The TV streaming revolution has, so far, been dominated by US giants. Netflix, Amazon and Apple have deep, dollar-stuffed pockets and their influence is global. Now the UK has entered the market with Britbox. Compared to the heavily hyped Apple TV+ which launched last week, its arrival felt modest. So can this plucky new challenger be a serious contender, beating the flashy Americans at their own game?
BritBox was founded as a joint venture between ITV and the BBC as a way to cash in on their bulging back catalogues and get a toehold in the paid streaming market. Channel 5 later came on-board. When Channel 4 finally joined this week, it meant that content from all the main UK broadcasters would be available through a single platform for the first time.
Certainly, scrolling through the content, there is plenty to like and lots to flat-out love: period dramas such as Pride and Prejudice, Brideshead Revisited and not one but three adaptations of Jane Eyre (reader, I binged them); classic crime series such as Morse, Marple, Poirot, Prime Suspect and Cracker; sitcom favourites including Fawlty Towers, Only Fools & Horses and The Vicar of Dibley.
In the mood for a nostalgic David Attenborough or Michael Palin series? How about Jewel In The Crown, Boys From The Blackstuff or the original House Of Cards? Fancy snuggling up in front of classic British films, from Hitchcock to Carry On? Simply fire up BritBox and enjoy.
The BritBox name might sound parochial (and the logo looks like it was botched together by an intern with Letraset) but such shows transcend borders. We make some of the best telly in the world, so to many - both inside and outside the UK - Britishness is a selling point and a source of pride. BritBox boasts it is the “biggest collection of British box sets in one place”.
Priced at £5.99 per month for HD, multi-screen viewing, it’s comparable in price to its streaming rivals, with a free 30-day trial period. With such an illustrious archive, we’ve been crying out for a vintage streaming service in this country and BritBox ought to fit the bill.
However, teething troubles clearly abound, so it needs to get its act together fast. The rushed launch means there simply isn’t enough on there to make it feel like full value for money. As with any streaming service, there’s lots of filler (Celebrity Five Go Caravanning, anyone?). The Channel 4 fare won’t arrive until spring, with Film4 content added later next year.
The archive situation is particularly problematic. It hasn’t mined sufficient gems from the deep vaults of TV history (which may be due, in part, to the murky issue of copyright).
Sci-fi fans were abuzz at the prospect of Britbox holding all of the surviving episodes of the original Doctor Who for the first time on any streaming service, including the original 1963 pilot and animated recreations of missing instalments. However, it now transpires they’ll have to wait until Boxing Day.
BritBox can’t currently be used with Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire Stick devices, which seems daft. There’s no option to download and watch offline either, with plans to introduce this in 2020. It all smacks of a scramble to launch and an unspoken strategy to fix problems on the fly.
There’s also, of course, the thorny issue of the licence fee. Viewers might, understandably, resent paying twice for BBC programmes that they’ve already funded. New shows will still stay on the iPlayer for a time, but it is difficult not to feel hard done by.
Some recent BBC hits, such as Killing Eve and Bodyguard, aren’t on BritBox because they already have existing streaming deals in place. Conversely, other content - including Wolf Hall and the seven BBC series of The Great British Bake Off - will be exclusive to BritBox and unavailable anywhere else. Other archive shows that are currently on Netflix or Amazon will “come back home” to BritBox as deals are struck and contracts expire. It’s all about as clear as a moody drama with muffled sound.
Ultimately, there is a niggling feeling that us Britons are not getting a fair deal in the streaming wars. We’re somehow expected to shell out for endless new platforms on top of the licence fee and when you compare us to the US, it feels like we are forever playing catch up. Bafflingly, BritBox launched in the US two years ago and already has 650,000 subscribers there. Disney Plus launches next week in most countries but we still don’t know when we’re getting it. Meanwhile, HBO Max, home to much of America’s prestige programming, is an impossibility due to the channel’s ongoing deal with Sky.
BritBox might have potential but the streaming market needs to settle down and companies need to talk to each other, before it has any chance of being a success.