such as Dan Snow’s History Hit, which, as per its name, aggregates decades of history specific programming.1 In the US, CBS’s new streaming platform, CBS All Access, may include four series set in the Star Trek universe.2

Another driver of this change is nostalgia, a sentiment that appears to be on the increase. A recent survey found that 63 per cent of Britons considered the UK to be in decline, and only 21 per cent believe that life is better now.3 The perception that things were better in the past also kindles an interest in cultural items from the past: 71 per cent believe their communities have eroded over the course of their lifetimes.4 Watching TV from an era when ‘things were better’ may for some be a way of exercising their nostalgia. 

Watching repeats also derisks viewing, much in the same way that listening to a golden oldies music station or playlist provides predictability, and lessens the chance of listening to a song that the listener dislikes. The most watched series on any SVOD service this year in the UK is Friends, a show which ended 14 years ago, and was first broadcast in 1994.5 Baywatch has been remastered to HD quality, and converted to 16:9.6 At its peak the show had an audience of over one billion viewers,7 and interest is likely to be strong from original fans as well as new ones once the programmes become available.

There are also intergenerational factors. Parents have long imposed their musical tastes on their children (and vice versa). Historically this was via a choice of radio station in the kitchen or the car; now the taste-sharing can be on-demand, and precise. This cross-generational sharing of content – willing or otherwise – is moving to television.

Foraging the back catalogue lessens risk for content creators and commissioners. Healthy demand for a back-catalogue programme provides a ready indicator of interest in a reboot. Netflix commissioned a follow up to Full House, which first aired in the late 1980s, in response to the popularity of the original content. The new series, called Fuller Up, is into its fourth series, and has been among the most watched content on Netflix.8 Will & Grace was recommissioned on the back of a 10-minute reunion video, first posted in 2016. Demand for the clip led to the series returning after an 11-year hiatus.9 The resumption of Roseanne saw some of the largest audiences of any show, with over 20 million viewers in the US.10 CBS has commissioned a pilot of Cagney and Lacey, at one time one of the most popular shows on TV.11

One of the challenges in reviving any content is image and sound quality: it needs to be remastered to meet contemporary expectations. With TV, people may be nostalgic about cherished characters and dialogue from their past, but less fond of the picture quality.

Remastering TV is harder than reconditioning music for the digital age. The music industry had a head start: CDs arrived in 1982. In the last two decades, music fans have traded quality for the conveniences of portability and accessibility.

Television’s challenge is greater. Picture quality has ratcheted up, the picture itself has changed shape (from 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9 widescreen), and the TV set has trebled in size, per the diagonal measurement. Widescreen terrestrial TV broadcast started only 20 years ago, with the introduction of digital terrestrial TV. There are now thousands of hours of 4K content available to stream.

Any content first aired prior to 2000 is likely to have been formatted for 4:3. This can be converted to 16:9. However, there are risks in doing so, as was demonstrated in the remaster of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2014.12 Joss Wheddon, the Director, filmed Buffy specifically to be viewed on a 4:3 TV set. Lopping the top and bottom of the frame to convert it to 16:9 altered some scenes markedly, for example by cutting out faces and losing expressions. Adding parts of the sides of the frame back occasionally causes formerly off-screen cameramen to appear in the shot.

Remastering programming can raise the ire of a series’ most fervent fans. Converting the first few series of The Simpsons into 16:9 caused upset; making them available to stream in the 4:3 format in which they were first shown delighted fans.13

Another challenge specific to television series is special effects, which has always played a major role in science fiction. Star Trek, first broadcast in 1966, used copious special effects, with blue screens frequently utilised. These screens gave the Enterprise a blueish tinge. Yet the model was a battleship grey, which the remaster was faithful to. The super fans complained about the change in colour.14

Music can also be updated. One element of the remaster of Baywatch was a refresh of the soundtrack: 300 contemporary songs replaced the originals.15

Remastering will always be contentious, but the process will become ever slicker, and the cost per hour may decline over time, thanks to better technology and experience. The team working on the remaster of Star Trek got better each episode, meaning that the first episodes to get the treatment are regarded as inferior.

For some series, the original film, shot on 35mm film, is still available. The remaster of Baywatch, for example, was based on the original 35mm masters.16 This should be of sufficient quality from which to create an HD version. The remastered version should be superior, sometimes markedly better than the version originally broadcast, especially if the programme was emitted a time when analogue transmission was still mainstream. Digitalterrestrial transmission was only turned on in the UK in 1998 with switchover completed in 2012. A large swathe of classic programming may be waiting to be released in its full, original quality, rather than the comparatively grainy, pixelated version viewers were served up prior to 1998. 

Exploiting the back catalogue of on-demand platforms will be a practice common to all on-demand platforms, with UK broadcasters increasingly active, using their own or third parties’ platforms.

This summer, the BBC’s iPlayer made many of its classic comedies available as box sets.17 These included Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, which first aired in 2001, and every episode of The League of Gentlemen, from 1999.

The anticipation of a new season of a hit show can drive viewing of earlier, less watched series. Love Island is such an example. Ahead of the 2018 series (the fourth), series 1 and 2 became available on Netflix in April this year. Super fans could binge on the Love Series archive prior to revelling in the 48 episodes of season four.

Rediscovery also extends to classic films, such as Heathers, originally released in 1988, and currently regarded as one of the best teen movies to watch on a streaming platform. Heathers: The Musical is launching in London’s West End in September 2018, with the audience expected to consist mostly of teens who were born a couple of decades after the movie’s original release.

Bottom line
The future of television will include much that is brand new, and will delight for generations to come. That said, a good story, whether a drama, a comedic series or the format of a reality show, is evergreen. TV’s attic has many treasures that older viewers would love to see again, buffed to an HD sheen, and which younger viewers will delight in experiencing for the first time. All’s well that ends well.


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5 See figure 35:

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