Some 4m Brits regularly watch a channel which screens old movies, TV programmes, travel features, public information films, and video clips of social history. Some are in black-and-white, some were “B” movies, and some are cinema classics from a half-forgotten world before streaming and reality TV shows.
You may not have heard of Talking Pictures TV – and nor have most Brits. But the broadcaster, described by The Observer as “a haven of put your feet up and have a nice cup of tea escapism to a monochrome world”, this month celebrates its fifth anniversary.
It was launched after the Sky TV network had rejected a proposal from film distributor Noel Cronin to screen some of the hundreds of movies he had spent decades collecting after a career in movie production and distribution.
He had been passionate about buying up the rights to older films through his Renown Pictures, and started licensing them for DVD release. It was good business for more than a decade, highlighted by more than a million DVD Christmas sales of the movie Scrooge to which he had bought the rights years ago.
Cronin also licensed film rights to mainstream TV channels in the years when UK daytime schedules were padded with old movies. But, by the 1990s, they were being replaced by imported soap operas, game shows and reality TV: vintage black-and-white films from the previous 50 years were being forgotten, but not by Cronin. Which is why he had suggested the idea of a dedicated channel to Sky.
The snub prompted him to think about launching his own TV channel. But he and his daughter tried and failed to get investment for their broadcasting dream. No one was interested in putting money into a channel for grainy black-and-white films. The project was forced, instead, to depend on the family’s own “faith and self-investment”.
Talking Pictures TV was launched as a 24-hour channel in May 2015.
Sky (and almost everyone else) will have been surprised by what has happened in the intervening five years. Talking Pictures is an advertising-funded channel and is now available to most of the UK population via the the most popular national and regional broadcast platforms.
Its 4m average weekly audience translates to a monthly reach of 5.7m TV and broadband households (a 9% share of viewing) and viewers watch an average of 52 minutes a day. That gives Talking Pictures a larger UK audience than: National Geographic, MTV, TLC, TCM, History Channel and (during lockdown anyway) all BT’s four sports channels put together. Some 70% of the audience is said to be over 60 years of age.
British black-and-white films remain the main focus of Talking Pictures TV but it also broadcasts shows and documentaries in colour from the UK and US. Its clever mix of information films and newsreels, helps to transport nostalgic viewers back to the times when they first queued at movie theatres.
Although the self-described “independent archive film and television channel” is now in listings magazines and it emails the weekly schedule to 80,000 registered viewers, it spends nothing on promotion which is why the scale of its success is so surprising.
Talking Pictures has grown by word-of-mouth. But celebrity media mentions have helped, none more so than Queen Elizabeth who was reported to have watched its Laurel & Hardy re-runs when she was too ill to attend church at Christmas 2016. Whether she is still a viewer, nobody is saying, but some of the UK’s best-known actors have spoken up for the channel.
The most surprising thing of all, however, may be that the UK’s fastest-growing independent TV channel has just three employees (founder Cronin and his daughter, Sarah Cronin-Stanley, who now runs it with her husband). This is a real family business and is managed from an outbuilding in the backyard at their home in a North London suburb. One tabloid dubbed it “ShedFlix”.
Whilst the technology and transmission systems are out-sourced, the family team schedule the running order, acquire new films and carry out the day-to-day mechanics of the channel. Film rights are bought from producers and broadcasters in multi-movie packages costing £200k or more. They also scour Ebay and YouTube for educational clips and amateur video for an audience which likes to spot their distant relatives wading in the sea decades ago.
The movie purchases may account for 15% of the channel’s £12m cost budget. But the largest expense is the satellite and terrestrial transmission costs from the platforms of Sky, Virgin Media, and Freeview.
Until Covid, the growing audience had spawned rapid growth in advertising revenues for the free-to-air channel. Cruise ship operators and retailers have been loving it.
No wonder that Talking Pictures TV has been profitable for most of its five years and may have generated (pre-Covid) profits of more than £750k in 2019. Statutory filings show it made a profit of £500k the previous year.
