BritBox: Local Telly for Local People

One of the first questions raised by the announcement of BritBox, a new, jointly-created streaming service by the BBC and ITV, was whether this is television for post-Brexit Britain. It’s a question as polarising as it is potentially unfair.

BritBox is not a new creation, something the majority of common or garden readers probably do not know. BritBox is technically being imported after successfully launching as a service in the United States; it offers a selection of British shows from the modern day and yesteryear which are available separately from services such as BBC America, allowing American audiences the chance to dip their toe in the arcanum of staid British drama and quirky, offbeat British comedy. It is, to them, jolly old England neatly encapsulated.

You can see why commentators might suspect BritBox is the service the divided, post-EU Britain deserves. It doesn’t exactly sound the most cosmopolitan, stridently Euro-centric television proposal. It’s basically suggesting we kick off the 2020’s with access to bucket loads of Rising Dampand Dalziel & Pascoe.

In reality, BritBox is damage control. It’s both the BBC, ITV and probably soon Channel 4 looking over the next cultural hill and rather than seeing a land of broadcasting milk and honey, gazing more on a Mad Max-style barren landscape where Director General’s and corporate bosses scramble around for scraps of ratings under a skyline dominated by mega corps emblazoned with names such as Netflix and Disney. Britain’s historic two broadcast titans, who spent decades duking it out on the airwaves in everything from soap operas to film premieres to live sports, are now aware that their viewer base is, quite literally, dying off. Millennials are watching streaming services while Gen Z are barely off YouTube and half a dozen social media apps most people have never heard of.

The immediate future, however, will be dominated by the coming Streaming Wars, a conflict which has begun in the United States but will swiftly become a global conflict. I’ve discussed this previously, the coming battle for supremacy between four primary streaming services backed by billions of dollars who will be vying for monthly subscriptions based on their impressive existing IP and the capacity to bankroll major new projects from the best and brightest in Hollywood. Netflix currently sits on the Iron Throne with the means and infrastructure in place but Disney+ will be their most immediate challenger, boasting a significant storehouse of major content. Amazon, too, are growing in capacity and size with a number of quality, long-term drama series, a major incoming IP in The Lord of the Rings, and a range of sub-channels under their Prime subscription. Apple will soon be entering the game – indeed they are rumoured to be unveiling their streaming service plans in March, and they will boast major new shows from talents such as Steven Spielberg on launch.

What you have, therefore, are four major streaming services who will dominate American and European markets – and this doesn’t even factor in other outlets such as WarnerMedia, who could well also wade into the non-American market. We will likely see a ‘dip in, dip out’ culture of engagement with streaming services from consumers without the means to have four or five consistent monthly subscriptions on the bounce, but in the era of ‘peak TV’ and indeed where most of these companies are producing movies straight to their streaming services—even to the point Netflix are already talking up The Irishman, the next Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro collaboration, as possibly a streaming service’s first Best Picture Oscar winner—then you have a marketplace in which broadcast TV is rapidly becoming a distant and forgotten memory. If people have enough content to watch than they could ever get through just on their streaming channels, when or why would they ever watch broadcast TV again?

Both the BBC and ITV are acutely aware of how this marketplace is rapidly changing and have been for a while. Decisions such as turning BBC Three into a purely iPlayer based service, on which they debut shows with critical buzz such as CuckooThis Countryor the impending second season of Fleabag, are proof that they understand consumers of the target age and base for such shows do not sit down and watch TV at 8pm anymore. They might binge watch a season on weekends. They might watch sporadically throughout the day of half a dozen compatible devices. They want the content when and where they choose.

Yet both the BBC and ITV are still operating to outdated models of conventional broadcast, certainly for drama and comedy, for which the audience just isn’t there any longer. Sports and reality content have propped up these channels for several years now, since Netflix truly became the dominant force in British media consumerism, but even that bubble won’t last forever – Amazon has already cut a deal to stream Premier League footballand if that takes off, you can bet other services will get in on similar pie. They have far more money and resources to buy the sizeably priced rights to what for decades have been the BBC and ITV’s golden geese. Nothing, for them, anymore, is as certain.

It could be even more dire for the BBC. Ever since the British Broadcasting Corporation established it following WW2 in 1946, British citizens have paid a TV license in order to watch broadcast television at home. The license fee has been the staple of funding for the BBC for over 70 years, preventing them from having to make money from advertising, like ITV or every other broadcast channel whether terrestrial or cable. For years, a BBC with adverts would have been unthinkable but this could potentially be a reality if the license fee becomes untenable. Why would anyone pay such a fee yearly for channels they never watch? You don’t pay a license fee to own a television, you pay it to legally watch the content on the television, but if you only ever watch streaming services you pay a monthly subscription for, why would anyone pay over £100 a year to the government? It negates the entire point of the fundamental construct of broadcasting in Britain since television became society’s biggest media force.

