The BBC is looking to kick out against the “crushing competition” of global SVOD services including Netflix and Amazon as it eyes a reboot of its aborted digital service Project Kangaroo and steps up its PR war against Silicon Valley.
It has emerged that the British public broadcaster is once again in talks with rival broadcasters including ITV and Channel 4, as well as Hollywood studio NBC Universal, to launch its own UK streaming service to fight back against the deep-pocketed digital players.
The move comes nearly ten years after Project Kangaroo, a planned video-on-demand between the broadcasters and the BBC’s commercial arm, was blocked by the British Competition Commission.
However, with Netflix now having over 8M subscribers in the country and Amazon Prime Video over 4M, and with the looming launch of Apple’s A-list original programming plans, the broadcasters are looking to bounce back.
This is merely the latest salvo in the BBC’s battle with its digital rivals.
BBC Director General Tony Hall has warned on a number of occasions that the broadcaster is struggling to compete on a global level. In March, shortly before the BBC admitted that young people are spending more time watching Netflix than all of its TV services each week, he said that it needed to “accelerate reform” as it faces a “David vs. Goliath” fight. He admitted that the BBC is “not the biggest kid on the block anymore.”
“We can see now, more clearly than ever, that the global media landscape is likely to be dominated by four, perhaps five, businesses on the West Coast of America,” he told staff.
The broadcaster has recently been sending some of its top programming execs out to echo these remarks. Last week, BBC Two boss Patrick Holland unveiled an ambitious slate of shows including dramas from Riz Ahmed and The Fall creator Allan Cubbit and documentaries from David Harewood and Vice Studios. He used the launch to take aim at the SVODs. “The titles I have talked about today could never have been commissioned alone by a Silicon Valley algorithm. You can’t write code that replaces human insight. We commission based on passion, on gut feel, on public service purpose,” he said.
This is a perfectly reasonable argument, although one slightly undone by the fact that a number of its projects have been co-funded by Netflix. As part of the slate, the two companies are working together on Project Interiors (w/t), a competition format set in the world of interior design, and Hugo Blick’s drama Black Earth Rising, which stars John Goodman and Michaela Coel.
In fact, these are just the latest projects that the BBC and Netflix have partnered on; recent co-productions include Toni Collette’s Drama Republic-produced family drama Wanderlust, epic period drama Troy from Kudos and Derek Wax’s Wild Mercury, Carey Mulligan’s immigration cop drama Collateral, and Giri/Haji, from Jane Featherstone’s Sister Pictures.
Former Kudos chief Featherstone used her BAFTA Television Lecture in October to warn that this co-production tap is likely to be turned off in the near future. “The SVOD’s are going to start ramping up commissioning of only fully owned original programs, meaning that they won’t need to co-produce any more. Why keep investing in shows where they don’t own the territory most likely to make that show a hit, it doesn’t make sense for them,” she said. “It’s already happening with The Crown and The Innocents, and I reckon we have a year or 18 months before the big FAANG players stop co-producing entirely, except maybe for very specific talent-driven content. With such deep pockets to reach into, why go through the hassle of sharing with traditional British broadcasters.”
It’s not just Netflix, the BBC is co-producing Michael Sheen and David Tennant’s Good Omens with Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ video arm has the first run to show the six-part series in the UK as well as the global rights.
The BBC argues that it is the creative originator of these projects, the incubator of ideas that also suit the SVODs’ global audiences. Which is fine, but by constantly bashing them, the BBC does risk alienating its partners and encouraging them to reach a bit deeper into their pockets to take all rights.
Earlier this year, one rumor doing the rounds was that Apple was looking to partner on Bad Wolf’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. When the tech company realized that it would be putting in the majority of the multi-million-dollar budget and the BBC would be paying less than £1m, it’s understood to have wondered aloud whether it could also take UK rights, a dangerous thought for the public broadcaster.
Talent is another major worry: Following landmark deals with the likes of Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes at Netflix and British writer and actor Sharon Horgan with Amazom, the concern is that Brits will follow suit.
Jeremy Paxman, host of BBC’s University Challenge and former Newsnight presenter, told the Financial Times this weekend: “It was testing enough when the BBC faced off in competition for viewers merely against ITV, a commercial channel that saw no crime in soap operas. Now it faces potentially crushing competition from American behemoths such as Netflix and Amazon, with apparently bottomless pockets.
“Could The Crown have been made by the BBC? Not unless you wanted a single horse to stand for the entire Household Cavalry and a State Coach made out of cardboard and sticky-back plastic.”
Whether it’s single horses or digital kangaroos, it’s clear that the BBC’s fight with Silicon Valley has only just begun.