BBC and ITV plan Britbox launch in UK to rival Netflix

Could this mean classic Doctor Who at last?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

A Netflix rival combining the forces of British telly is set to launch in the UK. The BBC and ITV already offer classic and brand new TV shows to US viewers on streaming service Britbox, and have announced plans to make it available on home turf.

Britbox launched in the US and Canada in 2017. It includes vintage British series like Absolutely Fabulous, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, Miss Marple, Inspector Morse, Red Dwarf and The Young Ones, all for a monthly fee of $7.

ITV and the BBC said today they've agreed a "joint vision" for a UK version of the service and are working out the legal niceties. Other channels are also expected to join ahead of a launch in the second half of this year.

The UK version of Britbox promises the biggest collection of British content available on any streamer, plus original British shows specially created for the service. It's way too early to talk about exactly what's going to be on there, but I have my fingers crossed for something US Britbox offers to lucky American viewers that up until now hasn't been available to British fans: Classic episodes of  Doctor Who .

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Could we soon be able to dial up classic Doctor Who on a streaming service?


The first 26 seasons of Doctor Who, spanning the first to seventh Doctors, are available to stream on US Britbox as part of that seven-buck subscription. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, where the beloved sci-fi show was born, a few stories have been available on streaming services in the past but they were pulled ahead of the launch of the short-lived BBC Store. Instead, fans have to buy each story individually.

When you're talking about three decades of telly, that's a considerable expense. 

As a lifelong fan, I'd pay a few quid a month for access to Doctor Who alone. That's just my personal wish list -- the BBC declined to respond to my breathlessly excited questions about Who, and neither broadcaster has given specifics about which other series will be on Britbox. 

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The BBC and ITV tried to team up 10 years ago for a service codenamed Project Kangaroo, but regulators kiboshed it. If they'd managed to launch something like Britbox back then, Netflix might have had a tougher time establishing such dominance over the streaming market. 

Critics of the BBC already complain that viewers pay for the service through the compulsory license fee, so why should we have to pay again to access services like Britbox? I can see their point, but the fact remains the license fee covers the BBC's current activity, with some bonus archive stuff thrown in on iPlayer. Unless you have a time machine, the only way to see older shows has always been to fork out for videos or DVDs.

Even if we do have to shell out, the cost of a streaming subscription is far cheaper than buying DVDs. And the money goes back into the TV channels, helping our local broadcasters compete against the global behemoth Netflix -- not to mention the Apple and Disney+ streaming services also set to launch this year.

Speaking of which, the launch of Britbox might see the BBC and ITV remove their content from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers, effectively forcing viewers to pay for multiple services. But the BBC's publicly funded status means regulators would no doubt have something to say about that.

For the moment, nothing's certain. We'll just have to wait and see whether classic Doctor Who becomes available through Britbox.

Time will tell -- it always does.

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