iPlayer box sets are taking the drama out of the BBC’s biggest shows

The BBC is releasing whole series like Requiem and Hard Sun on iPlayer in one go in an effort to challenge on demand services like Netflix. But is that the right strategy?

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 22/01/2018 - Programme Name: Requiem - TX: n/a - Episode: Requiem - Ep1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows: +++Embargoed until Monday January 22nd, 2018+++ Matilda (LYDIA WILSON) - (C) New Pictures - Photographer: Adrian Rogers

This Friday night, BBC1 viewers will tune into the second episode of Requiem, Kris Mrksa’s thrilling and spooky drama about a young cellist called Matilda Gray (Lydia Wilson) who finds herself in rural Wales attempting to solve the mystery of an historic missing child case.

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Is Matilda the young girl Carys, who has never been found since she went missing in 1994? And what is the reason for all the deathly goings on?

These are all legitimate questions, but probably won’t be all that intriguing for fans of the drama who (like me) have seen all six episodes already.

The BBC has released the drama as a full box set on iPlayer, meaning anyone can binge watch the whole series when they want, without having to wait each week for the next instalment.

Useful right? Well, maybe not.

Take this message from a fan of Requiem posted on Mumsnet last week: “Binge-watching it yesterday spoiled my enjoyment. I think mystery/horror/ghost stories warrant the suspense of waiting a whole week for the next episode. Somehow builds the tension which watching all episodes back-to-back destroys.” I find it hard to disagree.

Of course, the BBC knows it must adapt to the changing nature of TV viewing habits. As one senior TV department head told me this week, “There are young people who tell the BBC they won’t even watch anything unless every episode is stacked up to view – either via an on demand portal or their TV planner. These are the people we need to be getting behind our shows”.

Requiem’s writer Kris Mrksa agrees, although he admits that part of him would rather his series had the added suspense of a weekly release.

“Certainly there’s a part of me that sort of regrets it won’t play the way traditional series did, a mystery and you waited a week for the next part of the mystery to be revealed,” he told RadioTimes.com. “It was an exciting build-up to that weekly telecast. But you have to accept the modern world being what it is, and a massive part of the audience – particularly the younger audience that the BBC would love get on board – watching this do expect to binge their shows.”

Despite needing to meet the challenge of online viewing, I can’t help thinking that the BBC too doesn’t necessarily want to box set every drama it makes, and that the corporation has instead been somewhat strong-armed into it by its co-producing partners.

Requiem is co-produced with Netflix, a company which seems to be naturally very keen to be part of a strategy which sees the drama get out there as quickly as possible rather than waiting six weeks for the story to unfold.  This seems to be the new normal.

Another BBC drama Hard Sun was also released online all at once. The dystopian drama, which sees Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn play a couple of crime fighters harbouring a deadly secret about the imminent apocalypse, was a marmite show which wowed some during its opening episode but has since slightly fallen off the radar.

The final episode airs on normal TV this weekend, but Hard Sun has not so much been going out so much as limping out.

People I have spoken to who have stuck with the drama have seen it all already. There isn’t much of a conversation around the show, or if there is there’s a clear dividing line: the cohort in online threads discussing the whole series and those discussing each weekly instalment. Consequently, it feels like much less of an event when compared to a series like McMafia. That is a passable drama which, while not setting the world alight, at least has the magic of weekly instalments for people to look forward to.

Just 1.8 million watched last Saturday’s episode of Hard Sun according to the overnight ratings following a debut audience of 3.4 million for episode one. McMafia by contrast opened with 5.6 million viewers in a prime slot on New Year’s Day. Despite not living up to that new year high, there were still 3.38 million watching ‘live’ last Sunday.

Despite reservations, the BBC policy of co-funding projects with big on demand broadcasters and releasing its dramas as box sets will continue. According to sources, BBC head of drama commissioning Piers Wenger held a meeting with key drama suppliers in December and made it clear that the balance between fully funded BBC projects and co-produced projects with partners like Netflix will continue.

Asked about the meeting, a BBC drama spokeswoman tells RadioTimes.com: “Making some of our drama series available as box sets on BBC iPlayer complements the schedules and gives audiences even more choice as they can watch what they want when they want. The public have been responding in their millions with iPlayer usage now at record levels. Hard Sun and Requiem have also still been available for viewers who choose to watch weekly on BBC1.”

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However, the BBC needs to be careful about abandoning the traditional scheduling model with too many high-profile shows, especially with dramas like Requiem which seem much better suited to the anticipation of a weekly broadcast. The real appeal of scheduled TV must not be lost – whatever the demands of the modern age.