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BritBox: can it work?

27 Feb 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
BritBox: can it work?

There’s a long way to go - but for now it's good to welcome a tardy service whose time may finally have come, writes Ray Snoddy

Welcome to BritBox – although we should never have had to wait so long.

Welcome to the planned collaboration between the BBC and ITV although it is very late in the day and Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services are popping up like mushrooms all over the place to try to nibble at the edge of the international monopoly gifted to Netflix.

Welcome also because it is obviously a good and necessary thing despite - even now - the final legal agreements having not been signed, and of course - if that is the right way of putting it - regulatory approval still being needed.

Finally, sometime later this year, probably September, BritBox will bring together in one place the combined archives of both BBC and ITV and as a result, when current contracts run out, another window will close on Netflix. In the future ITV will add original material to the platform.

The subscription service will be “competitively priced” which suggests that at the very least it could match the Netflix basic subscription of £7.99 a month.

A really smart move would be to undercut Netflix by starting out on the US company’s initial price of £5.99 before it started to creep up.

It should be obvious that such a belated offering in a hugely competitive international market, effectively protecting the flanks of public service broadcasting against future harm, should be welcomed with open arms by regulators.

In the parallel universe of regulation nothing should ever be taken for granted and they should be reminded one last time what they did in the past and what has been said more recently.

One final kicking for lawyer Peter Freeman, former chairman of the former Competition Commission, who decided that BritBox’s predecessor, project Kangaroo, had to be stopped to protect competition in the “nascent UK video-on-demand” market.

Thanks to Freeman and chums it remained nascent while everyone from Netflix and Google to Apple were given a free run while British enterprise was artificially stifled.

Scroll forward and last year Ofcom chief executive Sharon White noted that collaboration was now a good thing rather than anti-competitive.

“Increasingly they [UK PSBs] will need to collaborate to compete. We will take account of that need when assessing competition in market,” said White, who went even further and suggested that perhaps the collaboration should include the tech giants.

It would therefore be bizarre if Ofcom, or indeed any other regulator, were to place barriers in the way of BritBox and in truth that is unlikely to happen and a fair wind can almost certainly be relied on.

But now, after so many dramatic things have happened and so many ships have already sailed, can it work?

There is evidence of an increasing number of people prepared to pay for more than one modestly priced SVOD service, sometimes at the expense of the big cable and satellite packages.

Those who subscribe to Netflix seem to have a higher propensity to subscribe to a second service.

BritBox has been a modest success in North America with more than 500,000 subscribers paying $6.99 a month. However, it’s difficult to judge anything about the UK from such a performance.

BritBox in the US is likely to be serving a relatively upmarket minority who, how can we put it sensitively, want some more sophisticated viewing than is widely available.

The initial marketing for the UK BritBox offering means streaming “the best British boxsets” and demonstrates the hitting power available with visual references to Victoria and Les Miserables, Broadchurch and Bodyguard.

It stands a good chance of success because there is now a widespread appreciation of both streaming and binge viewing and the convenience factor is strong. Nothing is more irritating than finally getting round to catch up on a series only to find it has slipped off the schedules and disappeared.

One obvious advantage of being very late to the party is that the concept no longer has to be sold and BritBox would be entering a fast-moving stream.

It would also, almost certainly, be a much cheaper way of accessing vast libraries of content than buying box sets.

The founders do however need to be careful to resist the obvious temptation to put a squeeze on iPlayer and the ITV Hub to “encourage” viewers to upgrade to BritBox, a manoeuvre which could rebound on them.

It is a little disappointing that BritBox has not leapt forward fully formed as a best of British service but it might have been more simple to do the heavy lifting first with the BBC and ITV.

That may have been quite complicated enough to start with.

ITV chief executive Caroline McCall, who says establishing BritBox in the UK has been one of her top priorities since turning up at ITV a year ago, anticipates that other partners will be added.

It would make perfect sense for Channel 4 to join, both for BritBox and the channel itself. Channel 5 owners Viacom may have other fish to fry.

It might seem attractive to invite a tech giant but that could complicate relationships and it might be better to stick to a best of British concept.

Maybe even one day when the Brexit quagmire has been settled one way or the other BritBox could consider trying to establish a beachhead in Europe.

There’s a long way to go but for now welcome to a tardy service whose time may now have come – if it does come.

BritBox will be a further interesting example of the more difficult times that lie ahead for Netflix, despite its Roma successes at the Oscars.

It is going to lose a lot of its broadcasting inventory as more and more broadcasters wake up to the consequences of what their short-termism has done by doing archive deals with this former provider of videos by post.

The appearance of BritBox, with ITV and BBC taking control of its streaming library content will scarcely bring Netflix to its knee.

But when you add in an expanding Hulu and the impact of the new Disney streaming service it is hardly surprising that Netflix is concentrating more on original content in future.

And finally there has already been a complaint from Scotland about the new service being called BritBox. This can safely be disregarded because UKBox doesn’t really cut it. There would be problems with BritFlex and no-one is arguing that the Kangaroo brand, alongside Titanic, should be revived.

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