Uber tries to win hearts and minds of Brits with sponsored TV show

Amid regulatory troubles, the ride-hailing company is appealing to customers in the UK with a Channel 4 show about Uber journeys.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read
Uber Banned In UK

Uber is navigating a rocky road in the UK.

studioEAST / Getty Images

It's no secret that over the course of the last year, Uber hit multiple bumps in the road globally, but particularly in the UK -- one of its biggest markets outside of the US. 

Now, the ride-hailing company is tackling the long row back shore.

Its latest tactic is a sponsored TV series that shows Uber drivers and passengers having a jolly old time together as they journey around the UK.


A Twitter ad for Uber's Channel 4 show.

Screenshot/Katie Collins

Six episodes of Where to, Britain? were released online by Channel 4 on Tuesday evening. The mini-documentary series looks to be a carefully crafted effort by Uber to win back the hearts and minds of the British public after it encountered a number of roadblocks in the country.

To recap, at the end of 2017 and start of 2018, the company lost its license to operate in three cities -- London, York and Brighton -- and is currently appealing to local regulators to have them reinstated. Brighton Council rejected Uber's appeal at the start of the month, its London appeal is ongoing and the company said in March it will reapply for a license to operate in York in the near future.

But it isn't just regulators the company has to convince. The combination of the concerns raised around passenger safety by Transport for London and Uber's well-documented internal scandals caused reputational damage among passengers in the UK. The company is now looking to reverse out of this tight spot with a coordinated, multi-pronged PR campaign.

Take into consideration the following initiatives, all announced this week.

Exhibit one: a partnership with Virgin Trains, announced Wednesday, which gives customers booking trains between London and Birmingham discount on Uber journeys.

Exhibit two: free drop-off of unused or unwanted goods at Cancer Research charity shops this Saturday, also announced Wednesday.

Exhibit three: the aforementioned sponsored documentary series, which launched on Tuesday.

Why this, Uber?

Where to, Britain? is narrated by UK national treasure Dawn French and each episode takes place in a different British city.  Episode one of the show features four popular Manchester United footballers.

"We wanted to celebrate some of Britain's top drivers who use the Uber app by offering viewers a unique snapshot into life behind the wheel as part of an entertaining television series," an Uber spokesman about the series said in a statement.

Channel 4 is one of the UK's three public service broadcasters, although it's largely commercially self-funded. Uber paid for the shorts to be made, but the TV station exercised full editorial control, Channel 4 said.

"We have a successful track record in digital-advertiser-funded content and work with a broad range of brands," said a spokeswoman for the TV station in a statement. "Where to, Britain? is a fixed rig entertainment series funded by Uber for All 4 featuring the stories of passengers and drivers all across the UK."

None of the cities featured in the show are currently experiencing licensing issues.

Uber's path to redemption

Uber's rollout of these passenger-focused initiatives follows hot on the heels of a more corporate-level charm offensive that took place in France last week.

Last Wednesday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi met with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss his company's commitment to the country. He also announced AXA insurance for all drivers across the continent. The following day, he appeared on stage at VivaTech in Paris, just hours after announcing a $23.5 million investment in the city to build a hub for developing flying taxis.

With partnerships, investment and a fresh public image, it's clear Khosrowshahi is going for a rebrand across the board. But no number of Brits enjoying the company's foray in TV will change the fact that Uber still has one huge regulatory hurdle to jump.

The outcome of its appeal to reestablish its London license is due next month. It's a crucial moment in the company's journey to redemption in Europe.

Speaking at VivaTech, Khosrowshahi maintained that Uber's approach to dealing with cities has changed. "It has to be a partnership strategy," he said. Is he as good as his word? Only Transport for London can decide.

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