IN 2007 the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 agreed to start a streaming service that would combine their programming into a tempting offer for the British public. Called Project Kangaroo, it was innovative for the time and probably would have done well—Netflix was just a pup back then, available only in America. But regulators squashed the venture on worries it would stifle competition.
On February 27th the BBC and ITV announced they were bringing the idea back. BritBox, a streaming service they already offer in North America, will begin service in Britain by the end of this year with shows from both programmers, such as “Broadchurch” and “McMafia”. Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, will review the proposal, but officials there have been encouraging just such a venture. There is no fear now that a British streaming service will stifle competition; Netflix has 10m subscribers in Britain, and Amazon 5m. The question is whether BritBox can hope to compete.
“Neither party sees this as a Netflix killer,” says Claire Enders, a media analyst. But the BBC and ITV probably felt they had little choice but to try to launch a streaming service, because that is where the audiences are. Viewership of TV channels is on the decline. In January 2010 the average Briton watched 30 hours of TV a week; this January that was down to less than 24 hours, according to Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, which tracks such data. Viewership of the BBC and ITV’s flagship channels declined even more sharply.
Nor can the BBC and ITV count on global streaming services to continue serving as repositories for many of their shows. Netflix is expected to cut back on its licensing arrangements with British broadcasters as it makes more of its own programmes. If the BBC and ITV can develop BritBox as a viable platform, and possibly bring it to other territories, that could open up new revenue streams.
But attracting subscribers will be a challenge. Any British household with a television must pay a licence fee of £150.50 ($200) a year, which funds the BBC. The BBC’s free iPlayer service provides on-demand access to BBC shows. Many households also pay for Sky, Netflix, Amazon or all three. There may be little appetite for another service.
The BBC and ITV argue that their combined back catalogue of decades of British programming makes their offer distinctive. They also say the service will be priced competitively (analysts reckon £4-5 a month). But they will spend tiny amounts on programming for BritBox—tens of millions of pounds a year, versus Netflix’s billions. That will not be enough to draw a crowd.
The BBC does have one asset to lure subscribers, if it chooses to make use of him: the Doctor. Britons cannot yet stream the first 26 series of “Doctor Who”. Those classic episodes are available on BritBox in America and Canada. Perhaps the Doctor and his Tardis will materialise on BritBox back home.