It's mission impossible! Why BritBox will never rival Netflix

It's mission impossible! Why BritBox will never rival Netflix
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    One of the best offerings on BritBox – the new archive streaming site officially launched by ITV and the BBC today – is arguably the greatest single-series British TV drama ever made: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 1979 BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s espionage novel
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    But the opening of another digital bank of programming will confront even the most assiduous viewer with a new parody of the children’s counting song – Netflix, Amazon, Apple, BritBox, Disney, Why?

    Until sleep and work are abolished, finding time to watch all this stuff is one issue; another the financial outlay of around six pounds a month for each service.

    When it was announced, after years of delay, BritBox immediately faced two possibly ruinous obstacles. It was coming late to a market that felt owned by Netflix, and, having decided to exclude the multiple original dramas that are Netflix’s prime asset, faced difficulties even in securing rights to old BBC and ITV work, already snapped up by Netflix or Amazon, or available on in-house sites, BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub.

    A third common objection – that BBC licence-payers have already paid once for this stuff, so should see it for free – is preposterous. We cannot expect a single annual payment to confer viewing rights in perpetuity on all platforms, any more than buying a hardback book makes you eligible for a free paperback.

    Timing feels problematic too. It seems symbolic of the jostling in the sector that Apple TV+ managed to sneak in a week before BritBox. Still, at least the UK players beat Disney.

    Looking at the initial offering, ITV seems to have brought more to the table than the BBC, with one of the best dramas of 2019 (A Confession, starring Martin Freeman) and one of the most compelling of the past (Broadchurch) advertised as “BritBox Exclusive.”

    The few BBC exclusives include the comedy Him & Her and the Hilary Mantel adaptation, Wolf Hall. But for the Corporation’s strongest recent work – Line of Duty, Bodyguard, Call the Midwife, Peaky Blinders – you still need Netflix.

    This reflects a disparity in how the UK’s two oldest broadcasters make their shows. While almost all TV fiction is now created by independent producers, ITV owns most of its suppliers, under the ITV Studios umbrella, while the BBC effectively buys limited screening rights from indies who can deal with whichever streamers they want.

    For this reason, subscribers should look very carefully at the labelling. “New to BritBox” – not hard, as it’s only just launched – means the shows (Absolutely Fabulous, The Trip) can usually be found somewhere else.

    And on launch day, there were signs of how hard streamlining streaming rights may be. A Confession can be watched on BritBox, ITV Hub and Amazon Prime. All episodes neatly became unavailable on ITV’s own site at 23.59 last night, and were advertised on the newcomer as “BritBox Exclusive.” However, it is still available for purchase on Amazon, although admittedly at a much higher cost.

    The closest thing to new material is Lambs of God, a 2019 drama from Australia about Catholic nuns. How Brit is that? There will also be a chance to view two episodes of Midsomer Murders before they air on ITV. But as I wouldn’t watch them for free even if ITV paid me, it does not seem much of a lure.

    Because of the vast past achievements of BBC and ITV, the old material on BritBox already feels better value than the new shows on Apple TV+. As well as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, two more dramatic landmarks – The Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited – are also here, as well as every Doctor Who ever. BritBox will get more interesting, though, when Channel 4 joins next year.

    But, if the aim was to challenge Netflix, that mission feels impossible – until and unless British broadcasters can secure exclusive streaming licences for their own shows.

    As it stands, I’ll happily continue on the 30-day free trial, but have set a reminder to cancel before the £71.88 annual contract kicks in.
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