Carbon counter: linear TV repeats are greener than buzzy Netflix premieres

Starting today, families around the world will flop on to their sofas for an intense week of TV viewing. In an ultra-environmental household, the choice of viewing could be decided by counting the carbon cost of programming.

The sustainability of that 100-per cent acrylic Christmas jumper is one thing. Your TV preferences are another. If you need any excuse to avoid the Meghan and Harry documentary on Netflix, here is one. A rerun of feelgood Hollywood classic It’s a Wonderful Life has a much lower carbon footprint.

This month, the BBC’s new director-general Tim Davie posited a future without broadcast TV in the next decade. He should think twice about that. Digital terrestrial broadcast television (DTT) still provides the lion’s shares of viewing in the UK. About 43 per cent — and 26 per cent in the US — of what we watch is shown via free DTT broadcasting. That proportion will not fall before 2034, according to research from Enders Analysis.

DTT is a greener option than proliferating streaming services, known as over the top television (OTT). This is typically delivered by broadband, bypassing traditional broadcast, satellite and cable infrastructure. OTT requires more equipment, so energy consumption is 49 per cent higher than DTT programming, according to a recent report from UK regulator Ofcom.

Tot up longer hours watched on DTT versus shorter time on paid-for OTT services. Add energy use by viewing devices. Total energy consumption figures then even out. But not greenhouse emissions: OTT shows emit 33 grammes of CO₂ equivalent per hour, half as much again as DTT programs.

Older dramas and comedies are the most environmental option. The CO₂ generated by filming them decades ago has been spread over hundreds of millions of subsequent viewings. Think Dad’s Army in the UK or Leave it to Beaver in the US.

If you do not fancy that, it may time for the dreaded family Christmas walk. This is an even greener option.

Carbon counter is an award-winning series of Lex notes calculating the environmental benefits of different lifestyle choices. For other articles, see here.

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