So, sayonara then, BritBox UK

So, sayonara then, BritBox UK


While the international iteration is said to be keeping its head above water, the tea leaves don’t look good for the UK version.

ITV’s vaunted ‘More Than TV’ strategy kicked off its second phase with the announcement of new streaming service ITVX which will replace the much-criticised ITV Hub.

Despite healthy revenue increases posted in 2021, the market appears unconvinced that ITV’s plans will succeed in dramatically expanding the broadcaster’s online business.

Certainly, to the extent of becoming a viable challenger to the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, notwithstanding the optimism of ITV’s press releases.

ITVX’s stated originals budget sounds generous at £180m, but when you realise that a single episode of Netflix’s The Crown costs £9m+, it doesn’t really amount to much at all.

This becomes even more apparent when the publicity accorded to ‘new’ ITVX commission A Spy Among Friends (starring Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce) had already been proclaimed late last year as a BritBox original.

Shades of UK government funding shell games (re-announcements a popular favourite) and strategising on the hoof.

ITV’s Kevin Lygo (managing director of media and entertainment) and Rosemary Newell (media and entertainment director of content) are looking to push sci-fi and comedy as key elements of the new service.

The glib response to this would be that the pair better hire people with experience in commissioning hit content in these genres, as otherwise they could end up with flops along the lines of ITV’s dismal Prisoner reboot (2009), single-season teatime fantasy dramas Jekyll & Hyde (2015), Demons (2009), Beowulf (2006), and excruciating ‘meta’-comedy Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper (2008-9).

Which brings us to BritBox UK.

While the international iteration of the British classic TV streamer is said to be keeping its head above water, the tea leaves don’t look particularly good for the UK version.

With ITVX nabbing A Spy Among Friends, one wonders whether other originals on the BritBox slate may end up migrating to the mothership when ‘folded in’ to the new service, foreshadowing an ITV Encore-style swift consignment to oblivion.

In 2021 BritBox UK lost £61m, which ITV said was ’in line’ with its £55m to 60m expectation.

Forgive my pedantry, but £61m is actually £1m above the broadcaster’s forecast.

It’s eminently arguable the UK ever really needed a ‘Classic British’ library pay streamer, anyway, considering the wealth of free archive shows available free to watch on TV and online.

BB’s originals were both too unfocused and few and far between to ever make much of a difference, again a mistake that ITV should already have learned from their experience with Encore, where new commissions dribbled onscreen months after launch.

Hobbling the channel with the Encore name didn’t really lead viewers to expect new exclusive shows either.

Like Encore, BritBox’s debut was stymied by the lack of splashy headline grabbing originals at launch; decent (and less so) dramas such as The Beast Must Die and Crime tended to disappear into the streaming ether, whatever their merits.

Some, like the inferior remake of Belgian criminologist sleuth Professor T, turned up on ITV a few months later, considerably reducing the exclusivity factor.

Despite being canned by ITV back in 2019, BritBox revived Jane Austen-inspired Sanditon for a second season, which according to reports will be sexed-up in the vein of Netflix’s global success Bridgerton.

Considering the likely fate of BritBox UK, the show will rather anti-climatically (sic) debut on the service later this month.

Sadly, over the years, far too many of ITV’s new ventures end up coming a cropper, often due to a lack of a clear vision, and an unfortunate habit of nickel-and-diming, generally launching channels and services on the cheap, which usually resulted in heavier losses than if properly funded at the planning stage.

These lemons include ITV Digital, ITV Play, The ITV Sports Channel, The Store, Merit, ITV Box Office, The ITV News Channel, and ITV Select.

And, in acquiring Friends Reunited, one instance where ITV actually decided to splurge some cash.

FR was procured for the princely sum of £175m in 2005, flogged for £25m in 2009.

Of course, there are exceptions to this litany of misfires, most recently female-skewing channel ITVBe, which is still with us, but more importantly in terms of ratings success, ITV3 and ITV4.

Both of which your humble writer just so happened to create, launch, and manage.

Admittedly back in the days when Netflix was merely a DVD rental service, Jeff Bezos had yet to launch himself into space and the Penny Farthing was a common sight in British high streets.

In last week’s comment I raised some concerns about the senior management of Channel 4.

Sadly the news that chief content officer Ian Katz is still contemplating commissioning a documentary about disgraced actor Noel Clarke confirms some of my worst fears.

Back in January 2022 the Daily Mail reported that: “It is understood he (Clarke) could be given a producer credit and may have a financial stake in the controversial project.”

Katz commented to Broadcast last week: “We are a long way off taking a decision on whether to [progress that project]… But our willingness to even consider a film like that reflects the fact that we should be the channel that can be home to all perspectives on a story. Viewers shouldn’t come to C4 and know that they are always going to get one particular take on a story.”

Which must be galling for female employees at C4, some of whom may actually be tasked with promoting the show.

Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and has just completed his first novel.

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