From the new streaming services we got (like Disney+), to new free TV channels, new streaming devices and more – 2020 was, in many ways, a great year for TV lovers in the UK.
So yes, 2020 was a tough year, for so many other reasons, and even on TV, there’s a lot to complain about (so I did – in this list of 2020 TV fails) but today I’m here to look at the good stuff that happened around the UK TV industry this year.
Here we go…
1. TV Cord Cutting Took Off In The UK
Cord cutting (the act of ditching the traditional, expensive cable/satellite TV subscriptions for cheaper alternatives) has been around for years, even in the UK (Netflix has been here since 2012!).
But 2020 was the year when streaming TV really started to race forward – in part “thanks” to the pandemic and the lockdown, of course.
At this point, according to The Guardian, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ have 32.4 million subscribers in the UK – 8 million more than the year before.
And most importantly, that’s DOUBLE the number of people who are subscribed to one of the traditional pay-TV companies like Sky or Virgin Media.
And among those subscribed to streaming services, it is estimated that 60% subscribe to at least two, or more, services.
And while these are giant American companies – so it’s not all good news necessarily – the fact that UK viewers now have a cheaper, more flexible choice on how to watch TV, is brilliant – and most people actually use that option to their advantage.
2. Disney+ Launched In The UK
In the US, Disney’s huge new streaming service, Disney+, launched in November 2019. It took a few months, but then in March 2020, the service went live in the UK as well.
Disney’s answer to Netflix launched with a big roster of family-friendly content, from the worlds of Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, National Geographic and Disney itself (you can see my full Disney+ review here).
The fact that Disney+ launched in the UK shortly after the US is not something to be taken for granted: other big streaming services, like HBO Max, Peacock and Disney’s own Hulu, haven’t reached our shores (and may never will, for many reasons).
But Disney+ did come, bringing with it an almost identical library of content, as the one in the US.
And while new and original releases have been few and far between on Disney+ this year (in part because of production delays due to the pandemic), it still became a big success – especially for families with children.
3. BT Sport Monthly Pass Became Widely Available
Sports have long been an Achilles heel for TV cord cutters in the UK: NOW TV’s Sports Pass was pretty much the only option, and at £33.99/ month it was pretty expensive.
But then BT Sport launched their “Monthly Pass” at the end of 2019: a contract-free streaming service, open to all customers on a month-to-month basis, at £25/month.
At launch, the main issue was device support – BT Sport only worked on a handful of 3rd party devices. But throughout 2020, BT Sport added apps for Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Android TV and NOW TV devices.
Perhaps in light of that, we also started seeing more and more discounts and special deals on NOW TV’s Sky Sports pass – and while things aren’t exactly “cheap” yet – there’s at least some competition.
And, 2020 also saw Amazon Prime Video running into the field, with some Premier League matches as well as tennis and other sports.
The good? more places for cord-cutters to see sporting events. The bad? It’s now spread around three (and more) streaming services…
4. BBC iPlayer Started Keeping Programmes For 12 Months
For many years, BBC iPlayer was mainly a catch-up service. Programmes that aired on one of the over-the-air BBC channels the night before, were then available to stream on iPlayer, usually for 30 days, and sometimes for just 7 days.
But a catch-up service can’t compete with the big streaming services like Netflix – people want a large library of content, AND to know that if they start watching a series, it’ll still be there when they reach episode 7.
With the “old” iPlayer, you could sometimes hear about a talked-about series, go to watch it on the service, and find out that it starts from Episode 5 – because the first ones already expired.
Then, things finally started to change. In 2019, the BBC received permission from Ofcom to keep programmes on iPlayer for a full year.
Programmes that were produced in-house began to use that permission, but many programmes the BBC airs are commissioned and produced by independent producers.
So in May 2020, The BBC and PACT (the trade association representing independent UK producers) finally signed a deal that now automatically allows the BBC to leave programmes on iPlayer for a full year (with possible additional extensions).
There are still a lot of issues with iPlayer – but this was, hopefully, the first step in turning it into a full streaming service.
