NEW YORK—As British television imports go, “The Good Karma Hospital” and “Mum” aren’t exactly smash hits. Few Americans are likely to have binged the drama about a disillusioned doctor who leaves England for India or the family dramedy about a 60-ish woman starting a new life chapter.
But these shows undergird a battle quietly playing out on Yankee soil: the fight for the Anglophile consumer.
“Karma” is available on Acorn TV and “Mum” on BritBox, two U.S.-based streaming services that see dollars where others have long just seen pounds and business where most imagined public broadcasting. As the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Los Angeles-born actress Meghan Markle captivates Americans this weekend, it also highlights the battle between the streamers, which similarly look to forge a marriage between the U.S. and U.K. amid just a wee bit of tension.
“We feel we have the best of both worlds, of streaming and major broadcasters,” said Soumya Sriraman, the president of Britbox, co-owned by leading British broadcasters BBC Studios and ITV. “That’s something the competition doesn’t offer.”
“I’ll be honest with you–I don’t get their positioning,” said Mark Stevens, the chief content officer of Acorn TV, which is independent. “It feels a bit more like a broadcaster than a [streaming] service. We’re a little more focused.”
These revolutionaries’ war is emblematic of a world in which digital distribution has turned local content into a potential treasure chest for both consumers and companies.
It also raises the question of how many streaming services one person needs.
BritBox and Acorn seek the same prize. Growing American interest in British television due to hits like Netflix’s “The Crown” and PBS’ “Downton Abbey” has created a new class of people willing to pay a few dollars each month beyond their Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions (those services offer their own licensed British TV shows). Acorn and BritBox want to be the ones delivering this to them.
The two companies are as different as Adele and Robbie Williams, diverging on pedigree, price, approach and content.
Acorn existed for decades as a home-video distributor before transitioning to streaming. Part of a family of companies owned by BET founder Robert L. Johnson, the streamer — based just outside Washington, DC, in Silver Spring, Md. –offers a smaller and more curated group of high-end shows. There currently are about 125 exclusive to the U.S, available for $4-$5 per month.
BritBox, meanwhile, has been around barely a year. Public broadcaster BBC Studios and commercial ITV put aside their historic rivalry to join forces and take on Acorn and its larger competitors. The streamer offers a deeper slate—approximately 300 series exclusive to North America–charging $7 for monthly access.
With as many as 750,000 paying customers and a headstart of several years, Acorn has many more subscribers than BritBox ,which has signed up 250,000 subscribers since launching in early 2017.
The two companies even differ on their approach to the royal wedding. Acorn TV has promoted a handful of documentaries but, in keeping with its catalog approach, won’t be showing any of the festivities this weekend.
BritBox is taking a more aggressive stance.
On a recent afternoon, Sriraman gathered staff in a boardroom at her midtown headquarters, Skyping in additional staffers from London.
“I didn’t realize until today that it’s T-minus 10 [until the wedding],” said Sriraman, a veteran of Vivendi and BBC Studios with an encyclopedic knowledge of (and endless enthusiasm for) British television. She then plunged into the service’s plans, which include the exclusive ITV broadcast in the U.S. and an elaborate live-stream from a pub in Manchester.
A screen in front of her listed other efforts, including a documentary, ‘”Meghan & Harry: A Revolutionary Romance’” and, for those who prefer their monarch gossip in the form of quasi-intellectual discussions, “WEDTalks: The BritBox Wedding Watchers Guide.”
“What we’re doing hasn’t been done,” chimed in Reemah Sakaan, BritBox’s head of marketing and a veteran of ITV and BBC. “But this comes with an immense responsibility. Remember,” she added, “this is a religious ceremony too.”
A social media expert pondered the punchiest way to promote the wedding, which would be tape-delayed outside the East Coast. “You can be in California and still sleep in?” Sakaan suggested.
But not all pieces of British content make people jump out of bed. British television has certainly evolved greatly from the heavy diet of costume dramas and offbeat comedy for much of the 20th century to more diverse and mainstream fare. “Prime Suspect” in the 1990’s opened up a whole new vein of procedurals, which are often more character-driven takes than in the U.S.
Meanwhile, series such as “Misfits,” a slacker supernatural comedy, have shown the potential of genre. And hourlong programs such as the autism-themed “The A Word” and the church-set “Broken” have widened the possibilities of drama.
Still, creating or even identifying fans of these has been a challenge for both services, in part because they get very little promotion in this country and in part because many customers already pay for broader streaming services and don’t have room for another.
Stevens says consumers over 50 form a key a part of Acorn’s base, giving the lie to notions of streaming and Millennials—and allowing the service to grow as Baby Boomers retire.
Sriraman says some of Britbox’s highest-growth areas are in smaller cities such as Phoenix, Portland and Austin, providing more upside in big cities. “I think there are a lot more people out there who like British shows or would like British shows,” she said. “We call it a mass niche. We’re not aiming at Anglophiles.”
Also posing a hurdle: the competition for rights. Netflix and Amazon can simply afford to pay a lot more. (Because of British trade law, BritBox has to compete on the open market even when its own parent airs a show in the U.K.—Acorn’s “Good Karma Hospital” is actually an ITV show.) Acorn also has to decide when to open the vaults, calibrating the potential popularity of each show with its ability to pay for it. That’s why you’ll see the original “Doctor Who” on BritBox but the more expensive 21st century revival on Amazon.
“I think the demand is there — British television continues to get more popular around the world,” said Ed Waller, the editorial director of the British entertainment-business hub C21 and an expert on U.K. television. “But the question is whether these small companies have the resources to reach enough viewers.”
To circumvent these licensing challenges, Acorn has begun to undertake original programming, commissioning and financing the latest season of “Agatha Raisin,” a comic-mystery based on a set of popular novels.
But Stevens said that he ultimately felt smaller services held an advantage even with non-originals.
“This is a new industry and there are a lot of different players trying to figure it out,” he said. “But we have the experience and knowledge to curate, which others don’t.
Sriraman says the popularity of the content itself can carry BritBox through, a point underscored by the royal wedding.
At the staff meeting, deputies were saying that the early start to the ceremony was unusual.
“The FA Cup Final is that day,” Sakaan explained, referring to the domestic soccer championship game.
“That’s football,” Sriraman said. “We have the Super Bowl.”