I’m not sure whether it’s been the case for US readers, but certainly in the UK the news of the expansion of BritBox, a streaming service reportedly set up to rival Netflix, has prompted a collective sharp and uncertain intake of breath and dissatisfied frowns à la Marge Simpson. With the streaming market already saturated and on-demand players already widely available – from Netflix to Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer to ITV Hub, All 4, 5 Player, to Sky Store, Sky Go, Now TV, Google Play, not forgetting Apple’s new service set to launch in April, and with Disney+ gaining more and more traction by the day – one can’t help but wonder whether it has much of a chance of taking off at all.
Reported by BBC News this morning and covered extensively by international media this afternoon, BritBox has already garnered 500,000 subscribers in North America since its launch in 2017. I can see the appeal in making British shows available to a wider international audience – ‘a window of opportunity’, according to ITV’s chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall. This is certainly true when it’s one of the only readily available ways of making British TV shows available overseas, and there’s definitely an appetite for its content. There have been suggestions that long-running but no-longer-aired series like Absolutely Fabulous will be available on the service, which is definitely a big incentive.
But even at a rumored £5 per month, I’m not entirely convinced that domestic audiences would buy into a service selling content that’s already available for nothing online. BBC has described this as a ‘competitive’ price, and while this may be true, I can’t help but feel that the service is much better placed targeting audiences whose domestic programming doesn’t automatically provide a license to BBC shows.
BBC and Netflix have had a strong relationship so far, notably with Netflix acquiring rights to the hugely successful series The Bodyguard last year. With British series available on the ‘flix already, including Doctor Who, Planet Earth, Sherlock, Peep Show and GBBO, it’s clear that the Beeb’s extensive back-catalogue is growing to the extent that ITV and BBC, the country’s two largest free-to-air broadcasters, can consider taking it into their own hands and profiting from the expansion. Analysis from the BBC suggests that it’s all about scale and business strategy, but the real question is whether or not viewers will need and use the service or simply take it for granted.
The news has been divisive. Variety has taken a grounded approach, reporting on the £25 million ITV will invest in the venture (rising to a speculated £40m in 2020) and an optimistic quote from Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC:
I am delighted that the BBC and ITV are working together on something truly special: BritBox, a new streaming service delivering the best home-grown content to the public who love it best. The service will have everything from old favorites to recent shows and brand-new commissions. It’s an exciting time for the viewing public.
But, British media have been characteristically less generous on the topic, speculating that it’s doomed to flop already. Maybe it’s harsh, but then again maybe the idea of paying for a TV license and then paying again for those same shows monthly isn’t quite ideal.
BBC and ITV set to launch Netflix rival [BBC]
ITV, BBC Prepare To Launch BritBox Streaming Service in the UK [Variety]