Gladiators and Mr Bates: Why linear television is going nowhere

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Flying in the face of the on-demand streaming zeitgeist, TV’s Gladiators and Mr Bates prove that linear television is here to stay.

For almost ten years now, the message has been simple: linear, broadcast television is dying. The ability to stream whatever we want, when we want, is the future of television and cinema on the small screen.

We bought it – for a while. We plunged headlong into streaming, excitedly eating up what Netflix and its imitators have served up since. The apparent democratisation of television, freeing us from the burden of scheduling, was considered a breath of fresh air. We could kiss goodbye to the days of ‘setting the tape’ for shows or films. We get to choose.

Two things have changed recently. First, the streaming gold rush is over. Corporate entities dominate the landscape now, but as they’ve come to realise, they’re losing rather than making money through their services. As a response, they’re bringing in old-guard realities from linear television – advertisements, shows designed to tap ‘water cooler’ experiences, and increased sojourns into the sporting ecosystem.

The second is evidenced, certainly in the UK this year, by two wildly different TV programmes that have taken the nation by storm and proven the power of broadcast television: ITV’s Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, and the BBC’s reboot of Gladiators. The incredible success of both suggests that people haven’t given up on conventional broadcast TV yet. Indeed, the pendulum might be swinging back that way.

The impact of Mr Bates in particular has been really rather astonishing. A year ago, the biggest TV event of January was the conclusion of Happy Valley after years of expectation. A year on, a small ITV drama that dropped on four consecutive days in the New Year has gripped audiences across the country and actively influenced government policy.

The great Toby Jones in the lead role of ITV’s hit Mr Bates Vs The Post Office. Credit: ITV.

Truth be told, I had no real idea about the scandal at the heart of Mr Bates, which sees dogged Post Office worker (or ‘sub-postmaster’ by the official term) Alan Bates (played by Toby Jones) begin a two-decade long crusade against the Post Office after his livelihood is taken away thanks to Horizon, a faulty computer system owned by conglomerate Fujitsu. This leads hundreds of other sub-postmasters across the country to financial ruin, unjust prison time for fraud that never took place and, in some cases, death and even suicide as a result.

It’s a story that beggars belief, frankly, and one that has been rumbling on for many years, but it hardly screams excitement. Even as someone who rather avidly digests the Guardian and Observer at the weekends, the sub-postmaster scandal passed me by, as it did millions. Papers knew it lacked the thrill of a Royal drama or big company corruption tale and didn’t necessarily promote it heavily. Successive governments therefore lacked the impetus to truly resolve it in a just manner – compensation and exoneration for all the lives ruined.

Thanks to the series – developed and written for years by Gwyneth Hughes – those steps are now happening in record time. The manner in which Hughes not just forensically lays out the Post Office’s levels of corruption but also puts a human, relatable face on Bates and the many sub-postmasters who suffered, utterly struck a chord with viewers. Word of mouth grew. Critical reviews shone. And these episodes garnered in some instances around 10 million viewers. By today’s fractured, streaming dominated standards, that’s an incredible number.

Gladiators, by contrast, attracted for its debut return episode around 6 million viewers, so while eclipsed by the phenomenal ratings of Mr Bates, it nonetheless stands as a huge success.

Mr Bates was a surprise hit, exposing a story that the general public should have been widely aware of but wasn’t. Conversely, is there anyone over the age of 25 who has both not heard of Gladiators and isn’t incredibly fond of it? It remains one of the seminal pieces of 1990s British TV entertainment in nostalgia terms, up there with Noel’s House Party and The Generation Game – indeed, it perhaps eclipses both. It was a staple of Saturday night viewing in the days of four main channels and ‘satellite TV’.

The original incarnation of Gladiators, circa 1992. They made big cotton buds back then. Credit: ITV.

Hence perhaps why Sky tried and failed to revive the format several years ago, for a much fractured audience with set top boxes and broadband, but summarily failed for a simple reason: it changed the format. It tried to update something utterly rooted in 90s (and even 80s, given the power ballad theme tune) nostalgia. It should have known better. Audiences want not just comfort, but also the familiar embrace of what were, in retrospect, simpler and happier times. Looking back, the 90s feels like that now – a haven between the anxiety of nuclear war and the uncertainty of terrorism, financial crisis, and the subsequent rise of right-wing populism.

Given nostalgia often tends to operate in a 30 year cycle, and we’re now firmly rooted in the 90s as part of that cycle, reviving Gladiators was probably inevitable. Yet its makers have intuited that audiences want the same show they watched three decades ago. They want the campness. They want the Travelator. They want an old guy shouting “CONTENDERS… READYYYYYY!” They want a Wolf-style villain, in this case Viper. Perhaps the only concession to modernity is a couple of new challenges and the excising of youthful cheerleaders pom pomming their way across the arena – something that got former host Ulrika-ka-ka-ka-ka Jonsson in a right old boomer tizz this week as she decried it as, effectively, ‘woke tosh’.

Crucially, both Gladiators and Mr Bates were successes on linear, scheduled television, though, and this is the key point. Many would undoubtedly have watched these shows on catch up streamers – I’m one of them. Mr Bates on the so-ghastly-it-makes-Amazon-Prime’s-interface-look-like-poetry ITVX, and Gladiators on BBC iPlayer. But millions tuned in on an evening to watch these shows alongside other people. They went to work the next day and talked about the injustice or whether Barney Walsh looks just like his father Bradley, or how good Toby Jones was as Alan, or just why contestant Myles did that weird about face just as he’d climbed on the podium. They became TV events from a different era, one perhaps that audiences are less keen to see vanish than we might have imagined.

Former Gladiators presenter Ulrika Johnson. She has no time for all that ‘woke tosh’ – mainly because she’s busy posing with Cobra and Warrior. Credit: ITV.

Kids and teenagers will only have known on-demand TV and entertainment, of streamers and catch-up services, and subsequently how social media platforms amplify the winners and losers on those services. Truth is, however, that not everyone on X or Facebook or TikTok talks about television on streaming in the same way they do on linear. Everything is fragmented. Nobody’s sitting down to watch Marvel’s Echo series, say, at the same time. Therefore, so many shows cannot gain the same traction we saw with Mr Bates or Gladiators. They can’t appeal to audiences of all ages in the same manner.

I genuinely believe this is part of the reason why streaming conglomerates are haemorrhaging money and having to write shows and movies off, cancel series and remove them even from streamers. They’re not making money because nobody is watching them. What other explanation can there be for most companies refusing to give out viewing statistics? If everyone sees that almost nobody is watching series on which huge amounts of money are spent, the jig is up. Yet on linear, that audience is present and visible, and you can feel that in the discourse flowing after those TV series have aired.

My point is, we can live in a world with both of these mechanisms. Gladiators might have done well thanks to the nostalgia boost, but Mr Bates arguably brought public attention to a terrible miscarriage of justice thanks to word of mouth and people sitting down to watch a programme at the same time. It just wouldn’t have happened if Disney+ had buried it somewhere under the Star banner. That’s the difference. Nobody wants to go back to a world without on-demand – it’s a fantastic resource and means of curating television. But we will be lesser culturally should we entirely give up linear, broadcast television, in much the same way if we jettison physical media.

What is heartening, given the viewing figures, is that linear TV feels as though it’s here to stay for a while, certainly in the UK. Will channels and networks lean back again to a world where audiences show up for TV events, even with the luxury of on-demand? Will audiences respond? I think, in some cases, they absolutely will. Especially if, in the Gladiators tradition, they keep reviving classic game shows. You Bet next, anyone?

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via here.

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