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Blocked streams

Public and commercial broadcasters’ efforts to band together to take on the transatlantic juggernauts of Netflix, Amazon and now Apple face a number of well-publicised challenges, but one of the most frustrating must surely be the extent to which such projects are still stymied by out-of-time regulatory concerns and procedures.

Delphine Ernotte

Speaking at the Series Mania event in Lille in France this week, France Télévisions chief Delphine Ernotte gave vent to her frustration at the way plans for Salto, the proposed streaming JV between the country’s main broadcasters, had been held up for six months while the EC decided whether to rule on the case or refer it back to the French competition watchdog, the Autorité de la Concurrence.

It this week plumped for the latter course, prompting Ernotte to reflect that Netflix had probably gained a million subscribers in the interim.

Ernotte said it was as if French cars were obliged to remain stationary in a car park while the rest of the world got on with the task of building a high-speed motorway.

Earlier, TF1 CEO Gilles Pélisson had nevertheless expressed optimism that Salto would eventually get underway and attract subscribers. Pélisson said that the partners in the venture were convinced they could “create something that will be attractive for the public”.

The CEO of France’s third main broadcaster, M6, Nicolas de Tavernost, had meanwhile used his appearance at Series Mania to air the complaint that historic players need a level playing field with digital platforms in order to be in a position to contribute to content creation.

On the other side of the Channel, the local broadcasters’ chiefs face similar frustrations. Although not directly linked to BritBox, the plan promoted by the BBC and ITV to launch a version of their existing US SVOD service of the same name for the domestic market, BBC chairman David Clementi recently used a speech at the Oxford Media Convention to slam regulatory moves to hem in the pubcaster’s plans to expand the availability of content on it iPlayer service.

Ofcom’s insistence on the corporation running a Public Interest Test over plans to extend the availability of some content on the platform to 12 months prompted Clementi to argue against “tying ourselves up in red tape and regulation at a time when media organisations need to be fast and agile”

Clementi said that delays to the BBC’s planned changes to iPlayer as a result of regulator Ofcom’s decision to order a Public Interest Test, in the face of the BBC Board’s view that such changes did not constitute a material change, meant there was a “risk of lagging even further behind audience needs and expectations”.

Regulatory concerns are of course not the only challenges facing the historic players’ plans to offer a digital alternative to the Netflixes and Amazons of the world.

ITV chief Carolyn McCall used an appearance at a Broadcasting Press Guild event this week to defend the BritBox project in the face of criticism that few will want to sign up for a service that will require consumers to pay to view BBC content that was originally licence-fee funded and that content providers will be reluctant to extend lucrative secondary windows to the service. Similar criticism has also been levelled at Salto.

While defenders of these projects point to the not inconsiderable achievement of getting rival broadcasters to align their interests and collaborate, it sometimes seems that the participating public broadcaster are more likely to be at war with themselves than with their partners.

Take the example of the deal recently struck by the BBC’s commercial arm to sell a vast raft of BBC comedy and drama boxsets to Sky and Now TV. If the BBC is hoping to reserve attractive rights for BritBox, this is surely exactly the kind of deal it shouldn’t be doing. But never let it be said that a British concern should somehow manage to bypass the accusation of succumbing to short-termism in the pursuit of a fast buck.

The BBC is a case in point of a broadcaster being riven by contradictory impulses, but others face similar dilemmas over whether to pursue a digital strategy at all costs or hedge their bets. The risks to ITV of BritBox failing to achieve big revenues while cannibalising its existing business were recently highlighted by analysts at Berenberg. But broadcasters – including major international media groups as well as national players – face a danger of falling between different possible responses to the rise of digital consumption, and of not being committed enough to one or other to make it work.