Why the best TV is actually free

What Dr Jekyll and telly fans have in common

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” says Tom Bateman in the new ITV drama Jekyll and Hyde. That’s exactly how we feel about a fantastic season of new drama on Freesat.

Source: ITV

From Homeland to The Last Kingdom, there’s great free drama on TV every week. But thanks to big marketing budgets, PR campaigns and the personal tastes of TV critics, exclusive Pay TV shows often get more hype — despite a smaller audience.

Take Game of Thrones. This year, the season premiere in April drew a record 2.4m viewers to Sky Atlantic. By itself, that’s an impressive number, but it hides something important; some 20m others with Sky chose not to watch it. On that same night, more Sky customers watched EastEnders. In the country as a whole, ITV’s Code of a Killer drew an audience twice as large — 1m of them Sky customers themselves.* And for Pay TV, that’s as good as it gets.

The audience for the Game of Thrones premiere was 43x bigger than Sky Atlantic’s three-month slot average — and this is the channel with other big name shows like Mad Men, Girls and Boardwalk Empire. These programmes get a huge amount of attention, but that doesn’t translate into large audiences. The last ever episode of Mad Men, one of the most written-about shows of the year, was watched by less than 300K people on the night that it aired.*

Once the hype has died down, the biggest dramas week in week out are on BBC or ITV — be it Broadchurch, Wolf Hall or Poldark. The sheer volume of high quality content required by the busy TV schedule makes free-to-air programmes essential.

Their popularity isn’t just due to their wider availability. Even on Pay TV, the vast majority of the most watched programmes are broadcast by the BBC and ITV. In June, BARB data shows that two episodes of Game of Thrones were the only shows not on a free channel to get into Sky’s top 50 most watched programmes.

But more than viewing figures, what matters most to Pay TV operators is perception. As long as people feel like they have lots of choice, it doesn’t matter if they ever make the most of it.

Freesat’s research reveals that people are unlikely to switch their TV service because of exclusive content.* Instead, value is the most important factor. That’s why services are using exclusive shows as a defensive measure — to give their customers the idea of something valuable. When BT struck an exclusive deal with AMC, it was concerned primarily with making subscribers less likely to move their TV bundle elsewhere; whether they actually watch AMC is secondary.

In other words, if you want to pay for exclusive content, you probably already do. And if you already pay for it, you probably aren’t watching it as much as you thought.

So two people who love the same kind of TV could find themselves in very different situations — the first paying nothing every month for their telly, the other spending hundreds of pounds a year. These two people could be exactly the same in every other way, but with one unsettling difference. Sound familiar?

Jekyll and Hyde airs every Sunday at 6.30pm on ITV.

Josh Sanger is Strategy Manager at Freesat.

1 — BARB viewing figures, 13/04/15. 5.04m watched Code of a Killer across all platforms; 1.1m on Sky. 2 — BARB viewing figures, 21/05/15. 217K watched Mad Men on Sky Atlantic; a further 35K watched on Sky Atlantic +1.

3 — Consumer’s stated reasons to switch their TV provider within the next 12 months

Consumer’s stated reasons to switch their TV provider within the next 12 months

Source: Freesat consumer research, conducted by YouGov (July 2015)

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