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We have a linear duty as Line of Duty demonstrates

We used to call this a water cooler moment, but since fewer of us are actually in the office now I guess a ‘Twitter moment’ is the only way in a socially distanced world we can see what conversations are dominated by. On Sunday it was the build-up to and the aftermath of the finale of BBC police drama Line of Duty. Whatever you may think of the conclusion of this series (and I am someone who’s watched from the first season and thought it’s gone downhill since it moved to BBC1 from BBC2), you cannot ignore the statistics. Almost 13 million people watched the episode live. That’s more than half of the UK television audience – all watching the same thing at the same time. These figures are normally saved for royal weddings (or funerals) and England football matches in major tournaments.

How lovely it was then that friends were messaging about the finale at the same time and families were having discussions in the moments after the (rather damp squib) ending. These shared moments are rare now in a diverse media landscape, where handheld devices draw most of our attention, even when watching something on a bigger screen. It felt reassuring and almost old fashioned; from a different time. Yes, we can ‘share’ the experience of watching a series on Netflix, but the conversations often go like this; “what episode are you up to?” “I’ve watched all the first series” “Oh, I haven’t got that far, no spoilers please!”. Not quite the same shared pleasure is it?

Apparently the last time a TV drama got higher overnight viewing figures than Line of Duty did on Sunday, was for Heartbeat in February 2001 – and that REALLY was a different time. No one tweeting about how it was better with Nick Berry (he’d left the series by then) and no hashtags of #heartbeatshocker. But collective viewing is actually more common now than many people like us to think. We have had Bodyguard and The Night Manager in recent years as much talked about Sunday night dramas, where it seemed ‘most’ people had been watching. Check Twitter most nights and one of the hashtags trending will be a TV show – on linear channels.

Experts though tell us this linear experience is dead. People don’t watch live TV anymore and broadcasters are falling over themselves to try and attract the younger audience that watches most things on YouTube. Undoubtedly habits are changing and we need to be putting content in all the places where it can be consumed. But we should not forget that most people – and according to Ofcom it is still most people – consume most of their TV on a linear channel. It is the same with my passion and industry radio. Whilst listening is fragmenting and people consume radio (or audio) in different ways and on different platforms, most people still consume live linear radio.

According to Ofcom's 2019 report, nine in ten adults across the UK listened to at least five minutes of live radio each week. It says that varies by age, with 90% of over-64s listening each week compared to 80% of 15-24s (down from 88% ten years ago). While the figure for younger people is dropping – that is still an extraordinary reach. That’s more young people engaging with linear radio than have Twitter accounts. Something worth remembering.

What this tells us is that the consumption of content is still dominated by linear platforms. That domination is bound to reduce in the coming years and schedules should adapt to reflect this. But it would be a mistake to think the cliff edge is now. Far from it, as Line of Duty demonstrates. The industry needs to be prepared for change but not ahead of the curve. Certain channels may find their place being marginalised even more over the coming years and needing to focus on online and social content to attract an audience. It is why I wouldn’t launch a rolling linear news channel in 2021. But then that’s another topic of conversation!

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