BritBox, therefore, is perhaps an inevitability. It speaks less to our societal shift into flag waving nationalism, our desperate yearning to return to the days where all snooker players smoked in the middle of frames and everyone crowded around their living rooms to watch Duty Freeon a Monday night, than it does a growing desperation by the fallen giants of British broadcasting to survive. Remember, the concept of the BBC and ITV collaborating on *anything* for years would have been unthinkable. Even plans for a crossover between primary channel soap operas Coronation Streetand EastEndersonly ever happened during a weird Children in Need charity event one time. It is the media equivalent of mortal enemies joining forces to battle a common foe – in this case Netflix, at the outset, but the BBC and ITV are well aware if they’re entering the Streaming Wars, they’re going to need some serious weapons and powerful armour if they want to forestall a death blow from the bigger threats out there. The odds are firmly stacked against them.

Primarily because they will be asking viewers to pay more money for content that, historically, they would have gained access to either via Netflix, or even further back on channels such as UK Gold or even repeats on broadcast TV schedules. Going forward, you’ll be able to binge watch every series of Last of the Summer Wine(if you’re a serious OAP masochist) but it’ll be behind another paywall. You know how the first three series of Only Fools and Horsesare on Netflix? Say goodbye to that. They’ll be locked away on BritBox. Granted, the prices will likely be competitive to match Netflix’s cleverly cheap monthly fee (probably around £6.99 or £7.99) but the license fee won’t be going anywhere in a hurry just yet.

BritBox is a deliberate attempt to capture not the older generation who will stick with broadcast tradition until they die, but the middle aged and younger generations who either dabble in streaming for ease, or have completely succumbed to its charms, durability and megalithic content. Because if they lock those people behind the BritBox paywall, it will make the service much easier to grow into the sustainable major streaming force in the UK to keep the BBC, ITV and other channels dependent on public or advertiser funding afloat when, eventually, digital broadcasting goes the way of the Dodo. Which it will, almost certainly, in the next 10-20 years.

There are many questions still without answers. Where does this leave iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4 etc…? These remain free under the license fee and the BBC have already suggested some of their premium content—such as Doctor Who, for instance—won’t immediately end up on BritBox and go to iPlayer for a run first (expect that show to vanish from Netflix too by the way). Where is the incentive to stream BritBox if the content is purely historic? Or if some of the most talked about, premier league content is being held back in order to further justify the license fee? Equally, how exactly does BritBox work for the BBC in terms of the legal aspect? Can they legally charge people for content that has been paid for by the public license fee? Will BritBox have advertisements as ITV channels and such do or does the BBC’s involvement make that inviolate? These are big questions likely to be answered in time by the forces behind this streaming offer, this unprecedented alliance, but they are significant complications to BritBox launching and becoming the next major streaming force in the United Kingdom.

What BritBox is not, however, is some kind of streaming salve for the nationalist project underway in British politics and corners of society. It is not even the first time the BBC and ITV have flirted with this; in 2007, as streaming first began to rear its head, ‘Project Kangaroo’ attempted to stitch together both platforms as part of a nascent move into the streaming world, only for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky to complain to the Competition Commission that such a move would give the broadcasters an unfair advantage on what was, at that point, a pre-streaming playing field where Sky were doing pretty well, better arguably than they do now given their exorbitant, rising cable prices have steadily forced them into recouping viewers with such streaming affectations as NOW TV.

The world has changed. The players have maximised to the point that Netflix now has the balance sheet of some countries annual GDP. It is the era of the streaming mega-corp and traditional broadcasters are now chasing their tail. It is happening in the US with the major networks and BritBox is the BBC & ITV’s attempt to stymie its further dominance here. Will it work? That’s one for the ages. Netflix will be weakened by the loss of content previously licensed from companies now setting up shop themselves (Disney in particular) but they have the resources to attract the kind of British production talent that make shows like Black Mirrorwhile BritBox could end up being saddled withHolby City. They will need capital, an excellent PR campaign and some intelligent original works by talented creators (keeping people like Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the payroll for instance) to make a dent and pull some of Netflix’s built-in subscriber base, particularly as Disney+ will be pulling at them for attention at the same time, and will be particularly attractive to families and children. BritBox will be, immediately, the underdog.

Then again, it wouldn’t be British if it wasn’t the plucky fighter everyone – particularly British people – expects to lose would it? BritBox may not be broken on the starting grid, nor the paean of a nationalist agenda, but if there’s more of an apt metaphor for Brexit Britain than a streaming service for local people with one eye on our glorious past, good luck in finding it.W

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