Ofcom has called for UK broadcasters to come together to take on the competition presented by Netflix and other subscription streaming services.
The battle to be at the top of viewers’ watchlists is a very real fight that’s being waged in living rooms across the country, as audiences face a choice between not only what they watch but when they watch it, how long for, how much for and whether to stop watching it altogether in favour of browsing the web of social media.
With international streaming platforms increasingly looking to produce localised content that appeals to each market, Netflix has become a growing player in the UK industry, opening a commissioning base in London and holding talks for a long lease at Pinewood Studios. Years ago, the UK’s public service broadcasters worked on launching a joint streaming platform, dubbed Kangaroo, but the idea was blocked on the grounds of competition regulation. Earlier this year, talks reportedly resumed on the idea, but have not progressed significantly. With Netflix outbidding the BBC for The Crown, wooing Black Mirror from Channel 4 and stepping up its subscriber base, Ofcom has now said that UK broadcasters should come together to help weather the technological and commercial disruption.
Speaking to the Freeview/Digital UK conference this week in London, Sharon White hailed both Netflix and Amazon as “major investment partners for UK television”.
“Independent producers doubled their international revenue in eight years, through shows like Sherlock and Black Mirror,” she added. “And the studio arms of our broadcasters stand to benefit from this investment.”
Many companies, like ITV, are adopting a flexible approach, she noted, keeping exclusive content for its streaming service, but exploring production partnerships elsewhere.
“Every broadcaster will need its own strategy,” she continued, as they face choices of “whether to become a distributor, commissioner, wholesale producer – or a combination of the three”.
“But if the growth of Netflix and Amazon tells us one thing,” she concluded, “it is that viewers will flock to single destinations that offer a wide variety of quality content.”
“There has been talk of our PSBs combining their content – and pooling their appeal – through a single destination across smart TVs, phones and digital devices. That would require significant investment, shared ambition, and taking a chance on success. Our broadcasters would need to reconcile their varied brands, audiences and funding models. Some say it cannot be done. But many said the same of Freeview when it launched in 2002. Yet Freeview turned out to be the fastest-growing electronics product in UK history.”
Indeed, Freeview recently launched an app that brings Freeview to the online streaming arena, which will provide a TV guide and also aggregate catch-up services from the BBC (iPlayer), Channel 4 (All 4), ITV (ITV Hub) and Channel 5 (My5) for viewing on mobile devices. The app, which will be available initially on iOS devices from January 2019, though, is only a step towards the kind of collaboration and integration Ofcom is talking about.
“The iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 have tens of millions of registered users between them. A common platform could combine the pulling power of Broadchurch, Blue Planet and Bake Off,” said White. “It would make it easier for viewers to access content across a range of devices, with a single login. Sharing data could provide unprecedented insights for investors, commissioners and advertisers. It could place them at the forefront of the technological revolution that is transforming TV.”
“Nobody can question our broadcasters’ aptitude to innovate. But at the moment, they are taking different paths,” she said. “The BBC is planning more box-sets for the iPlayer. That could affect other broadcasters’ ability to compete, so the BBC must examine its impact properly and transparently. The BBC has shown its ability to form a successful partnership with ITV through their joint streaming service in the US – BritBox. One wonders whether a ‘Brit Player’ for the UK could take off, potentially running alongside their existing brands.”
White added that as the national broadcaster, Ofcom expected the BBC to “take the lead on forming such partnerships”.