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The BBC and Discovery: getting back together

Blue Planet II

One of the signature movie genres of the 1930s was the ‘comedy of remarriage’: films – often starring Cary Grant and/or Katharine Hepburn – that featured married couples who split up, dallied temporarily with other partners, but who ultimately got back together again.

Without doubt this week’s biggest story would be the classic among classics in a corporate version of that genre. The BBC and Discovery’s history together goes back to 1996, when the pair struck a US$600 million partnership and collaborated on the launch of Animal Planet.

The pair have been linked in numerous joint initiatives since then, but this week managed to pull off a divorce and marriage on the same day, when they confirmed plans for a break-up of UKTV channels and unveiled what BBC director general Tony Hall has described as the corporation’s “largest ever content sales deal” as part of a new global Discovery SVOD offering.

Under the terms of separation for the UKTV venture – Discovery inherited the 50% formerly held by Scripps Networks Interactive when it acquired the latter last year – Discovery is to take full control of lifestyle channels including Good Food, Home and Really, while BBC Studios will take the remaining seven channels, including Alibi, Dave, Drama, Eden, Gold, Yesterday and W, alongside digital player UKTV Play and the UKTV brand.

The BBC has also struck a £300 million deal to supply content from its natural history unit to a new SVOD service to be created by Discovery and described by Discovery CEO David Zaslav as “like a natural history Netflix” or, alternatively, a “factual Marvel library”.

Presenting the deal, BBC director-general Tony Hall said that the BBC and Discovery had also agreed to invest in content together and hoped to be able to attract new talent to their joint fund for content creation.

However, Hall was clear that BBC Studios’ involvement will be restricted to supplying content. It will not be a shareholder in what will strictly be Discovery’s show.

While the SVOD agreement, which covers all territories outside the UK, Ireland and Greater China, doesn’t necessarily preclude the BBC launching its own international streaming offering, it does seem to imply that the Beeb does not have an ambition to establish itself as a major international platform operator in its own right.

This is not a great surprise. In a world dominated by streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, it probably makes more sense for the pubcaster to collaborate creatively with a big established international partner and take the money, rather than to get involved in the highly risky business of launching its own streaming service.  And it’s probably better that this partner should be Discovery than, say, an all-consuming mega-streamer like Netflix or Amazon.

As far as the BBC and DIY streaming is concerned, it may be a case of once bitten, twice shy. Although the broadcaster has experimented with international SVOD offerings since then, most recently in Germany, it has not committed to an international streaming effort since it  abandoned its ill-fated Global iPlayer, after launching in Australia, parts of Europe and Canada, in 2014, after earlier announcing that it intended to wind the project down. However, later that same year, Hall announced that the corporation had plans to launch a new OTT TV service in the US – the key territory in the BBC’s international field of dreams, where it had failed to launch the iPlayer, most likely over fears of cannibalising its BBC America cable channel.

The launch of BritBox – a JV between BBC Worldwide – now BBC Studios – and ITV – followed a couple of years later. Unlike earlier global plans, this remains more of a niche offering. But the BBC, again in partnership with ITV, is famously now bringing the BritBox brand home with plans for a domestic SVOD offering that it must hope will meet with fairer fortune than its attempts to break into the streaming world internationally.

Presenting the Discovery partnership, Hall said that the UKTV agreement would help the pubcaster realise its domestic streaming plans he said that BBC Studios control of the channels would help open up space for the BBC to realise its ambition to extend the iPlayer window for certain content and also help provide content for its proposed SVOD JV with ITV.

Like the comedy of remarriage meanwhile, the BBC’s international strategy seems – at least as far as its flagship natural history content is concerned – to have come full circle: as it began, in partnership with Discovery.