... but it’s good to have it
Thirty-seven percent of us use a catch-up service at least every week, and 54% use it at least once a month¹. And that figure doesn’t include on-demand services like Netflix. So as a nation we are getting used to online delivery of our TV programmes, and something like YouView can make using it a fairly seamless experience alongside conventional through-an-aerial delivery. Young people especially may use it almost exclusively, and when asked whether they had used such a service recently, 72% of 16-34 year-olds said yes, compared with just 44% of people aged 55+ [Channel 4 Corporation Remit Research Report 2017, OfCom].
So with online delivery gaining such public acceptance, old-fashioned recording on a set-top box must have had its day, mustn’t it? Who needs to set the recorder when you can just grab what you want from BBC iPlayer or its equivalents?
Well, I would agree if it wasn’t for one thing: it sucks. OK, that is a little harsh, but compared with watching a proper recording, the experience leaves a lot to be desired.
Let me say straight away that I am talking about the mechanism built into Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat Freetime (as it used to be known) to find and play programmes that have already been broadcast – though we will include BBC3 and so-called box sets here too. Sky’s catch-up works slightly differently because you download the programme to your box and treat it like a recording from then on, rather than streaming in real time. And I am not talking about those streaming-only services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and NowTV to which taken together nearly half the households in Britain subscribe (47% to be exact)².
So what is wrong with catch-up?
- First of all, it is slow and clunky. Once you have located the programme you want to watch (more about that later), the box has to load up the required media player – BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub or whatever – which takes a while, then the player had to locate the file and start to stream it, then the player waits until a good chunk has been downloaded (a process called buffering) so that it can play it out smoothly even if the broadband connection has a little slow-down. It adds up to a considerable delay. With recordings, the file is in the box already and it just starts when you click Play.
- The picture quality can be worse too. This is a particular problem for people with a slow Internet service, but even those on fibre don’t get perfect pictures. A recording is broadcast quality, but catch-up and on-demand often compress the content more heavily than the broadcast version to save bandwidth, so the picture suffers, especially in fast moving scenes. Though it has to be said that things have improved since just a few years ago.
- No guarantees. Not every programme is made available on catch-up, usually for licensing reasons. This often affects films.
- Limited availability. Programmes are often only made available for catch-up for a limited time, typically 7 days, a month or in some cases a year. Recently I discovered a good series and was in the middle of making my way through it when it was removed from ITV Hub. Admittedly it does say how much longer something is there for, so I wasn’t caught by surprise, but with recordings you can keep them for ever, or at least till your recording box breaks.
- Then there is fast forward and rewind. Recordings can do that while showing you a speeded-up picture to make it easy to find your place; catch-up on most players just shows you a timer showing how many minutes into the programme, and you have to stop and play it to see how far you’ve got. Not a problem if you just want to skip back a few seconds, but a pain if you’re trying to find your place when picking up a programme some while later. To be fair, BBC iPlayer makes it easier by showing a thumbnail (small picture) to give you an idea where you are, but they don't all do that.
- Subtitles are another weakness. An issue for those of us with poor hearing. Fewer programmes carry subtitles than broadcast ones, though again it is improving.³ Even when a broadcast has the subtitles, apparently they have to be reformatted for catch-up so it doesn’t always get done.
- It’s bad for the planet. Yes, streaming video over the Internet actually takes more energy than transmitting it. When you consider that Winter Hill (our main transmitter) has six TV transmitters radiating 100kW each, and it takes twice that much energy to modulate and send the signal, you get an idea of how much power goes into just that one site. But the Internet is even worse. As more people use streaming, it means more energy use and more global warming.
- But I save the biggest kicker till last. You cannot skip over or fast forward the adverts. That has always been the huge attraction of recording, at least on the commercial channels, but it is something the media players won’t let you do. It is totally understandable for the broadcasters, as adverts are how they finance themselves and without ads, they couldn’t afford to licence (or commission) programmes and transmit them, so perhaps we should feel some sort of obligation to watch them. But given the choice, I have no doubt which I’d choose.
And there’s one more thing, though it isn’t really a criticism of catch-up. If you regularly record stuff, you build up a library of personally curated content, i.e. things you have decided you might want to watch – your personal TV channel, if you like (See Watch better television). If you just sit down on an evening and try to find something from all the wealth of programmes available to you from all the services there are, you might feel that you have a rich choice, but you will waste a lot of time deciding! A survey by Rovi in the US [Study: Netflix, Hulu Users Spend 19 Minutes A Day Searching For Something To Watch] shows that Netflix and Hulu subscribers take an average of 19 minutes scrolling around before plumping for a programme, and if it’s only a half-hour comedy, that’s a big overhead. Do that once a day and it’s 115 hours per year. A Nielsen report cites seven minutes searching [Streaming Overload?], with 21% of adults saying they simply give up watching if they are not able to make up their minds. How much better to have a selection of recordings ready for the choosing! Here’s a couple of hints though. If you know which programme you want, don’t scroll around, use Search. All the set-top boxes have a search function that spans all the broadcasters. If you don’t have a programme in mind, try the Discover page in the YouView menu, or Top Picks on Freeview or Showcase on Freesat. YouView’s is the best, but they all give great suggestions.
So is catch-up all a waste of time? Far from it! If your recording fails for some reason or you just didn’t set the timer, or you only find out about a great series when the first episodes have aired, it’s great to be able to go back and watch the programmes you missed, and it’s even good if you’re in an odd mood one day and don’t fancy anything you recorded. But for me, it isn’t the first place I look and I think my watching benefits from that.
¹ PSB Annual Research Report 2017, OfCom Annex A Audience Opinions
² “UK becomes a nation of streamers” OfCom Media Nations 2019
³ See Television and on-demand programme services: Access services report 2018, OfCom, May 2019