James Cridland

Is the internet capable of replacing television broadcasting?

Let me take you back to Christmas 1993, and this “probably a good idea at the time” Christmas promo which was running on BBC 1. Caution: this contains Jim Davidson.


But it wasn’t all Crinkly Bottom, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.

That year, Only Fools And Horses got 19.59m viewers on Christmas Day (the #3 show of 1993). Birds Of A Feather achieved 19.39m (#4). The big movie was Ghost which achieved 18.53m viewers (#6).

On Boxing Day, One Foot in the Algarve achieved 20.01m viewers, the second highest programme all year.

The population was 57.7m in 1993; video recorders were a thing, but obviously streaming wasn’t. Yet, 34% of the entire population was watching a show with this thrilling description: “The Meldrews and Mrs. Warboys embark upon a hellish holiday to Portugal. After an entanglement with the police, they finally arrive at their unpleasant villa.”

People were watching, of course, via broadcast TV: in 1993, exclusively by terrestrial transmitters across the country.

What if they were streaming?

If all 20.01m people were streaming that live, that would mean 20PB (petabytes) over the UK’s internet infrastructure (assuming a standard 1GB per hour, and assuming it was an hour-long special to keep our maths simple: it was, in fact, 92 minutes of vintage hilarity).

Clearly the internet infrastructure in 1993 wouldn’t have coped. We barely had 64kbps ISDN, let alone anything more fancy. But would it have coped now?

Boxing Day 2020 was the biggest day for BT Openreach last year (which runs much of the UK internet infrastructure): video calls, streaming TV and downloading games, it says, but my bet is “downloading the latest firmware” was also quite high on the list. The whole day saw a total of 210 PB being transferred over the UK internet.

Which is just 8.75 PB per hour.

So: no. Even with today’s internet, watching One Foot In The Algarve would triple the amount of internet bandwidth being used in the UK.

Broadcast television, at least for live events like Richard Wilson getting a huge laugh for saying “I don’t believe it!” for the 4,000th time, is probably safe for a bit yet.

A hybrid approach?

Today, of course, there are some channels on broadcast television which fail to get much of an audience (hello, GBNews, I’m thinking of you though I suspect there are more). I’m sure there’s a break-even point where streaming is cheaper than broadcast. It would be interesting to work out what that might be. Some new set-top boxes should be capable of switching between broadcast and IP on the fly; and perhaps that’s a plan for the future. But it looks like we’ll still need big sticks on hills for some time to come.

PS: The #1 show in 1993 according to the ratings was was Coronation Street on 22nd March. The previous episode, Gail pushed Carmel down the stairs. Words were had.