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Maggie Brown: Is Netflix’s royal drama to blame for TV audience slump?

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown. Photo: Robert Viglasky/Netflix Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown. Photo: Robert Viglasky/Netflix
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At a TV conference, a senior executive speculated about a drop of two million in the TV audience from November 4-6, which coincided with the launch of The Crown by Netflix.

Could the sumptuous 10-part series based on the royal family, and distributed online, be a reason for the reduction on the previous year, as viewers tried out a free month’s subscription?

If so, the future of traditional, scheduled TV could be shaky. On the other hand, as a viewer, what’s not to like? Welcome to the future.

I watched four episodes seamlessly, thanks to superfast fibre broadband and a new smart television set, conditions that I know not everyone may enjoy. I am with the critics, who, by and large, heap praise on the drama.

And I am delighted from a media industry viewpoint. First, The Crown has adopted lavish opening credits – after an introductory piece of film, with a beautiful score – that restores the actor stars and directing talent to top billing, instead of a throwaway listing at the end.

Second, the episodes are neither unduly distorted to allow for disruptive commercial breaks, or shoehorned into exact lengths to fit a constricted linear schedule. They are roughly an hour, give or take several minutes.

Combine that with a great script, beautiful settings, costumes, music score and filmic directing, thanks to a £100 million budget, and it is an invitation to immerse yourself.

Third, viewers are treated to some wonderful performances: Claire Foy as Princess/Queen Elizabeth, paired with Matt Smith as Duke of Edinburgh; Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary, with Jared Harris as King George VI; Greg Wise as Lord Mountbatten; Vanessa Kirby as needy Princess Margaret with Ben Miles as her dishy lover Peter Townsend; and Downton Abbey’s Harry Hadden-Paton as charming Martin Charteris, the Queen’s favourite private secretary. The screen is awash with established actors, many of them British.

None of this happens by accident. The production is led by Left Bank Pictures (now owned by Sony), a company established by ITV’s former drama head Andy Harries, who honed his skills at Granada. Harries knows only too well the problems posed by the ITV drama model and the lengthy commercial breaks required to fund programmes.

The Crown’s creator and writer Peter Morgan worked with Harries in his early TV writing career, which expanded to include The Deal, about the famous Blair/Brown pact, before the fame bestowed by the Frost/Nixon film and The Queen, starring Helen Mirren. When I interviewed him in 2006, he said he had a fascination with relationships, with confinement and power, but there is also a lack of cruelty or vindictiveness in his storytelling.

So a second series of The Crown is being prepared. And, of course, the majority of Netflix’s vast offering is more run-of-the-mill than this, or the new series of Black Mirror. But by tapping into a global subscription model, it is certainly posing questions for broadcasters.

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