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For BBC, ITV's new BritBox, diversity may hold key to Netflix challenge

When public service broadcasters ITV PLC and the British Broadcasting Corp. launch their joint streaming service BritBox later this year in the U.K., they will be competing head to head with incumbents such as Netflix Inc. on multiple fronts. That includes the thorny challenge of delivering the large doses of on-screen diversity that rival streamers are already producing, or risk both regulatory and audience disappointment.

The ongoing effort to increase diversity across public service broadcaster, or PSB, programming in general has yet to hit the mark, according to U.K. actor Lenny Henry, a prominent critic of the entertainment's industry's inability to produce shows that reflect the modern U.K.'s heterogeneous society. In June, he told a U.K. parliamentary committee exploring diversity at PSBs that most programs about black, Asian and minority ethnic, or BAME, people or about other underrepresented individuals lack authenticity or stick to "clichéd storylines," despite regulatory and broadcaster-specific targets.

But the arrival of BritBox in the autumn adds a new urgency to the PSBs' diversity drive as it goes head to head with subscription-video-on-demand providers that have made diversity part and parcel of their programming strategies.

Competitive landscape

The strategy at Netflix, for example, is to focus on reach rather than ratings, helping it develop a reputation among viewers for providing a broad range of shows catering to different audiences, said Marcus Ryder, a former head of BBC Scotland current affairs who spoke alongside Henry at the June hearing. He added that the U.S.-based company consciously makes a tradeoff, giving higher importance to winning new subscribers who want to follow a niche program than to big viewership numbers.

"A program can now be successful, achieving a large audience size, while still excluding large sections of the population," Ryder told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

He believes that adopting an approach similar to Netflix's at traditional broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV might take ratings-focused programming executives out of their comfort zones, but the reward would be a far greater likelihood of hitting, or even beating targets for diverse content embracing race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religious and ideological beliefs.

Both viewer and subscriber numbers show how fiercely competitive the U.K.'s streaming market is.

Having launched in the U.K. in 2012, Netflix has become the county's second-largest VOD, with 9.9 million subscribers. BBC iPlayer, in first place, is viewed in 13.4 million homes, while ITV Hub is third with viewers in 8.8 million homes.

By 2023, Ofcom expects BritBox along with new streaming services from Walt Disney Co. and Apple Inc. to attract 2 million subscribers each, reaching more than 5% of U.K. households.

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Digging into data

For BritBox, which has been running since 2017 in North America where it has 500,000 subscribers, gaining ground in the U.K. will require a fine balancing act between winning audiences and adhering to diversity-focused regulations while keeping control of its top and bottom lines.

In terms of hitting diversity objectives, the BBC and ITV say they are increasingly turning to data to understand how to build out their programming. But these efforts are a work in progress, and not free of controversy.

Both are using data captured through Project Diamond, a diversity tracking system launched in 2016 by PSBs and pay TV provider Sky Ltd. According to the Creative Diversity Network, an industry body overseeing Project Diamond, it is the world's first system cutting across a number of industries, including media and entertainment, that gathers and stores diversity information provided by individual respondents to ongoing surveys.

Its findings suggest that the entertainment industry is on the right track in some areas, while weak in others. Project Diamond's 2018 report showed that ethnic minorities, women and LGBT individuals were represented on screen at higher levels than their proportion of the national population, while disabled people were underrepresented.

PSBs such as ITV are now digging into that data across all levels of their organizations, beyond content to improve both on- and off-screen diversity. "We are starting to share data with our producers and with other areas of ITV to measure their progress [against] our stated objective to reflect the diversity of modern Britain," an ITV spokesperson said in an interview.

However, the broadcasters' use of this data has been frowned upon by critics, who say it is impossible to track diversity in a meaningful way through Project Diamond since it does not disclose individual programming data publicly due to privacy concerns, leading to questions about the strength of its findings.

Several industry groups including the Writers' Guild of Great Britain have boycotted the project. As such, 26% of the industry, or 44,000 people, have so far taken part in the voluntary survey-based program.


With or without the help of tools such as Project Diamond, the BBC and ITV have no shortage of reasons to find ways to make BritBox a diversity hit.

That includes benefiting from potential legal changes that would potentially boost PSBs' VOD programming on smart TVs and media players. In a proposal sent to the U.K. government in early July, Ofcom outlined a series of laws that would open new growth avenues for PSBs – on the condition, however, that the PSBs provide content aligned with the diversity requirements they uphold to maintain their operating license.

Potential diversity reporting laws and tax breaks for diverse programming are also being considered, according to Simon Albury, chair of nonprofit Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, who appeared before the parliamentary inquiry alongside Ryder and Henry.

The arrival of BritBox comes at a time when all broadcasters have their work cut out if they want to continue attracting viewers, particularly among the youth. Ofcom's latest report on the U.K.'s viewing habits showed that the total amount of broadcast TV, including on-demand content, watched each day by viewers between 16 and 24 years old fell to 85 minutes in 2018 from 169 minutes in 2010. The most-watched platforms for younger viewers were YouTube, at 73 minutes a day, followed by SVODs, at 47 minutes.