While the revenue growth has been interrupted by advertising cuts during lockdown, the channel’s success shows just what reinvention can mean for traditional media.
Talking Pictures TV is an offbeat reminder that much of the challenge for many legacy companies (not just in TV) is how to completely rethink a cost base that had been swollen by years of unchallenged, pre-digital advertising growth. It’s the business model that is broken not the audience.
The home-spun economics of Talking Pictures (where the managing director makes the tea, answers the phone, handles viewer feedback, and does the scheduling) cannot, of course, be translated to the scale and complexity of ITV or ABC. But contrast the achievements of the Cronin family with London Live, the regional broadcaster launched in 2014, a few months before them.
London Live has scarcely half the audience of Talking Pictures, 25% of its revenue, and employs more than 50 people. Over the past five years, it has accumulated operating losses of more than £25m, and seems nowhere near making a profit.
The irony is that the privately-owned Lebedev Group, which operates London Live, also publishes The Independent. The 34-year-old former broadsheet has become the case study for how newspapers can make a success of the seemingly scary decision to scrap printing and go all-digital.
Last year, The Independent announced profits of some £2.3m, its third consecutive year of profitability. It has doubled advertising revenue since its switch to all-digital. Those results came in a year when it increased spending on staffing and content by 12%, especially in the US. The real story is its rising international success: 32% of revenue now comes from outside the UK, principally the US.
According to Comscore, The Independent is now the UK’s largest “quality digital news brand” with global traffic last month (April) of 102m uniques – 50% ahead of last year.
It now has some 200 employees (60% journalists) which, incidentally, is about 50% of the peak staffing of the former national daily newspaper. That is up to one sixth of the number of journalists employed by each of The Independent’s former Fleet Street peers. It is also much less than the 1,000+ people of BuzzFeed, which is cutting back its operations, including all but pulling out of the UK and Australia. The $300m-revenue BuzzFeed has raised some $400m since launching in 2006 but has yet to become profitable. It’s a similar story at the $600m-revenue Vice Media which had been valued at $6bn.
The current state of these once gilded, advertising-dependant news companies helps to make the point that, just as long-gone advertising riches have hobbled many traditional media companies, “excessive” funding might have spoiled many a good digital startup. You don’t have to go as far down the funding pole as Talking Pictures TV to find companies which have eschewed VC dollars and managed just fine.
The US newsletter Morning Brew is one such inspiration. Alex Lieberman’s five-year-old US newsletter may this year make revenues of $20-25m and operating profit of $10m – all with a team of 40. Some growth from a startup that has been nowhere near venture capital. Sam Parr’s The Hustle, has been similarly bootstrapped and now has 1m subscribers to its daily business+ tech email, with growing support for the paid-for, forecast-rich Trends. Jessica Lessin’s The Information may be the stand-out as a six-year-old highly-successful digital publisher wholly-funded by perhaps 50k subscribers – with no ads.
Email successes like those are a reminder that newspaper and magazine publishers once welcomed the internet as something that would eventually give them lower-cost market access than their own print, paper and postage. But nobody foresaw just how difficult most publishers would find it either to compete with their own printed editions or abandon them altogether.
Then there’s Leo Laporte’s brilliant low-cost online TV model TWiT, launched all of 15 years ago, which may be making $2m profit from revenue of $10m. There is almost endless scope to apply his formula to specialist audiences beyond mere technology.
Like Talking Pictures TV in the UK, TWiT shows that broadcast-streaming could be exposed to greater insurgency than we have yet seen.
As you read this, hundreds of thousands of locked-down Brits are immersed in world of old movies, newsreels and nostalgia, courtesy of a family business which is more profitable than you would ever have guessed.
For legacy media generally, Covid has accelerated the systemic decline. It has, of course, also produced howls of anguish about the future of journalism and content. But we might just see them as prompts to re-invent the business model. Now.