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Is BritBox International the missing commercial streaming catalyst for the BBC?

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by Tim Mulligan

Last Friday, ITV announced the sale of its entire 50% interest subscription video on demand (SVOD) service to its partner and fellow shareholder, BBC Studios (the commercial arm of the BBC). BritBox was Launched in in 2017 as a joint venture between BBC Studios and ITV. In March 2022, BritBox UK was rolled into ITVX for premium subscribers after ITV bought out the BBC’s share in the UK version of the service. For ITV, this transaction allows them to focus exclusively on ITVX, which remains domestic, and ad-supported, in stark contrast to the international focus of BritBox and BBC Studios. While the deal now provides both former partners with a clear streaming focus  going forwards (this is the first time that BBC Studios has gained sole control of a commercial streaming service), it does raise questions about what the next steps are for BBC Studios and its parent organisation, the BBC.

Stay niche or go mainstream?

While BritBox is widely considered to be successful, its footprint is still modest, with BritBox International announcing three million subscribers in February 2023 across the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. Subscriber growth in the year prior to this announcement was a modest 15%. BritBox’s strength (and its niche constraint) is its focus upon delivering British content for British drama enthusiasts in markets where pre-existing licensing constraints do not preclude launching, and where local populations are deemed favourably receptive to British culture. This makes for good niche SVOD strategy, but it sits ill at ease with the increasingly commercial ambitions of the BBC, constrained as it is by domestic funding limitations. 

Internationally, however, beyond the anglosphere and the Nordic’s, perceptions of the BBC’s TV output can be summed up by two key USPs: BBC drama and BBC News. Currently, outside of BritBox, the BBC licenses its drama for international streaming consumption, and its news services are only available as either linear broadcast feeds or via its website. Both have the potential to go mainstream internationally, with news potentially being the daily active usage hook for gaining new subscribers. MIDiA has previously covered the unique USP of news for video streaming engagement through its The Case for News in Video D2C Servicesreport. The global opportunity identified then, back in October 2020, is still untapped and arguably more relevant than ever before. And the BBC has a proven expertise and international brand equity already established in this space. It also has BBC World, which runs an international linear feed of 24/7 news to a 200 million plus global audience (and potential acquisition funnel for a news-centric SVOD service). 

Play safe or swing for the big result?

Ultimately, BBC Studios can choose to either modestly continue the growth trajectory of a strong niche SVOD brand, or alternatively, it can help deliver on the BBC’s aims of quadrupling commercial revenue ahead of the next UK TV-licensing review, by creating a mainstream brand out of BritBox International. Doing so will poses risks on a resource, licensing, and delivery perspective. However, continuing with business as usual as a niche offering in slowing Western markets also carries its own long-term risks. With Asia Pacific, the last great growth area for SVOD, the BBC would be well advised to closely review the rare opportunity afforded by gaining control of BritBox International.

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