Michael Craig


British TV is finally joining forces to compete with Netflix, but what does this mean for the British audience?

The BBC and ITV have long been British television rivals - whether it’s Eastenders against Corrie in a battle of the soaps, or Pointless versus The Chase in midweek evening quiz shows, or a Saturday night tussle between Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor - there has often been little love lost amongst the two terrestrial broadcasting giants. 

Despite their differences, both broadcasters have come together to try and force themselves into the ever expanding streaming service market. Britbox - very recently launched as a trial - will cost £5.99 per month for the privilege of watching old broadcasts of BBC and ITV shows. The venture has been going on in the United States and Canada for a couple of years now, allowing expats a service to watch UK television shows soon after their broadcast back home. This does appear to have been successful, with around half a million subscribers.

The two do have occasionally been forced to work together in recent years, most notably on sporting events, to ensure that they defeat their subscription rivals. In 2015, BBC and ITV launched a joint bid to broadcast the Six Nations rugby tournament (previously the BBC had sole rights) in order to stop Sky from taking it away from terrestrial television. From 2021 onwards, at the expense of BT Sports, both broadcasters will also share rights to the entirety of the FA Cup.

But will this latest joint endeavour be a success? It seems hard to argue that Britbox will be able to compete with the streaming giants of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, the newly released Apple TV+, and the impending Disney+. All of these services charge a similar amount for access to their own catalogues - often a mixture of old and original material - and how many consumers wish to add perhaps a fifth monthly subscription onto their bills? People may also question why, despite the fact they pay a yearly license fee, they need to pay to access shows produced and shown directly through the BBC? There are a decent number of BBC shows that are on Netflix currently, such as Sherlock, Call the Midwife, and Bodyguard. 

There is also a distinct current lack of original content, something that the broadcasters say Brixbox will soon host. Building up a decent amount of original programming will take time, and it remains to be seen whether the paying public will have enough patience to hold out on Britbox for that long.

The BBC have justified the launch, stating that “with 44% of the UK claiming they are likely to subscribe to a new SVOD [subscription video on demand] service which features British content. Over half (54%) of UK Netflix subscribers claimed they would be likely to subscribe to the new proposed service. This would be predominantly in addition to their current subscriptions.”

It could, of course, be argued that Britbox does not compete with streaming giants such as Netflix, and that it can operate within its own niche corner of the streaming marketplace. 

Though with British television dramas having a strong cultural attraction for overseas viewers, such as Bodyguard and Downton Abbey, Britbox may well be able to thrive on its own. But what if it doesn’t? 

The question might as well be, “does it really matter?” Britbox is a fairly risk-free punt for the terrestrial broadcasters who own the vast majority of the material that they are putting on their service. They will not be forced to pay vast sums of money to obtain the rights to some of the best known television shows around.

It has also, at the time of writing, been announced that Channel 4 and Channel 5 will join the streaming service from next year. The British terrestrial broadcasters have united together to bring us the latest on-demand streaming service. The only question left to consider is whether the British public will unite around the traditional broadcasters in the new media age that we now come to occupy, and what the result of this collaboration between the TV giants-of-old will be in terms of content and price.

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