The idea of the BBC and ITV collaborating on a new service is less surprising than it at first seems, since ITV owns some of the independent production companies that make the corporation’s biggest shows.
Nevertheless, the announcement of Britbox, a new streaming service jointly owned by the two of them and due to launch later in the year, surprised many in the industry – especially since they already have similar platforms of their own.
Britbox is planned as a bells-and-whistles version of the iPlayer and the ITV Hub, but it will not replace either. It will contain current programmes plus box sets pulled from the archive and a few shows commissioned especially for the service, all without adverts. Unlike the iPlayer, though, you will have to pay to access it. The fee has yet to be announced but the broadcasters say it will be “competitive”.
The competition in question is Netflix, which is already well established and viewable on the same devices as Britbox will be – phones, tablets, smart TVs and streaming sticks.
But the launch of Britbox will be something of a tectonic shift, since both ITV and the BBC currently licence many of their programmes to Netflix. Those shows will begin to migrate from one service to the other in the coming months, creating a quandary for many viewers of which of them to subscribe to.
The idea of a platform for exclusively British shows is not a new one. Britbox has been operating in the US since 2017 and is said to have half a million subscribers there. And back in 2008, the two broadcasters and Channel 4 collaborated on a joint streaming service called Project Kangaroo. But it never saw the light of day, because the Competition Commission vetoed it. A decade on, with Netflix having eaten their lunch, they find themselves playing catch-up.
Since Netflix pulls in content from dozens of broadcasters and movie studios, its range of content is far wider than either the iPlayer or the ITV Hub, and it is extended choice that is most likely to distinguish Britbox, too. You can expect programmes to be available long after they have disappeared from the regular catch-up services, and the BBC hopes viewers will come to think of it as virtual a DVD library. However, with no physical discs to put on a shelf and no guarantee of permanent availability, that may be a pipe dream.
There is also no word on whether Britbox will be an alternative to ultra high definition Blu-Ray discs. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime can deliver 4K content to your UHD screen and are often the most convenient ways to view it. With no mention yet of the same resolution on Britbox, its rivals may have the edge on quality as well as range.
And then there is Sky: it has the UK rights to many of the top American shows and makes them available on its own streaming service, Now TV, as an alternative to a full-blown satellite contract. On top of that, the corporation recently sold 700 hours of box sets to Sky, potentially shooting its new service in the foot.
So it’s a risky enterprise. The BBC is not allowed to spend licence fee money on Britbox, and Channel 4 has yet to decide whether to join the party. As the year goes on, ranges of products badged as “ready for Britbox” will likely start to appear in the shops, but the real question, of whether Britbox is ready for us, remains to be seen.