ITV CEO Carolyn McCall has stressed the Britishness of its new SVoD joint venture with the BBC, BritBox, due to launch in the UK later this year.
Speaking to the Broadcasting Press Guild this week, McCall covered a wide range of topics, including the uncertain advertising climate sparked by Brexit, comedy and digital news.
On BritBox she said, “The thing that’s going for BritBox is that it’s not American content, it’s not Starz, it’s not Showtime, it’s not HBO, it’s not all that [stuff] you are getting on Sky, you are going to get on Apple,” she said.
“It’s about the British consumer and about British content.
“This is distinctively British-originated content. It’s highly differentiated.”
The platform will only be commissioning from UK producers although she said that complex negotiations over rights and windowing were inevitable.
For BBC-owned content, BritBox would be the second window following iPlayer, according to McCall.
On rights clearances she said a lot needed to be done, “which was partly why this had never been done before.”
She added: “If it was easy…This is difficult to do because we’ve [ITV and the BBC] both got content rights all over the place.”
It was, however, vital that BritBox secured these rights because of the huge demand for PSB content in the U.K.
BritBox would not compete with Netflix head-on. “I have never said we are going to compete with Netflix,” McCall added. “Netflix’s model is so different to ours; Netflix’s ambition is so different to ours.”
The original content for BritBox would be a “bit bolder, more radical and different” than ITV’s schedule.
McCall stressed that the platform did not intend to spend large sums securing high-profile writers and showrunners. “We can’t afford to do what Netflix does with [the likes of] Shonda Rhimes. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe there are other more creative ways.”
Key to BritBox’s success would be retaining subscriber loyalty via a mix of original shows and smartly curated archive programmes.
Apple’s plans for its own streaming service announced this week would have no impact on the plans for BritBox although ITV Studios was already discussing making shows for Apple.
The biggest challenge for the service was acquiring new customers and keeping them.
“You keep existing subscribers by filling the funnel all the time,” said McCall. “And giving them interesting things to watch that they will come in for. The hardest bit is retaining them by constantly creating and offering things that are part of your library.”
As Friends was one of Netflix’s biggest shows, McCall said she hoped that content like Only Fools and Horses, Line of Duty, Endeavour and Inspector Morse would do a similar job for BritBox.
She pointed out that it was not always the most expensive dramas that proved popular with viewers – name-checking ITV stalwarts like Vera and Endeavour. “Quality and cost don’t always correlate,” she said.
One similarity with Netflix will be that ITV will not share viewing data for its new service. BritBox is likely to also involve Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Turning away from BritBox, McCall said she wanted to increase ITV’s appeal to light TV viewers – already up by 4%, she claimed. “There are 15 million viewers who don’t come to us as often as we'd like.”
On the challenges of the advertising market the ITV CEO said: “2019 is about mitigating the kind of economic uncertainty” caused by Brexit. “We don’t have to change our business model because of Brexit but we do have to keep a very close eye on what’s happening to our clients.”
She said advertisers required certainty so they can plan ahead for the next three to five years.
“Clients are still spending money. We are still growing advertising from some categories such as telecoms, online businesses and travel.”
But overall advertisers were pausing and investing in contingency plans. “They are being very, very cautious,” she said. As a result advertising revenue for ITV’s first quarter was predicted to be down by 3-4%.
She had already announced more money to beef up ITV’s approach to data analytics and technology, something beginning to pay dividends.
“It would be true to say that ITV is in catch-up mode on that. Part of that £40 million investment that I announced last July in ITV was in that area alone. You can already see benefits on the Hub… We can now do more personalisation.
“For me coming from EasyJet, this was all pretty bog standard. I started doing that in 2010 at EasyJet because it was such a massive win for us.”
There has been speculation that ITV is retreating from commissioning comedy but McCall denied this.
“Let me be clear…What Kevin [ITV’s Director of Television Kevin Lygo] was saying is that it’s really hard to get comedy on ITV 1 because of the expectations of attracting a mass audience.
“Finding comedy that attracts four to five million plus is very difficult to do because comedy tends to be quite niche.
“It’s not that he’s not going to commission comedy, it’s not that comedy isn’t important. On ITV 2 we have Plebs [and] Timewasters and they are working very well for us.
“Even if you think about Fleabag, you’d think it was reaching eight million people and it’s not. It’s doing perfectly well but it’s a million consolidating up to two and a half million…
“We have to make a return on our comedy. We can’t have a show on ITV 1 doing two million.”
One area where she thought ITV needed to raise its game was digital news.
“I’d like us to do a better job online with news. I don’t think we do it justice. If you look at our app, it’s a very old app. It doesn’t do what we do any justice at all.
“So I’d like to see that change and I’d like to see us doing more online for news than we do right now.”