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7 November 2019

BritBox is better late than never, but it’s still a sign that broadcaster power is waning

The streaming service from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 signposts the end of their dominance. 

By Jasper jackson

UK broadcasters have finally united to offer a streaming service designed to match the likes of Netflix and Amazon – something they’ve been trying to do for well over a decade.

Back in the late Noughties, the BBC’s commercial arm – then BBC Worldwide – developed plans to team up with ITV and Channel 4 to launch a video-on-demand service. Called Project Kangaroo, the service was scheduled to debut in 2008, but was blocked by the UK’s competition authority in 2009. A less ambitious follow-up, called Project Canvas, eventually made it to market in 2012 as YouView. Its final form was essentially a set-top box that ended up being more of an incremental improvement than a revolutionary step in freeing viewers from the constraints of television sets.

To say things have changed since then is a gross understatement. The rise of Netflix has fundamentally altered the TV landscape. Though it was predated by three years by Hulu (a joint venture between News Corporation, NBC Universal and later Disney), Netflix has revolutionised the way TV is watched and produced. It popularised the idea of binge-watching on different devices, and pumped huge amounts of money into original programming. Its desire to build a global subscriber base has led to audacious and innovative programmes that might never have been made otherwise. The company’s reliance on data to maximise subscriber growth and retention has meanwhile resulted in many of these shows being cancelled long before their fans were satisfied.

Netflix was followed by Amazon (with even deeper pockets to fund big-budget TV). A slew of other companies have rushed to get into streaming. Both Apple and Disney are launching their own services in November, and other big players at the intersection of technology and media, such as AT&T’s Warner, are on the verge of opening up services to subscribers. Numerous niche streaming services have also emerged to meet the desires of particular fans.

It’s into this crowded marketplace that BritBox is launching. For £5.99 per month, UK consumers will be able to access hundreds of hours of programming from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The focus is on classic series – programmes like Downton Abbey, Cracker, Blackadder and Fawlty Towers  though there will also be some new shows. Recent hits like Peaky Blinders and Killing Eve will not appear, at least initially.

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The focus on older shows is not necessarily a huge hindrance – series like Friends have consistently been some of the most popular content on Netflix despite airing their last episodes decades ago – but it does mean that Britbox will lack the zeitgeist-catching launches that Netflix has used to attract new subscribers.

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Yet whether or not BritBox is a success may be less important than what it represents – a step into paid-for public service broadcasting.

While UK broadcasters have individually offered streaming for years (the BBC’s iPlayer arguably laid the technological groundwork for what Netflix would later become), they have remained free-to-air and funded on the same terms as their terrestrial TV forebears. For ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, that means ads. For the BBC, that has meant the licence fee – a mechanism that is a contentious subject of debate. The licence fee came under recent fire after the BBC decided to scrap free TV licences for the over 75s, a burden that was pushed upon it by David Cameron’s government.

Undeniably, questions arise about whether a fee based on owning a TV set is still suitable for a world where people are increasingly likely to watch the same shows on their smartphones or laptops. It’s also undeniable that the BBC remains one of the UK’s most trusted institutions, which produces many quality TV programmes that would not get made elsewhere.

And as well as filling market gaps, the BBC and the commercially funded public service broadcasters still manage to tie together British audiences around shows that are watched by millions at the same time.

Technology is inevitably undermining that role. Younger audiences barely watch live TV. Many don’t watch any content produced by the broadcasters that dominate TV (at least, that is, until it is available on Netflix).

But while BritBox is a sensible response to those changes, it also marks an acceptance that the broadcasters, once so central to the lives of everyone in the UK, will soon be just another option among a sea of streams.