Game of Thrones simulcast: US-UK time lag hits zero

But why, in the age of video-on-demand, do Brits need to be up at 2am to enjoy the thrill?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:40 ON Fri 28 Mar 2014

BACK in the 1980s, when I was at primary school, friends who went on holiday to the United States would come back with a glimpse of the future. For six months at least, every new film release would be met with the same lofty response. “Oh yeah,” they’d say, “I saw that when I was in America.”

Back to the Future, for instance, came out in the US on 3 July, 1985, but British school kids had to wait until 4 December to catch up with their jet-setting classmates. Over the years, the gap between American and British release dates narrowed, but it has not entirely disappeared.

When cinemas still used analogue film, there was a good – if somewhat archaic – reason for the delay. In order to keep costs down, expensive reels of celluloid were produced in limited numbers. Britain therefore had to wait until American interest subsided and US cinemas could ship us their spare inventory.

Since the arrival of digital projection, film scheduling has been dictated by a cold sales calculation: at what point is the revenue generated by the hype of a delayed release wiped out by the losses inflicted by online piracy? That means the gap is usually one week, but the biggest blockbusters (which are also the most pirated titles) are often released on the same day throughout the US and Europe.

In TV, too, the time lag has withered away and big, set-piece programming now arrives in the US and UK at about the same time. The trend will reach a slightly absurd conclusion when the new season of Game of Thrones begins with a simultaneous broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic at 9pm on Sunday, 6 April. That’s 9pm on the east coast of America – which in Britain is Monday morning at 2am.

The anti-social timing is a sign of an unresolved struggle within broadcasting. In the digital era of streaming, on-demand video, centrally dictated schedules make little sense. But TV companies – and the advertisers that fund them – are unwilling to give up that power. We’re still worth more to them if we all tune in at the same time.

The rise of internet catch-up services, led by the (non-commercial) BBC’s iPlayer, began to blur the conventions of linear scheduling, but it took an outsider to blow them away completely. Netflix, which started life as a DVD-rental service and now commissions well-regarded TV programmes, makes no attempt to restrict its subscribers to set viewing times.

When the second series of the Netflix show House of Cards was released last month, every episode was available for download at the same time. Subscribers, wherever they were in the world, could watch any episode at any time they pleased. With the gradual rise of the internet-connected “smart TV”, it can’t be long before we watch all television in this way.

That’s not entirely good news. Without a regular stream of episodes, it may be harder for new programmes to build an audience over time. We will have to seek them out by design, rather than happen upon them serendipitously.

And, for all the control it offers, self-scheduling creates new inconveniences. Watching serial drama today can feel like being trapped in that episode of The Likely Lads in which Terry and Bob spend a day dodging the football score so they can see the TV highlights in blissful ignorance.

Now, with Twitter and Facebook full of TV chat and everyone watching programmes at their own pace, you’re never more than a click away from an unwanted plot-spoiler.

The concept of the spoiler alert hadn’t reached playgrounds in the 1980s – and in any case there were swift, direct ways of dealing with offenders. But the age of TV-on-demand might require new rules of etiquette, both on and offline.

Holden Frith tweets at @holdenfrith ·