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Is BritBox repeating past mistakes with its original content strategy?

27 Jul 2020  |  Stephen Arnell 
Is BritBox repeating past mistakes with its original content strategy?

Stephen Arnell, a former editorial consultant on BritBox, evaluates whether the streaming service's new slate of original shows will be enough to cut through an overcrowded SVOD marketplace

Last week saw the unveiling of a slate of original scripted shows from the UK iteration of the ITV/BBC SVOD service, BritBox.

As figures have yet to be released, since the streamer only launched in November, it will be difficult to gauge the potential audience for any newly announced series.

Has the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown increased sampling and customer retention to BritBox?

Or has the lack of new shows on BritBox and the enforced scheduling of repeats on linear channels resulted in a Quibi-style slump in viewing?

I could be wrong, but I'd have thought that a library service, which duplicates a fair percentage of archive/classic programming available either gratis on Freeview or already via subscription, would have little traction in the OTT wars.

It would certainly be interesting to see how many customers stuck around after their first free month of BritBox.

In terms of a template, ITV, who is the majority shareholder of BritBox, already has an ‘oven-ready’ example of what NOT to do.

Pay channel ITV Encore launched in 2014 with splurge of expensive publicity, but no new shows.

When eventually original commissions did appear on the channel, they were too few and lacked the oomph to push through – shows such as Houdini & Doyle, Dark Heart and The Frankenstein Chronicles.

Heard of them?

No, not many people have.

Harlots gained some good reviews and has (ironically) now been picked up as an acquisition to fill Covid-19 scheduling gaps on BBC2.

Two shows announced for Encore (Bancroft and Midwinter of the Spirit) ended up on ITV, along with the series version of Dark Heart.

Is BritBox in danger of repeating these mistakes by waiting and then commissioning shows that lack the power to punch through in a crowded market?

My answer, based on current information, would be a qualified ‘yes’ – BritBox seems to have failed to learn from previous strategic and tactical errors.

The service could have launched with a high-profile original to make a splash, but that may have been a double-edged sword as the viewership would have been too small across the first few months as to make it pointless.

Unless of course, the commission was SO big that it could have generated outsized interest in the streamer, for example some huge, already famous IP with big stars.

Judging by the slate BritBox has announced, there is a guiding principle of some taste at work, perhaps in a way too tasteful - an “exceptional roll call of talent”, according to Reemah Sakaan, group director of ITV SVOD. But there’s little sense of fun or adventure.

They’ve secured some decent (noticeably male-led) onscreen talent with the likes of Damian Lewis and Dominic West in A Spy Among Friends (Kim Philby, surely an over-familiar subject) and Jared Harris in The Beast Must Die, but there appears to be an element of samey-ness in the preponderance of detection-based drama.

The choice of an Irvine Welsh policier Crime seems counter-intuitive, as the author’s edginess may not work for BritBox subscribers accustomed to more sedate fare.

An algorithm check back at BritBox HQ is unlikely to turn up Filth, Trainspotting, The Acid House and Ecstasy amongst their wish lists.

And it must be said, Crime star Dougray Scott has slipped from public consciousness over recent years as a one-time rival to Ewan McGregor.

Welsh is also working with American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis on American Tabloid, which tracks the storied/sordid history of the popular press in the US.

Definitely not a BritBox show.

Perhaps surprisingly, Crime isn’t the first time Welsh has collaborated with the commercial broadcaster, as back in 2009 his rarely seen darts mockumentary Good Arrows was a commission for blokes channel ITV4.

The last original to be revealed is Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, a twist on an Agatha Christie style story. Horowitz is a busy man currently, with the first season of Alex Rider recently debuting on Amazon Prime.

So, a solid offering, but one unlikely in my opinion to really push BritBox into the middle leagues of the SVOD marketplace.

Some might well say – ‘could you do better, smarty-pants?’

The answer, based on the shows the team began looking at as the kind of original scripted programming suitable for BritBox, is ‘very probably’, as at least two high-concept ideas we were kicking around are now being produced for TV and the big screen.

But, as the phrase goes, ‘That’s Life!’

Stephen Arnell was an ITV editorial consultant for Britbox on earlier proposed versions of the streamer (with no axe to grind)

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05 Aug 2020 

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