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Inside BritBox’s strategy to hold the streaming British TV crown

Audiences are subscribing to more streaming services than ever, and niche players like BritBox are on the rise to give you exactly what you want.

Inside BritBox’s strategy to hold the streaming British TV crown
Luke Evans (DCS Steve Wilkins) and Alexandria Riley (DI Ella Richards) in The Pembrokeshire Murders [Photo: Courtesy of BritBox]
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You love British TV—even if you don’t know it.

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For decades, British programming has enjoyed massive success in the United States, with breakout hits such as Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Doctor Who, The IT Crowd, and more. Even indirectly, British shows have influenced culture stateside. There are the oft-cited adaptations such as The Office, Veep, Shameless, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and Skins, where both versions usually coexist in their fandoms.

But then there some shows so rooted in Americana, it’s easy to forget they too were based on or inspired by British shows: All in the Family (Till Death Us Do Part), Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son), Three’s Company (Man About the House), and Cheers (Fawlty Towers).

Whether it’s the shows themselves or just the format and plot, British programming has a hold on American audiences—and niche streamer BritBox has been capitalizing on that.

As a joint venture between the BBC and ITV, BritBox launched in the United States in 2017 as the premier destination for British programming. Many speculated whether two TV titans from across the pond could collectively rival the likes of Netflix stateside—but that was never the intent with BritBox. Instead, BritBox was contending with other Anglophilic players such as Walter Presents and Acorn TV (a service owned by AMC Networks) both of which were already established with U.S. audiences.

Even within that specific category, BritBox is a standout, with more than 1.7 million subscribers internationally. At the core of BritBox’s success has been super serving an overlooked demographic of women 45 and older who, by BritBox’s measure, are heavily invested in mysteries and crime stories. “There’re a lot of [streaming services] out there who are trying to be all things to all people. That is not who we are,” says Emily Powers, EVP and head of BritBox North America. “We are very much trying to meet an unfulfilled demand for certain types of content to a certain demographic, and that’s been the key to our success.”

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Although there is a pernicious bit of conventional wisdom that the streaming giants will overwhelm more tailored offerings, there are many niche players owning their communities in a way that an everything-to-everyone service never will. The Criterion Channel caters to cinephiles; Mubi, even more so with a heavier focus on curation. kweliTV focuses on Black content. Shudder is for horror lovers. Crunchyroll is the destination for anime fans.

“It’s not so much a question of being one service,” says Seth Shafer, senior analyst for Kagan, the media research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. “It’s, can you make your way into that bundle every month that consumers put together?”

As it turns out, audiences are becoming more amendable to expanding those bundles. According to a study published in December, U.S. consumers now use seven video streaming services, up from five in April 2020. The increased willingness to tack on even more services has made for an ideal environment for niche streamers.

Emily Powers, Head of BritBox North America [Photo: courtesy of BritBox]
The streaming war already has its clear-cut winners in Netflix and Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, and Peacock continue to make moves. What to watch now is who occupies those five to seven slots, especially if the bump in streaming subscriptions dwindles as the pandemic dies down.

“That’s the big question,” Shafer says. “Are consumers going to be able to continue to support all of these multiple services on a month-to-month basis moving forward?”

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One way to capitalize on the momentum: create programming with broader (not alienating) appeal. Here’s how BritBox is making a strategic content play.

Living a life of true crime

BritBox relied heavily on BBC and ITV’s back catalog when it first launched in 2017. Having that direct link to licensing has been crucial to BritBox’s success. “They’re a little bit Netflix-proof in that regard,” says Shafer. He compares it to DramaFever, which specialized in Korean dramas but “was basically licensing all of its catalog and Netflix was able to throw a lot of money at Korean dramas,” he notes, which led to AT&T WarnerMedia shuttering it in 2018.

Adds Powers, “most of the other [streaming services] out there are taking content from TV networks or films that have been released in the theaters, and their only means of creating something unique is to invest in an original. We’re in a very fortunate position in that our pipeline of content from our parent companies has largely never been seen before.”

Using that leverage, Powers says BritBox can be more targeted in what originals they pursue. “We don’t have to throw ten things at the wall and invest hundreds of millions, or even billions, into originals like the big players are doing,” she says. “We’re able to be much more calculated about it.”

Joe Absolom (Christopher Halliwell) and Martin Freeman (DS Stephen Fulcher) in A Confession [Photo: Courtesy of BritBox]
Part of that calculation rests on Oscar-nominated writer-producer Jeff Pope.

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In 2019, BritBox announced a multi-series collaboration with Pope to lean into the platform’s mystery genre but give it a true-crime twist.

