Unlike many of the other new subscription video on-demand services that have launched recently, ITV and the BBC’s joint venture BritBox came to market in the UK without any new original content, relying on the strength of the two broadcasters’ archives instead.
Both have contributed a number of high profile shows to BritBox (with the BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ a valuable recent addition). And ITV, which has previously hosted box sets on its ‘ITV Hub’ catch-up service, has now largely stopped doing so, in order to avoid Hub competing with BritBox.
But if it seems like the BBC is less invested in Britbox’s success, that’s because it is. The BBC only has a ten percent stake in BritBox, compared to ITV’s 90 percent. “I would have liked the BBC to take a bigger stake in the business, and to also have more of an operational involvement,” said Roddy Davidson, a media analyst at independent investment group Shore Capital. “It feels like from an operational perspective, the BBC is very much leaving it to ITV to make it happen.” So BritBox is close to the core part of ITV’s strategy, but for the BBC it’s just an incremental revenue stream, and an experimental one at that.
Whilst the BBC has handed over ‘classic’ series of Doctor Who to BritBox, all series since the show’s 2005 revival have been kept on the BBC’s own iPlayer. And the success of the BBC’s ‘Gavin and Stacey’ Christmas special would have been a great opportunity to drive audiences to BritBox, where all the previous series are hosted – except for the fact that the BBC also made them available on iPlayer over the Christmas period as well.
Constraints on the BBC
There are several other factors limiting the BBC’s ability to put its content on BritBox.
Firstly, the BBC doesn’t have full rights to a lot of the content originally aired on its channels. “The BBC don’t make most of the content which might end up on BritBox, especially when it comes to dramas,” said Tom Harrington, a senior research analyst in the broadcast team at Enders Analysis, a research company covering media, entertainment and telecoms. “The BBC normally gets a five year license when they commission something. Usually they hold that exclusively for 18 months, and after that they’ll let the production company sell it to whomever they like. That’s when it’ll end up somewhere else like Netflix or Amazon.”
The BBC has actually been working to get greater control over a lot of this externally produced content. The BBC now only holds content exclusively for a year, rather than 18 months. But in order for the content to be sold after 12 months, it has to “fulfil a particular set of requirements that basically only BritBox fills,” according to Harrington. Otherwise, the production company has to wait a further six months before selling the show.
This is good news for BritBox says Harrington, since production companies either have to do a deal with BritBox, or leave their content collecting dust for six months. But this has created friction between the BBC and production companies, who have felt somewhat manipulated by the change.
And the BBC, as well as ITV, are somewhat limited by their obligations as public sector broadcasters. “They’re trying to fulfil their PSB remit and keep the content available to the public by distributing it on iPlayer and ITV Hub, and using it to populate their secondary and tertiary channels, but that means keeping it off BritBox,” said Sarah Simon, senior media analyst at investment bank Berenberg.
BBC prioritising iPlayer
But even taking these constraints into account, there’s still a feeling that the BBC isn’t as committed to the project as it could be, and is prioritising iPlayer over BritBox.
“With the BBC, there’s definitely a clash with their aspirations on iPlayer, which continues to be an important part of their strategy,” said Shore Capital’s Davidson. “The arrangements between iPlayer and BritBox are still a little bit opaque, where the BBC can hang on to some shows and not pass them on to BritBox.”
This clash of loyalties was demonstrated last year, when the BBC was trying to get approval from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, to be able to carry content for 12 months after the first airing (up from 30 days), and to host up to 25 box sets of previously aired content each year. The BBC got the go ahead for the new content windows last June.
“The changes definitely aren’t helpful for BritBox, and they tell you a lot about the BBC’s enthusiasm for the service,” said Berenberg’s Simon. And indeed the changes were reported to be a source of tension between the two broadcasters as they hammered out plans for BritBox.
Can BritBox originals draw in audiences?
Britbox could get a boost when it does eventually release new original content which will be exclusive to the service, but its limited budget might make this difficult. ITV said it planned to invest around £65 million in the service as a whole during 2019 and 2020, with only a portion of this to be spent on content. Just to put that into perspective with some tongue-in-cheek statistics, Netflix spent around $15 billion on content last year, and the ‘Baby Yoda’ puppet used on Disney+’s ‘The Mandalorian’ cost $5 million to produce.
“They might produce a few good series with their budget, but with these sorts of services you need so have a constant supply of quality series coming through,” said Simon. “Premium series cost more, and the budget might allow for one of those. But when audiences have watched that show, they’re not likely to stick around.”
BritBox says it’s trying to complement the big international services, not compete with them. But consumers are unlikely to agree when BritBox’s £5.99 price point is roughly comparable to the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. “The biggest concern for us is that price, as £5.99 is probably pushing it a bit,” said Davidson. “There are some very strong products out there, and more strong products emerging. Those tend to be aggressively priced, and importantly have new and exclusive content.”
A troubled start for BritBox
It remains to be seen whether Britbox’s issues are just teething problems, or if they represent a fundamental issues with the service that are likely to threaten its future. BritBox hasn’t yet reported any subscription figures, so we don’t yet know what the uptake has been. But it’s been dealt a major blow as it’s failed to secure carriage on Sky set-top boxes.
All of that said, most agree that the idea is a sound one, but that it should have been done ten years ago, but a previous attempt at a BritBox-like project, dubbed ‘Project Kangaroo’, was blocked by the UK’s competition commission back in 2009.
“But it’s a space they have to be in, because it’s where audiences are going,” added Enders’ Harrington. “It’s a tough situation to be in.”