BritBox to launch in 25 more countries as ITV and BBC take on the streaming giants
Reemah Sakaan speaks to Ben Woods about her plans to take the joint BBC and ITV venture worldwide
ITV and the BBC are ramping up an international expansion of their streaming service to cement Britain’s position in a market dominated by Netflix.
The broadcasters are planning to launch BritBox in up to 25 new countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa. The subscription service – funded equally by ITV and BBC Studios – has amassed more than one million subscribers in America and Canada since 2017.
BritBox was launched in the UK last November and costs £5.99 a month. It features an archive of British shows from ITV, the BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5, including Doctor Who and Downton Abbey.
Carolyn McCall, ITV’s chief executive, said the rollout would give BritBox “truly international scale” and firmly establish the service as a premium global brand. But analysts have questioned whether it can compete with the financial power of Netflix, which has mounted a debt-fuelled push into 190 countries.
Netflix is estimated to have spent $15.3bn (£12bn) on original programmes last year. BritBox will receive £40m from ITV this year for running costs and new content, but it will also be fed shows made with ITV and the BBC’s near-£3bn programme budget after they have appeared on terrestrial television.
BritBox has already announced plans to launch in Australia this year. A slate of original TV has also been commissioned for the UK service, which is majority funded by ITV.
That includes a new series of the satirical puppet show Spitting Image and a string of British dramas.
Reemah Sakaan is a little distracted. A vacuum cleaner has fired up in another room and is threatening to drown out the conversation. “Hold on one minute,” says the boss of BritBox, as she mutes the Zoom call and disappears off-camera.
Sakaan warned this would happen. She had been flitting between homes in New York and London to oversee the international growth of BritBox, the joint subscription streaming service from ITV and the BBC – then the coronavirus crisis upended international travel and she was forced to rethink. The 45-year-old decided to ground herself in the UK, but shift from her London flat to the coastal village of Sandgate in Kent.
On the day of the interview, cleaners are ferreting around her loft apartment in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross, as she prepares to move. “For the first time in my life, I don’t need to be near an airport or close to the office,” she says. “So I have decided to rent a house on the beach for six months until things settle down.”
A few meditative walks on the coast may help steel Sakaan for the months ahead. After launching in the UK last November, BritBox is scaling up.
A slate of original programmes have been commissioned to woo subscribers to the £5.99-a-month service, which offers an archive of British shows from ITV, BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Satirical puppet show Spitting
Image will return for a new series in the autumn, followed by a string of British dramas including A Spy Among
Friends, an adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s best seller starring Dominic West and Damian Lewis; Crime, based on the novel by Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh; The Beast Must Die from Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free; and
Magpie Murders, a murder mystery based on the novel by Anthony Horowitz.
Ushering these shows through production during a pandemic will be tricky on its own, but Sakaan has even more to contend with.
Having taken BritBox into America, Canada and the UK, she will launch in Australia later this year, before pushing into up to 25 more countries and territories. The move will make BritBox a truly global service, bringing it to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and European countries such as the Nordics.
The plan is bold, but can it silence the chorus of doubting voices? Some analysts and investors fear American streaming giants, with their colossal programming and marketing budgets, will outmuscle BritBox. Netflix spent $15.3bn (£11.6bn) on original programmes in 2019. This year, BritBox will get £40m from ITV for running costs and new shows. It can also draw on programmes funded by ITV and BBC’s near £3bn programming budget – but only once they have appeared on terrestrial television first.
Making a direct comparison between BritBox and Netflix disrupts Sakaan’s easy charm with a flicker of irritation. She denies BritBox cannot compete, branding it silly to compare Netflix’s business in 190 countries with hers in just three. She adds, bullishly: “Yes, we can win at being best of British; yes we have a rightful place in the world of streaming; and yes, it is a future lifeline in the digital transformation of both broadcasters.”
Sakaan believes BritBox will be able to operate differently by drawing on the might of the ITV and BBC archives, along with access to the broadcasters’ studio businesses. She points to A Spy
Among Friends as an example, a project which came to BritBox through Patrick Spence, the ITV Studios producer. “Having a direct line into those studios is different from other streamers, which are hustling for business all the time,” she says.
BBC and ITV need BritBox to succeed. The BBC is facing political pressure over the future of the £154.50 annual licence fee. ITV, Britain’s biggest free-to-air broadcaster, is suffering from an advertising slump caused by the economic tumult of the coronavirus crisis. Both broadcasters are grappling with the existential threat to terrestrial TV as younger viewers flock to streaming services, social media and video games.
