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New exclusive content on Britbox: madness or masterstroke?

Readers of a certain vintage will likely remember Spitting Image. The iconic, satirist, TV puppet show aired between 1984 and 1996. It returned to our screens on the 3rd October this year, with the reboot featuring modern-day politicians and celebrities including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

Chances are you wouldn’t have seen much of it though, if at all. This is largely due to the main re-launch being exclusively aired on Britbox. With only an estimated 1% of the UK population currently having a subscription (YouGov Profiles), most of us missed out on the latex-fuelled laughs. A US Election Special Episode subsequently broadcast last weekend on ITV’s main channel – where the show historically ran – but the majority of new episodes have, so far, been shown in the subscription on-demand space.

It therefore, begs the following question …

Does the move by Britbox’s owners, including ITV, represent the start of a potential longer-term commercial conflict of interest with their core, linear TV advertising business?

Britbox had initially been marketed as the “Great Big Box of British Box Sets.” Promoting the likes of Doctor Who and “Great British Dramas,” the on-demand service positioned itself as THE treasure trove of old (sorry, classic!) British TV content from the BBC, ITV, and more recently C4 and C5.

Despite the obvious and more developed target market being North America, which makes up 86% of website traffic to Britbox’s website according to SimilarWeb, there has been more of a focus on the UK in 2020 (which incidentally represents just 1% of traffic currently). A Nielsen-reported £5m outlay on TV advertising alone, year-to-date, certainly backs up the fact they’ve been aggressively selling their wares to UK audiences trapped in their post-COVID home nightmares. Yet with so much of the golden-oldie content in general being readily available to “graze” on across linear TV, via Freeview on stations such as ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, Gold or Alibi, it’s not a surprise that the take-up in the UK has so far been relatively limited. Scheduling the returning Spitting Image on the platform therefore represents a major step-change. Britbox appears to be testing the water with brand-spanking-new content and pushing it front-and-centre via their marketing.

Whether it’s leading to significantly increased trialist volumes, and ultimately paying subscribers, remains to be seen. But if Google Trends data is anything to go by, the move certainly piqued the viewing public’s interest in late September and through to early October.

Spitting Image, even when shown on terrestrial TV, is never going to be a Bake Off or Love Island in terms of raw ratings delivery. But what if in the future the UK broadcasters, who also own Britbox, shift more new content directly to the subscription platform? Will this represent them accelerating the public’s changing behaviour and appetite towards even more on-demand services? Will they kill their linear demand and the ad-funded broadcasting operations at the same time?

 All Response Media viewpoint.

The simple answer is No. Broadcasters are certainly not stupid as to willingly cannibalise one revenue stream for another which may or may not yet turn out to be profitable! The more plausible explanation is that they are simply further hedging their bets on the future make-up of viewing. Yes, all things on-demand continue to grow at a rapid pace, even more so in 2020 as we’re all aware. Yet there is, and will continue to be, demand for linear services. Sometimes we just want to watch whatever is easy to find or doesn’t require scrolling through millions of options from our 101 different subscription services.

The decision to launch a show on, say, ITV or Britbox in the future, will likely come down to the pure commercials. Will the expected advertising revenue from Show X on linear TV be greater or less than the likely subscriptions uptake if shown exclusively on Britbox? Could the show be a short-term loss leader but help drive long term growth on the platform? Does the content sit right behind a paywall? In the case of Spitting Image, the commercial viewpoint was likely that, given the topical nature of the content, it would drive quick and immediate interest. You either watch it that week or not at all, it’s soon old news. Again, the Google Trends data certainly suggests it got some decent initial attention.

One suspects the testing exercise is providing the UK broadcasters with valuable learning before they even consider placing higher profile future shows exclusively on the platform. Spitting Image is likely to be the first of many more new properties scheduled for launch in this space. Alongside the broadcasters’ own individual linear and on-demand services, Britbox merely represents another route to market. As consumer habits change further, broadcasters will be more prepared to capitalise, wherever the demand may exist. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, ITV announced a restructure hinting at just such a strategy, creating a Media and Entertainment Division with two business units: broadcast and on-demand, the latter including oversight of Britbox from ITV’s perspective. Carolyn McCall, ITV’s CEO said: “Our new Media and Entertainment Division will enable ITV to continue to deliver mass, live audiences while investing in the future to create the sort of content and viewing experience that younger and other harder to reach viewers want.”

In summary, the decision to exclusively show Spitting Image on Britbox is, in itself, a relatively small event. Yet, it represents a marker by UK Broadcasters that they will back the venture alongside their wider operations. As a result, they hope to be better able to reap the future profits of viewer behaviour and certainly compete with the big  players from across the pond.

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