Acorn TV has found a niche as the first streaming service focused on the best of British TV for a North American audience. And it hasn’t been afraid to feature programming that skews to an older audience.
In September 2019, the subscription video on demand (SVOD) service, now owned by AMC Networks, surpassed 1 million subscribers. (AMC Networks said it expected its SVOD services—Acorn TV, Shudder, Sundance Now and ALLBLK services—will have 4 million combined subscribers by the end of 2020.)
Not bad for a niche SVOD service. The big question: Can Acorn TV keep growing in a U.S. market that now also has BBC-backed BritBox competing for Anglophile audiences?
“Acorn had the foresight to see an opportunity with direct-to-consumer streaming and got in early, so we have been working in this content category for more than two decades,” Acorn TV General Manager Matthew Graham told Next TV. “We have an understanding of consumer interactions and expectations and, with that, an understanding of the technology required to deliver a great service.”
For anyone who craved authentic U.K. television programs—titles like Upstairs, Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited and Agatha Christie’s Poirot—Acorn TV became synonymous with high-end dramas and mysteries, in particular, those often overlooked by the broadcast and the cable networks.
This also includes Acorn TV’s Queens of Mystery, a recent Emmy nominee.
“In this new environment, consumers have a lot more choice, and there is the ability to put together a la carte entertainment options that match-up to the specific interests of our customers,” Graham added. “We know exactly what are subscribers like to consume and we focus on that.”
Roots in VHS
Acorn Media Group was born Atlas Video in 1984 in the basement of founder Peter Edwards, who worked as a communications consultant and NBC News employee.
Edwards started Acorn as a way to market historical and travel documentaries. In 1994, Acorn's focus shifted to British television on home video and the company was renamed Acorn Media Group. Targeting the UK, North America and Australia, Acorn first sold its titles on VHS cassette, before moving like everyone else to DVD and Blu-ray. In fact, Acorn thrived in the DVD age, packaging box sets of popular British TV shows for the retail shelves of distribution outlets including Walmart.
As for the SVOD service that would be called Acorn TV, it launched as a subsection of Acorn’s direct to consumer e-commerce website in 2011, eventually moving to prominence as disc sales succumbed to video streaming.
In 2012, Robert Johnson formed RLJ Entertainment, which was a combination of Acorn Media Group and media company Image Entertainment, to create a library of digital and video content globally with more than 5,300 feature film and television titles.
In 2013, Acorn TV was relaunched as a standalone streaming service with expanded content offerings and monthly and annual subscription options. Most of the inventory from Acorn TV comes from the UK, but there are now also options produced in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Mexico, Spain and New Zealand.
When AMC Networks acquired a majority stake in RLJ Entertainment in 2016 for a reported $60 million, it did so primarily for the home entertainment distributor’s two SVOD services— Acorn TV and Urban Movie Channel (now ALLBLK)—and control of the Agatha Christie Limited intellectual property.
Acorn TV charges U.S. subscribers $5.99 a month for full access to its streaming smorgasbord, with a seven-day free trial to check out if they’re not happy. Acorn TV supports apps for Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV (tvOS version) and Google Chromecast and Android TV OTT devices, as well iPhone/iPad, and Android mobile and tablets. Acorn TV is also playable on laptops, desktops, and tablets via browser (Acorn recommends Google Chrome).
Notably, Acorn TV is also natively integrated into Comcast's X1 video platform.
An Emerging Originals Strategy
“True to our mission, one of the biggest changes for us is the investment in the content itself,” Graham said. “So, over the past several years we have started not only to co-produce, but to commission series explicably for Acorn TV. Our strategy remains on a specific mixture of premium dramas, with great writing, great acting and interesting places that appeals to a sophisticated audience.”
“As long as we stick to that, as a channel and as a brand, Acorn TV will offer a notable alternative,” he added. “We know exactly who we are.”
Recent additions to the Acorn TV programming options are Aussie mystery series My Life is Murder, with Lucy Lawless; British police drama London Kills (Series 1 and 2); 1960s-set Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries; and British true crime drama Manhunt.
Coming up, Acorn TV will feature five new acquired series: Irish period mystery drama Dead Still; British mystery Agatha Raisin; Irish dramedy The South Westeries; New Zealand thriller The Sounds; and Irish comedy Finding Joy (Series 2). Returning series available on Acorn TV are Australian drama Mystery Road (Series 2), Irish thriller Blood (Series 2), UK drama Line of Duty (Series 6), British school dramedy Ackley Bridge; New Zealand detective drama The Brokenwood Mysteries; French crime drama Balthazar; Canadian drama Murdoch Mysteries; and Swedish drama Rebecka Martinsson.
Emerging Competition From BritBox
Acorn TV no longer has a U.S. subscription streaming market with British taste to itself. In early March 2020, BritBox—the SVOD service jointly launched by BBC and ITV in North America in 2018—has itself surpassed 1 million users.
For his part, Graham said Acorn TV looks at the fast-moving competition from BritBox the same way it would any other digital or linear competitor. Graham believes Acorn TV has an edge, with its program acquisitions generally being more recognizable than those of BritBox.
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