BBC and ITV are in talks over a new, joint streaming service. But what’s it for?

Writers for newspapers with a vested interest in knocking the BBC are already sharpening their pencils, demanding to know why they have to pay again.

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BBC and ITV are in final talks to bring a version of their North American online streaming service Britbox to UK audiences.

Britbox, a joint venture launched in 2017, offers a mix of new UK television series and archive material to its steadily growing American and Canadian audience. Extending something like it to the channels’ home market seems to make sense given the widespread assumption that the future of home media consists of streaming content, rather than watching linear transmissions or physical media. Currently, 12 million UK households have at least one streaming service, and 4.3 million have two or more. (That said, the evidence is that the rate of increase is flattening, and the number of people who only watch linear TV has increased, not decreased, over the last five years.)

We also know that UK audiences prefer UK-made and -set programming, both new and archive; and a vanishingly small percentage of the much ballyhooed Netflix’s own material originates from the UK. Ratings agency BARB’s Project Dovetail concluded that Call The Midwife, Cuckoo and Happy Valley were the programmes on Netflix most frequently accessed from UK accounts; while internationally, the streamer’s most watched content is BBC One’s Sherlock. This suggests it’s the supposed legacy brands of linear TV that are carrying the ostensible streaming giant, not the other way round, at least in the UK.

There are also good reasons why BBC archive content can't be loaded on iplayer, and ITV’s advertising supported ITV player is, while free-at-the-point-of-use and full of new and archive content, largely unusable, although it could be worse. (Hello All4!) So a homegrown alternative to Netflix seems like a good idea.

But there are also obvious downsides. Writers for newspapers with a vested interest in knocking the BBC are already inevitably sharpening their pencils, demanding to know why they have to pay again for a service that contains material they have already paid for via their licence fee. (The licence fee is not a contract to supply, as they are all entirely aware.) Such complaints will only increase should a new programme identifiable as a BBC production in some sense be made available to subscribers to BritBox first, let alone exclusively.

More significantly for a commercial service, demand is uncertain. Variations on this idea have already passed us by without anyone noticing. Who today even remembers the brief period when ITV and Channel 4 programmes could be accessed through iPlayer? And the online streaming and download BBC Store lasted exactly just long enough to ensure the closure of the online BBC Shop, which sold Blu-rays and DVDs of BBC productions through the post. This, many had long suspected was the real, and entire, object of the exercise from the government’s point of view.

For some, the main attraction of BritBox UK will be any archive material. Much of British television’s rich history is entirely inaccessible, and much of it that is accessible is treated appalling by the streamers it is on, often being cut, zoomed, cropped, or in severe cases all three. (Hello again, All4!)

For other users, particularly those who prefer to stream rather than record – I confess I am one these – it could work as an extended and expanded form of catch up. But this creates a severe danger of the paid BritBox overlapping with free services. The closing or downgrading of iplayer because it’s a free service that competes with the commercial BritBox would not be in viewers’ interests.

There is also the pockets of those viewers to consider. Many Sky subscribers resent the regulator’s decision that Sky having essentially all top flight English football television rights was an unfair monopoly, and so resent “having” to pay for additional services from other providers such as BT Sport, too. Many can’t or don’t: people like the idea of everything being in the same place. That ship sailed when the 1954 Television Act created ITV, but that is neither here or there, although to be fair at least then all television remained free at the point of use. (The ship was only set aflame and sunk after the 1990 Broadcasting Act gave real impetus to Murdoch’s move into pay TV.)

Competition, or a perceived lack of it, is the real key here. Despite media assumptions that Netflix is hegemonic, neither it nor Amazon Prime are mass engagement platforms compared to iPlayer, let alone dusty, linear terrestrial broadcast, with its reach in excess of 50 million people. But much of Netflix’s appeal lies in the illusion that it offers everything in the same place – and there is huge merit in the idea of a single hub that isn’t reliant on advertising, or at least a single hub for everything anyone actually watches. BritBox will probably succeed if it is able to replicate that illusion; what would be truly worthwhile is if it could achieve something resembling that for real.

Netflix is, above all else, a branding exercise, and BBC television is one of the biggest brands on the planet. That means BritBox needs a new, less obviously indefensibly awful name. And any variation on ITV is a no-no, given the conflict with Apple services.

So how about BritBox Collection Television? Or BBC TV, for short.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.