With this week’s launch of streaming service BBC Select, one of the world’s most recognizable media brands is joining North America’s streaming ranks on its own terms for the very first time.
The new platform joins an international channels portfolio that already includes BBC Earth, BBC Brit and BBC First. There’s also Stateside streamer BritBox, BBC Studios’ joint venture with ITV Studios. It’s fair to wonder why a platform like BritBox isn’t merely expanded or even rebranded to cover BBC Select programming, but top brass are confident that there’s enough of the Beeb to go around, and in this case, serve a specific purpose.
Operated by BBC Studios, the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Select will be available from Thursday on Amazon Prime Video Channels, as well as the Apple TV app. Priced at $4.99 in the U.S. and CAD$6.99 in Canada, the offering promises a keen focus on culture, politics and ideas, leveraging the corporation’s documentary backbone.
“We live in incredibly complicated times and I felt there wasn’t a service to pick apart the complexity and get under the skin of the age we live in,” says Jon Farrar, global VOD director for BBC Studios, who conceptualized the service and serves as editor-in-chief.
Farrar was part of the team that launched the now four-year-old, Anglophile-oriented BritBox, which has over 1.5 million subscribers in North America. A key learning from the experience, he says, was building an SVOD that did “something meaningful for someone, rather than everything for everyone.” Of course, that ‘something’ needs to have mass appeal, but BBC Select’s foundation in non-fiction should pay off, and a global expansion much like BritBox’s could be on the cards. There are no plans currently in place, but one can imagine an international brand like BBC Brit evolving into BBC Select.
Shows available on the new streamer include acclaimed doc series “The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty,” which will have its U.S. premiere on BBC Select, as well as “The Fall of an Icon,” about disgraced Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi, and the films of Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry and documentary presenter Louis Theroux. In the future, Variety understands that there could be day-and-date releases with some of the magazine programs out of the U.K.
Many of these shows typically air on the BBC Four channel in the U.K., the dedicated home for arts programming with a heady mix of current affairs and international fare. There was talk last year of BBC Four rolling out internationally as an SVOD service, and though it doesn’t have the label, BBC Select effectively serves that purpose for the corporation.
While the vast majority of programming are indeed BBC shows — titles, it’s worth noting, that the Select team will need to competitively bid for against sister channels like BBC America and even BritBox — some programs hail from other broadcasters, like “Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip” for Channel 4. This bodes well for third-party producers and distributors who could look to place shows on the service.
Some may still question the practicality of launching a new streaming platform in a saturated American VOD market, but Farrar highlights that BBC Select is purely non-fiction as opposed to BritBox’s scripted play. Furthermore, full ownership of Select as opposed to shared equity with ITV Studios is an attractive proposition at this stage in the BBC’s digital transformation.
“We’ve got a really clear remit for the service,” says Louise la Grange, general manager and launch director for BBC Select, who highlights that natural history, for example, is purposely excluded from the platform. “That already has an outlet in North America, and sits across BBC America, PBS, Discovery, and BBC Earth in Canada,” she notes.
To distinguish itself further, BBC Select will have the necessary exclusives to draw audiences to the service. One key example is “The Drop,” a highly curated package of short-form programs released every week. “They’re about the important things in life that matter to everybody, whether it’s love, consumerism, selfies, power or parenthood,” says Farrar.
The shows have been especially commissioned, and feature thinkers such as Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, public intellectual Malcolm Gladwell, Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, American writer Roxane Gay, author Lionel Shriver and British journalist Caitlin Moran.
Who does BBC Select count as its primary competitors? One might suspect it’s going after the Ovation TV or PBS America audience, but Farrar points to readers of publications like The Atlantic, New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
“What they do so brilliantly is they offer the long view on the things that really matter to people’s lives, and get under the skin of the big things that define our age,” says the executive. “That’s what we want to do with this service as well, whether that’s looking at things like the state of America, the rise of China or cultural populism — all the things that really define life at the moment.”
The “BBC Select” label hearkens back to a previous BBC offering. In an earlier avatar, between 1992 and 1995, BBC Select was an overnight subscription service that ran between 2am and 6am, after the BBC channels had shut down. The programming was aimed at specialist audiences like businessmen, lawyers, nurses and teachers. But the label’s resurrection in 2021 is simply a “happy coincidence,” says La Grange.
“How we arrived at the name was that this service has curation at the very heart of the proposition, so it’s about really surfacing content that is essential and high quality to our audience” she notes.
Variety's Manori Ravindran contributed to this post.