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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - By

Ben Woods

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

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