As international revenues for the UK’s TV production sector reach unprecedented levels, there is a battle brewing closer to home ahead of BritBox’s launch later this year, with trade body Pact claiming that producers have a “gun to their heads” over rights.
Major changes to BBC VOD platform iPlayer that see the 30-day catch-up window extend to 12 months have prompted a review of the public broadcaster’s programme release policy for VOD that could now see BBC-commissioned programmes that leave iPlayer land directly on BritBox, rather than being shopped around to other SVOD partners.
Under the new policy, the BBC reels back its standard 18-month exclusivity period for a programme to just 12 months, during which they will be on the iPlayer, followed by a six-month window where the content can be released to SVODs that meet four criteria – criteria that BritBox will surely meet, but which other streamers may struggle with.
The changes have led John McVay, boss of UK trade body Pact, to accuse the BBC of muddying the waters between the public service and its commercial interests as it nears the launch of its UK-focused streamer with ITV, leaving producers to pay the price.
“It is essentially a gun to their head,” said McVay of the proposed changes, which media regulator Ofcom has provisionally agreed upon while noting that they do not “create an unfair competitive advantage”.
TBI understands that the BBC’s rationale for the revised policy is to protect its investment for the licence fee payer while maintaining long-term relevance in the UK market.
A BBC spokesperson tells TBI that “BritBox will operate on commercial grounds as we’ve always said”.
“It will be an additional investor in the market, and there’s nothing in our approach that will stop producers getting a fair market rate for their content. It’s for producers and their distributors to decide who they want to sell to and on what terms.”
However, McVay counters that it will be challenging for producers to sell the content on in that six-month period because “no one else will qualify”.
The criteria call for a qualifying SVOD to “provide the BBC with data based on insight into the performance of BBC content” as well as “provide the BBC with a material degree of oversight in relation to the prominence, attribution, promotion, windowing and scheduling of BBC content on its service”, among other points.
Certainly, it is difficult to square the likes of Netflix, which is famously secretive about performance data on the platform, sharing this level of information.
The latest firestorm comes weeks after ITV began internal trials of BritBox, as revealed by TBI. The operational structure for the JV is such that ITV holds 90% of equity, with the remaining 10% held by the BBC, which is still able to contribute to the development of the “core purposes and strategic direction” of BritBox.
It also arrives just weeks after McVay last took aim at the BBC, accusing the corporation of employing “bullying and immoral” tactics against production companies as it looks to secure 12-month windows for iPlayer.
Domestic strife against international success
The domestic quarrels come as UK producers enjoy more international opportunities than ever before, as evidenced by Pact’s Census for 2018, which saw revenues breaking the £3bn ($3.7bn) mark for the first time.
Indeed, according to the latest figures, international revenues grew by 20% to £962m ($1.1bn) – a 90% increase since 2013, and due primarily to a 28% increase in primary international commission revenues totalling £704m ($868m).
What was, 10 years ago, a “purely domestic market” has now gone global, bringing abundant avenues for business, argues McVay. In other words: the buck doesn’t stop with the BBC and BritBox.
“British producers have other buyers,” says McVay. “If I’ve got a great show and I know I’m going to be stitched up financially working on that for the BBC, I can go somewhere else.
“[International commissioners] just want great stuff and they want great producers who can make it. The domestic market is really important to us, but it has to function properly for it to remain attractive.”