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On October 3, streaming service BritBox released the first episode of Spitting Image, a revival of the classics 80s satirical puppet show. The series, which is currently airing every Saturday, has already helped BritBox attract a healthy number of new subscribers to the platform, which launched almost a year ago in the UK, and more than three years ago in the United States.
According to the company, the daily average rate of new subscribers increased ten-fold compared to the daily average rate of new subscribers before the show’s premiere at the beginning of October. “It’s been brilliant. It’s done everything that we hoped it would, which is cause a lot of noise in the marketplace,” says Will Harrison, managing director of BritBox UK. “It’s got everybody talking, and therefore talking about BritBox as well.” He says the metrics on new sign-ups have grown exponentially in the days since Spitting Image launched.
BritBox isn’t like Disney+ or AppleTV+, two other recent players to enter the streaming game. It didn’t launch with a slate of new original series. Instead, it was relying solely on entire boxsets of British classics such as Midsomer Murders, classic Doctor Who and newer ITV dramas to reel in subscribers. That strategy has paid dividends in the US and Canada, with the US version of the streaming service announcing that it has racked up 1.5 million subscribers as of this month.
However, BritBox’s success in its cultural homeland has been trickier to measure. The streaming service hasn’t released subscriber figures for the UK market, with Harrison merely announcing in September at the UK Broadcasting Press Guild that it was ahead of plan in terms of subscriber numbers. In March, ITV – which owns 90 per cent of BritBox in the UK – announced that BritBox had made a loss of £21 million last year, and forecast that it will lose between £55 million and £60 million in 2020.
“If you look at the way that BritBox went to market in the US and the way it’s formulated its content strategy, it’s very much about having access to British popular content for markets that don’t have easy access to it,” explains Tim Mulligan, head of video analysis at MIDiA Research. With BritBox, people in the US are able to watch soap operas or the latest episode of Love Island on the same day as the UK.
But in the UK, Mulligan says, BritBox isn’t offering anything unique that isn’t already available. It’s not uncommon for people to catch classic British shows on Freeview channels like UKTV Gold or similar, for example. Plus there’s the inherent conflict with existing catch-up services that make BritBox in the UK even less appealing. The BBC iPlayer retains content shown on the BBC for 12 months before going elsewhere, and ITV Hub retains content for 30 days before being set free on BritBox. Essentially, if you’re in the UK, you can watch a show that recently broadcast on TV for free on catch-up services, but you can’t watch it on BritBox.
In the UK at least, original shows made exclusively for BritBox could be the thing that propels the platform beyond old, classic television. It wasn’t until Netflix launched its first slate of originals with Lilyhammer, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black that it began to see its number of new subscribers rocket up more quickly, for instance. That is something which is now happening on BritBox thanks to Spitting Image.
The need for original content to drive success isn’t something that’s lost on Harrison. “We always planned to develop original content,” he says. “The job of originals is really to give you something to hang that acquisition marketing effort on. It brings people into the tent. And then your hope is once they’re inside the tent, they see all the wonderful other things you’ve got there, and they stay for a long time.”
BritBox UK is reportedly planning to release six new originals a year to keep people subscribed to the streaming service. Next year, the streaming service will be releasing four new shows exclusively onto BritBox in the UK, joining Spitting Image. These include revenge thriller The Beast Must Die, starring Cush Jumbo; an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders; an adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s Cold War thriller A Spy Among Friends; and finally, Irvine Welsh’s Crime, which he will be adapting himself.
While that’s an impressive slate of dramas, it might not be enough to keep up with the other streaming services, which are churning out tens of new shows every month of all different genres. “TV is a hits business, and you don’t know if something is going to work until it does,” explains Tom Harrington, a TV analyst at Enders Analysis. “If you only make a few shows, there’s going to be fewer chances to have that breakthrough hit.”
Still, Harrison admits that content at scale isn’t what BritBox is aiming for. “We don’t really measure ourselves against Netflix, to be honest. They’re playing a different game on a different level in terms of the size of the chequebook that they’ve got,” he explains. “So you won’t see us producing at that level. We’ll have a cadence that’s enough to hang our marketing efforts on and bring people into the service”.
The level of investment into the streaming service pales in comparison to other global streaming platforms such as Apple TV+ and Disney+, with ITV pledging to invest just £65 million into BritBox through 2020. Instead, a more suitable BritBox comparison to make might be to the Indian streaming service Eros Now, which has grown a large international subscriber base by appealing to the Indian diaspora around the world.
Eros Now hosts the largest catalogue of Bollywood films and shows, and is doing exactly what BritBox wants to do for British content: being a niche proposition that could appeal to Britons across the globe. With the US and Canada already ticked off, and Australia coming next, BritBox’s international path appears clear.
At home, it may find success by appealing to a different niche to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. One relatively powerful thing about BritBox is the kind of audience it’s attracting. In North America, former BritBox CEO Soumya Sriraman frequently emphasised that the streaming service’s audience was the over 45s, an audience that Netflix, nor Prime Video have been able to really crack.
And while the UK might be a harder market for BritBox to tackle, it will most likely continue to find success across the pond as it continues its international rollout. Originals will only benefit its prospects, both here in the UK and in other markets. “We’ve got this legacy because of our parent companies, of great British creativity and storytelling over the decades, and we have that all in one place, ad free,” says Harrison. “We think that’s a very clear space that we can own.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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