5. Sky Arts Added To Freeview And Freesat
Freeview is a great service, and one of the important “forces” behind the ability to become a cord cutter in the UK. With 80+ channels that you get absolutely free (only needing an indoor aerial, a Freeview receiver and a TV licence), it’s a great content starting point.
So anytime a new channel is added to Freeview – it’s a cause for celebration. This year, we got more than one – we had the short-lived Merit, and the weirdly-named CCXTV (which brought us The Bold and The Beautiful).
But perhaps the biggest addition this year was Sky Arts. The channel, which is owned by Sky, runs 24 hours a day and offers documentaries, movies, operas and more – all related to culture and the arts.
Up until this year, Sky Arts was only available to pay-TV subscribers. But from September, it became free-to-watch on both Freeview and Freesat (The on-demand version is still only available for Sky and NOW TV subscribers).
6. The Coming Of New Free Streaming Channels
We’ve always had “free” streaming apps, which were a part of Freeview – BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc’.
But in 2020, we started seeing free, ad-supported American channels make their way to the UK as well.
The content on these free services won’t replace your Netflix subscription anytime soon – but you can’t beat free, and you do get a few hidden gems.
The Roku Channel, in particular, has a nice selection (though mostly older programmes), and Plex mostly has things you’ve never heard of – but it can help you pass the time.
There are still a few missing channels we’re hoping to get – Tubi, for example, is an American free channel that has a pretty robust library of content – but isn’t available in the UK at this point (at least not without using a VPN). Still, this year was a good start.
7. Spitting Image Returned – On BritBox
In a year of political turmoil (and turmoil in general), bringing us a brand new version of Spitting Image was a stroke of genius.
Spitting Image, which uses puppets to mock and satirise politicians and current events, was premiered on ITV in 1984, and ran for 18 series, until it was cancelled in 1996.
Last October, it returned with brand new episodes and puppets, with Co-creator Roger Law returning to head up the show’s creative team.
In a brave – and maybe controversial decision – the new episodes were only available on BritBox, the subscription-based streaming service from ITV and the BBC (except for a single US-elections special that aired on ITV).
Surely, this meant the programme had a much smaller audience than it would have gotten on a free-to-air channel. But on the other hand, it made people finally hear about BritBox, and perhaps take their free trial at the very least.
Official viewing numbers were never released, but BritBox were reportedly pleased with the attention – and subscribers – Spitting Image brought with it, and it is set to return again in the future.
8. Roku Streambar Launched In The UK
There are a lot of streaming devices out there these days, and even more soundbars – but there aren’t a lot of devices that combine the current best streaming device, with a cheap, very-capable soundbar.
In October, Roku released The Streambar – a compact soundbar with a Roku 4K streaming device built-in, at a very decent price – £129.99.
Unlike Roku’s previous soundbars, which never made it to the UK – this one launched here at around the same time as the US.
You can read my full review of the Roku Streambar here, but having now used it for almost three months, I can say my appreciation of it grew over time.
Sure, it won’t replace the audio you get from a £500+ soundbar – but for the price, and its compact size – it fills the room with powerful and somewhat surprising sound.
And adding Roku’s streamlined, easy-to-use streaming interface on top, makes for the perfect two-in-one device.
9. Cord Busters Reached 400,000+ Monthly Readers
I’ll end with a shameless plug – but yes, it’s related to streaming TV and cord cutting, since Cord Busters is now truly one of the leading destinations for UK cord cutters.
I started the blog in 2016, having been a cord cutter myself for several years, at that point.
In its first few months, Cord Busters had 100 readers. Maybe 200. And every time someone asked me what the blog was about – I had to explain what TV cord cutting even means.
But slowly and surely, the site grew – and with it, the idea of cord cutting and streaming TV in the UK.
This year, the site and the traffic we get grew exponentially (now there’s a word we all got to know in 2020!), so much so that we now get more than 400,000 monthly readers – with that number growing every month.
It pleases me to know that so many people get help from this site, manage to save money on their TV and home entertainment needs, and maybe just pass the time by reading something interesting.
Hopefully, 2021 will be a better year in every way – including our TV.