In a blog a couple of years ago (Trouble in Store, 4th November 2017) I bemoaned the demise of the BBC Store and the loss of the opportunity to “own” some important archival titles that need to be available, but which were actually snatched back from those of us who had purchased them when it folded. At the time, I quoted the BBC as saying: “the BBC is currently exploring ways by which archive programmes can be viewed” and “we do hope to make the programmes you could only get on BBC Store available elsewhere at some point in the future”. Well, here’s the latest news – Britbox isn’t it!
Actually, I’m not really sure what Britbox is meant to be at all, and I’m not convinced that the BBC or ITV are either – I suspect it is more about what it may become. As it stands, it is a rather feeble attempt by our two largest domestic broadcasters to enter the streaming market, which is not their natural home, using material which is pretty much all available on home video formats (and which anybody with a serious interest will already own). The oldest titles are from the seventies, but there aren’t many of them and they are the usual suspects (Fawlty Towers etc). Most of the material is much more recent. Rather bizarrely, if you click on “search by decade”, you find much more material set in the sixties and seventies (like Cilla or Life on Mars) than made in those decades.
There is nothing in monochrome (though early Doctor Who has been promised as a future feature), no plays by Dennis Potter (a key feature of BBC Store when it was launched and a particular lure to myself) and very little factual material of any great interest. It looks as if it has been thrown together in a hurry and sent before its time into the world. It may (just) make sense if it was available to the whole world (much as Netflix was attractive for its archive of American TV before it became a powerhouse of original production), but it isn’t – you have to be located in the UK to access it, though a US version has been available in North America for a couple of years. There has been very little in the way of marketing for Britbox on the BBC or ITV – maybe when Channel 4 joins in next Spring there will be a re-launch, though I doubt they will bring much more to the table.
The only immediate function it may come to fulfil, I fear, is to replace the broadcasters’ home video release operations, much as BBC Store seemed intended to do. Those who wish to have continuing access to the best current releases (beyond their catch-up windows) would thus have to pay an ongoing subscription for what they would previously have paid a one-off fee to have securely on their shelf, rather than depending on its continued availability online. And this would not be a new development, alas. Much has been said and written about the effect of Netflix’s move into cinematic production and its impact on the theatrical release of important works, most recently Scorsese’s magnificent The Irishman, which I enjoyed streaming just the other day. However, although this is an understandable concern, I am much more bothered about the absence of key titles from my DVD and blu-ray shelves than from the cinema, which is another, but less remarked, effect of Netflix’s exclusivity policies. My complete collection of Coen brothers films is incomplete without The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and my Scorsese collection would be similarly so without The Irishman. A glimmer of hope is offered by the welcome recent announcement of a special Criterion edition of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma in the new year, so maybe it will become a case of waiting and hoping that the niche collector’s market delivers the desired titles.
And maybe Britbox will be a waiting game, too. Perhaps it will expand its offer to include more archival classics, though that would still be no replacement for really “owning” the stuff. I’m certainly not prepared to maintain a subscription “just in case”, and even then I would have severe reservations about it. Only if it becomes the only way to access recent outstanding titles would I even think about it.
Of course, rights clearances and the associated costs and charges will be the ultimate factor. The rights to a lot of BBC and ITV material are already tied up by other streaming platforms, but will revert to BBC and ITV in time, in which case Britbox may look a better proposition. If it did become a success, then maybe the plan would be to clear those rights for full overseas access if the economic model was right, and then it may be a genuine competitor with Netflix, Disney, Amazon and the rest, but it is very hard to see that happening.
In the longer term, it’s existence may be linked to the future funding model and shape of the BBC and maybe even ITV, which has historically relied on a licence-funded BBC to protect its own sources of revenue. You can’t help but get the feeling that it is a desperate leap in the dark in the face of a highly uncertain future for both of them.
Finally, I should apologise for the slightly scatological title to this blog but, try as I did, I couldn’t come up with anything better. Actually, I really dislike the use of the term “box” to refer to television – it is dismissive and now outdated – and also the use of the term “box set” on streaming platforms which are actually denying us the possibility of getting some of the titles in a real box, so I’m not really sorry at all for the title. I am, however, for the generally “humbug” attitude of what I have written this time around. I promise to be more seasonally festive in the coming weeks (or, at least, to try).