Pope’s forthcoming shows include The Barking Murders, starring comedian-writer Stephen Merchant as Stephen Port, aka “The Grindr Killer,” who claimed at least four victims he met on the popular gay dating app, and The Hatton Garden Heist, a retelling of a 2015 heist in London carried out by six elderly men.

“We’ve had some true crimes on the service in the past, but we’ve never created a bigger offering around it,” Powers says. “We have that flexibility to test different extensions to our core audience, because it’s very closely related to the British mysteries that they know and love, but obviously with a different spin.”

Conceivably, Pope could’ve taken these projects to more mass streamers. The Grindr Killer story certainly has wide appeal, as cautionary tales of dating apps are universal. The Hatten Garden job has already been adapted into three feature films. Add to that Pope’s credentials of being a British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) winner (Best Drama Serial, See No Evil: The Moors Murders) and an Oscar nominee (Best Adapted Screenplay, Philomena), and it would seem like a relatively easy pitch.

“There’s no question that Netflix and Amazon have deeper pockets,” he says. “But if BritBox continues to invest in quality, British drama, then that will be their hallmark. And that may bring an ever-increasing share of the audience to them. So I’m quite happy to be part of the birth of BritBox.”

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Old shows, new content

One of Britain’s most seminal dramas to surface in the United States in recent times has been Downton Abbey.

Most viewers stateside got hooked on the Crawley family saga via Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, which all licensed the show from ITV. Under new deals, Downton Abbey came to both Peacock and BritBox in 2020.

A goal for Powers this year is to figure out how to inject new life into legacy shows. One way has been to create ancillary content. Exclusive to BritBox is Downton Abbey Extras, a series of 10-minute shorts diving into the historical authenticity, costume design, writing, and other aspects of the show.

“It gives people a different perspective on something that’s known and loved,” Powers says. “With our series Death in Paradise, we’ve created cast intros to episodes where they talk about something unique about the show. It’s a way for both our existing audience to engage in a different way, but also for new people to become introduced to it. We’ve tested it out a few times and found that our audience is very responsive to it.”

Make ’em laugh . . . a little

One of the more challenging programming areas BritBox is looking to build out is comedy. BritBox has a healthy offering of well-known British comedies such as Absolutely Fabulous and The Office, and Powers is looking once again to leverage the privilege of being as calculated as possible in what kind of comedy to pursue.

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“British comedy is a tricky one,” she says. “It’s a pretty wide range of styles, formats, and audience. Something like that, we need to test out a lot more. There are certain comedies that should absolutely be part of a service, but others may be better suited elsewhere. For me, it’s very much a test-and-learn situation.”

Kenton Allen CEO, Big Talk Productions [Photo: courtesy of Big Talk Productions]
Kenton Allen, CEO of Big Talk Productions, currently has six shows on BritBox (not BritBox originals)—Mum, Living the Dream, Bliss, Cold Feet, Rev., and The Job Lot—that mostly skew as dramedies rather than out-and-out comedies or sitcoms.

Dipping more into dramedies could be the right move for BritBox as it seeks to find a comedy lane that’s a bit more grounded for its older-skewing audience. For Allen, having a partner with BritBox means he has an outlet to American audiences with programming, that, as he points out, is still discovering darker British humor.

“I don’t think that those shows would have probably found a home anywhere else at the point in which we started working with BritBox,” Allen says of his slate of programming on the service. “When BritBox launched, there really weren’t that many places in North America that would take British comedy. The world of Fleabag hadn’t happened. So to have a small, nimble [streaming] startup service opening up in North America that was framed around British content was extremely attractive.”

Additionally, because BritBox is smaller service, Allen feels as if his shows get a better push on the platform.

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“In the world of quality, not quantity, I’d much rather have 2 million dedicated fans of British comedy getting access to our shows, rather than it going out on a service with many more fans but the shows get lost,” he says. “If the show’s on BritBox, you know the show’s going to be taken care of and it’ll be properly promoted.”

Sheridan Smith (Mel) in Isolation Stories [Photo: Courtesy of BritBox]
As BritBox continues to ramp up its content slate, one has to wonder how a niche service of its kind would fare, say, if Netflix decided to double down on original British programming. The streamer has already seen tremendous success with shows such as The Crown and Bridgerton.

“Someone at BritBox could probably make an argument that [those show] actually help the company, because it surfaces greater awareness of that genre,” Shafer says.

And Powers did, in fact, make that argument.

“What excites me the most is that the addressable audience continues to expand,” she says. “The general appetite for British content has grown actually, thanks to the likes of Netflix. All that shines a light on British content for people who would have never even thought to look at it before. Every time that happens, that grows my pool of addressable audience. Once they realize they want to go to an environment dedicated to [British content], that’s where we step in.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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