The BBC Store should emulate Netflix, not iTunes

The BBC has an incredible archive of programmes at its disposal and this week it took the first step towards making decades of content available to the general public at the touch of a button. The BBC Store is being run under the auspices of the corporation’s commercial off-shoot BBC Worldwide and has launched with a relatively small catalogue of shows available. Amongst the current selection, there’s everything from recent dramas like Peaky Blinders to older classics like Only Fools and Horses.

The BBC Store should emulate Netflix, not iTunes

Unfortunately though, while promising, I’m not sure if we can expect the BBC Store to be a success with the way it is currently configured. The reason is simple: The Netflix age has changed our perception of value, and the concept of ownership.

The problem is that to the seasoned Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video subscriber, the BBC Store is eye-wateringly expensive.

“A series of six episodes of Only Fools from 1990 will set you back £7.99 (a pound more than a month of Netflix).”

A series of six episodes of Only Fools from 1990 will set you back £7.99 (a pound more than a month of Netflix). Three series (30 episodes) of cult sci-fi drama Orphan Black costs an eye-watering £34.99 (five months of Netflix). Compared to a DVD or a Blu-Ray, these prices might appear reasonable, but this surely isn’t the calculation that the BBC shouldn’t be making. Now we can stream vastly more for cheaper, only the most hardcore of fans will be willing to sink cash into ‘owning’ a series, especially in digital-only form.

Even then, can you honestly say that even if you utterly loved Maid Marian and Her Merry Men in the early 90s, you would want to spend around 45 quid on the complete series when the same money would pay for six months of Netflix’s massive catalogue instead? Even if you would, Maid Marian might be a cult classic, but will we ever say the same about Great Irish Journeys with Martha Kearney.

The Weakest Link

Really, the BBC should have opted for a subscription model. And it makes sense to do so when you consider how streaming services bundle together different types of content into one package.

Let’s face it – though there are hundreds of TV shows and movies available on Netflix, only a very small proportion of them are any good. For every House of Cards or Daredevil there’s ten titles that if it were a physical store would be gathering dust at the bottom of the bargain bin.

The reason Netflix has all of this dross is presumably because of how content is licensed in packages rather than as individual assets. It is the same for traditional broadcasters too: Sky don’t really care about showing Ipswich vs Portsmouth on Sky Sports, but to get Manchester United vs Chelsea, they have to take it too. Sold separately, Great Irish Journeys, like The Tractor Boys’ underwhelming clash with Pompey, are going to be of limited interest, but when bundled with something popular it might actually stand a chance of being watched.

Netflix is a great business model for this sort of thing because once you’ve paid up, you’ll still keep watching because the inferior stuff is a sunk cost. In other words, you’ve already paid for it so you might as well enjoy R.I.P.D after you’ve finished Orange is the New Black. The extra stuff adds value to Netflix’s offering, so you feel like you’re getting a better deal, there’s no real cost to Netflix to acquire it, and the value of the content is being maximised to the fullest extent possible. Everyone wins.

“For every Sherlock that someone might pay for, there’s a thousand episodes of Bargain Hunt that nobody really cares about.”

And this brings me back to the BBC. Think about its catalogue of programmes. For every Sherlock that someone might pay for, there’s a thousand episodes of Bargain Hunt that nobody really cares about. In fact, currently on the BBC Store there are 249 episodes of the latter available at £1.89 a pop. If you’re really devoted to celebrating the show by doing the exact opposite of what the title suggests (ie: not getting a bargain), you can splash out almost £500 on the lot. That’s the equivalent to six years of Netflix.

4.3 million people in the UK use Netflix (and this is no doubt a low-ball estimate as many more people will share accounts or watch together). Owning stuff is falling out of fashion. And this is why a subscription model would make more sense in the long run.


Only Connected Devices

Streaming rather than purchasing could also help the BBC dodge bullets if the BBC Store isn’t so successful. If a show is removed from Netflix or Amazon as per licensing requirements, though it is annoying (I was half way through a West Wing binge, Amazon!), with a subscription service, there is an implicit understanding between the customer and supplier that it is a temporary arrangement.

“By selling content like this on an individual and pseudo-permanent basis, the BBC is locking itself into providing the Store platform forever.”

Though the BBC Store’s terms and conditions clearly explain that your £7.99 purchase of a series is only technically a “license”, I suspect such the removal of your purchase would be felt much more. So by selling content like this on an individual and pseudo-permanent basis, the BBC is locking itself into providing the Store platform forever, whatever technology changes throw at it – or it is merely storing up a consumer backlash when it shuts down the store in 5 years time.

When considering future proofing, making the BBC Store a subscription service would simply be more durable. And due to the unique way the BBC is funded, it would also provide an insurance policy on the future of the BBC in its entirety.

Flog It!

As much as it pains me to say it as an enthusiastic supporter of the BBC and the license fee, given changes in technology and the current hostile government, the current funding model for the Beeb probably doesn’t have long left. In the medium term, it is likely that the BBC’s ability to shake down every household for cash will be taken away.

Having a subscription system in place, along with the payment and technical infrastructure in place would at least make transitioning into a broadcaster funded entirely by voluntary subscription revenue slightly easier. So when the axe inevitably falls on the license fee, the BBC would already have a pool of paying customers, and would already be able to handle new subscriptions. This would put it in a far better position to make forecasts about its future income than selling content piecemeal, and it would make subscribing viewers more loyal in the process thanks to the sunk costs described above.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC has already considered this. I suspect that this argument has been made internally, but it hasn’t been done yet for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, rights issues may apply differently to individual purchases (a lot of BBC stuff is available on Netflix and Amazon – though it is unclear whether it is on an exclusive basis or not). But this could be overcome either through new negotiation or waiting for licenses to expire.

The second reason though is trickier: Because of the BBC’s politically sensitive position, changes to the services it provides have to be signed off by the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body. And convincing the trustees about a subscription service that would arguably compete with existing commercial entities in the current climate could be a tough sell.

Long term though, a subscription model is surely the only business model for the BBC Store that makes sense. The current store, less than a week in, is certainly a good start. But if the BBC wants to really make the most of its incredible archive in a world where millions are already streaming instead of owning, it needs to get with the (Radio) Times.

Full Disclosure: As a freelance pundit for hire I am the BBC Asian Network’s “technology expert”, and appear weekly on the Noreen Khan show talking tech. I haven’t bumped into anyone who works on the BBC Store yet to offer any suggestions though.

In other countries across the globe, video piracy is rife. But while the movie industry paints piracy as being wholly evil, it actually serves an incredibly important role in diplomatic relations. Is Piracy actually helping Hollywood? Maybe it is. Click here to read James O’Malley’s take on the issue. 

Lead image: mikecphoto /

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