BritBox is not meant to be “the panacea for all ills”, Sakaan says, but it will help to put ITV and the BBC’s shows on app stores where younger viewers can find them. “In pay TV, the BBC and ITV have less than half a per cent of the total market,” she adds. “BritBox is just new revenue, which is diversified outside of advertising. We are here to grow to an adequate size and get a good return on investment.”
Ironically, Covid-19 has given BritBox a leg up. Streaming services have been a rare beneficiary of the lockdown as workers spend more time at home. Disney+ added 3m UK subscribers since launching on March 24, according to Enders Analysis, an independent media specialist. Sakaan says the total number of people taking BritBox’s one-month free trial had been “buoyed a little by Covid-19”, prompting her to revise up expectations for the year. While it will take time before BritBox’s success can be judged, Sakaan’s leadership is already attracting praise. Tony Hall, the BBC’s outgoing director general, says: “A lot of people thought – due to historic rivalries – that BBC and ITV would struggle to work well together.
“But she has made the BritBox experience a great one – not just for the consumer, but for everyone.”
Sakaan’s idea for the service grew from the ashes of a project in 2007 to create a joint streaming service between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Codenamed Kangaroo, the service was torpedoed by Britain’s competition authorities on the grounds it would be too powerful. It was a misstep, which opened the door to Netflix’s domination.
When Sakaan approached the BBC’s commercial arm BBC Studios to rekindle the idea in 2016, they agreed to form a 50:50 venture in America. BritBox had attracted one million subscribers across the US and Canada within three years, a success which saw ITV plough in the majority of funding for a UK sister service.
Claire Enders, of Enders Analysis, says the way Sakaan set up BritBox was excellent because she did not over-promise and under-deliver. “She has a poised and appropriate approach to what she is doing,” Enders says. “She is the one woman who I see as the future director general of the BBC.”
Sakaan was born in Aleppo, Syria. Her father was a Syrian Muslim civil engineer who met her mother, an Irish Catholic nurse, while they were studying in London in the Sixties. Her two older sisters were born in the UK before the family returned to the Middle Eastern country. Sakaan says the “burgeoning, amazing, fun, culture” the family experienced in
‘The BBC and ITV have less than half a per cent of the total market. We are here to grow and get a good return on investment’
Aleppo is a stark contrast to the war-ravaged city of today. In the Eighties, Sakaan and her immediate family left Syria and moved to Memphis, Tennessee in America. Her aunties and cousins remained and were forced to flee to Sweden, Germany and Egypt when war broke out – although some have returned.
Sakaan eventually set down roots in London when her father set up a builders’ merchant. After studying business at Bath University, her first jobs were in marketing with consumer goods giants Reckitt Benckiser, Diageo and General Mills. Her foray into media came later when she returned to the UK following a stint in Australia.
She joined the BBC as a marketing manager for digital platforms in 2005, rising through the ranks to take senior roles in marketing with BBC One and ITV. Two years ago, she was made ITV’s group managing director for streaming video on-demand.
With her shock of wavy dark hair and gold palm tree necklace, Sakaan is relaxed and thoughtful, with a playful sense of humour. Yet her warmth does not hide her determination and sense of purpose. When asked if she wants to be the next chief executive of ITV, she is honest: “I have loved the fulltrain-set job [of running BritBox] and it is hard to not want to do that next. I love big creative media organisations, so why wouldn’t I want to?”
Sakaan can ill afford to think too much about the future. The challenges facing BritBox are ever present. ITV and the BBC are urging communications regulator Ofcom to curb the dominance of American streamers in coming months by guaranteeing British broadcasters prime spots on catch-up TV menus.
The Black Lives Matter movement is also prompting profound change, too. Sakaan has created an audit panel with executives from the black community to reassess racism, sexism or homophobia in BritBox’s archive.
Some shows have already been removed, while others carry disclaimers and warnings. The reviews will take place every three months, but it is a delicate balance which may attract criticisms over claims of cancel culture. Last month, BBC-owned streaming service UKTV was forced into a U-turn and reinstated the Fawlty
Towers episode The Germans – best known for the line “don’t mention the war” – which had been removed days earlier due to racism fears.
When the lease comes up on her coastal home in six months, Sakaan will have clearer idea of BritBox’s future.
With original shows in train and a plan to break into more countries, the streaming platform can start to stretch its legs. Only then will ITV and BBC learn if it is capable of keeping up with the pack, or whether the streaming race has already been won.
Reemah Sakaan is adamant in her belief that BritBox can flourish, despite the pressures of other streaming services such the likes of Netflix