BBC Select Chief Jon Farrar: Why He Isn’t Competing with Acorn TV and BritBox (Q&A)

On Feb. 18, BBC Studios launched its first fully owned U.S. streaming service, BBC Select. The new $4.99-a-month SVOD platform is available on Amazon Prime Video Channels and the Apple TV app. The ad-free nonfiction channel focuses on its proprietor calls “three pillars”: culture, politics and ideas. 

BBC Select chief Jon Farrar

(Image credit: BBC)

In addition to documentary series and one-offs, BBC Select will offer The Drop, a weekly collection of non-fiction shows themed around topics ranging from love and sex, to war and rebellion. The first film features Alicia Garza speaking about the broad dynamic of power. 

Jon Farrar, global VOD director for BBC Studios, conceptualized BBC Select and serves as its editor-in-chief. Farrar helped launch the Brit-themed SVOD BritBox five years ago. BritBox currently has over 1.5 million subscribers in North America.

BBC Select joins a crowded collection of subscription services targeting North American anglophiles. In addition to BritBox, there is, of course, another niche SVOD service competing for a slice of the pie, AMC Networks’ Acorn TV, which surpassed 1 million subscribers in Nov. 2019.

But Farrar isn’t concerned about competing for anglophile audiences because BBC Select isn’t about bringing British stories to American audiences. Instead, the platform will bring “universal stories” to North American audiences with a global outlook.

Next TV: Does BBC Select have a certain criteria when it comes to programming?
Jon Farrar: The service is really built around three pillars: culture, politics and ideas. We are living in really complicated times. The world is slightly off axis at the moment. This service is really about understanding the times that we live in and asking, “How can we live better lives within that?” So it naturally leans towards programming, which is politics, but also programming, which is big ideas about how we should live our life. I don't think there's anyone else who is quite doing a service like this. There are many documentary players out there who are playing in the usual documentary spaces, but (BBC Select) is very much about capturing the cultural zeitgeists of the times that we're living in.

Next: How many documentaries are on the service now?
J.F.: Beginning April 1, we are going to have 400 different programs on the service. 

Next: Are directors behind BBC Select documentaries exclusively British directors? 
J.F.: No. They can come from anywhere. Most of the content we've got is British content at launch and most of it was originally commissioned by the BBC, but we just want brilliant documentary filmmaking. So we are taking documentaries from everywhere. So no, it’s not exclusively British, but the British docs do make up most of the service right now.  

Next: Will any non-BBC commissioned documentaries be on the service?
J.F.: Yes. Other commissioning broadcasters in the UK like Channel Four for example, are also a really rich source of programming. I'm fairly agnostic where these stories come from. 

Next: Any concern that viewers, especially right now, won’t want to watch documentaries about politics or the times we are living in?
J.F.: I see the service like the weekend papers. I might go to the style section first or the culture section, and then I will work my way through to the more serious sections. And that’s how our service works. Culture is a huge part of what we're doing. Thinking about better living, thinking about how we live our lives and that encompasses food, travel, as well as perhaps more philosophical questions about how we should be living. That is all on the service. I do think it's important to have that light and shade and to offer escapism as well as allow people to really get under the skin of the slightly more gritty issues. So there will be a whole range of content on the service. 

Next: Will BBC Select offer one-off documentaries and docuseries?
J.F.: The service is going to be a mixture of both franchises and one-offs. So we have Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby that features Chef Monica Galetti and food critic Giles Coren venturing behind the scenes of the world’s most impressive hotels. We also have some spiky and pointed one-off documentaries that will create a noise. For example 54 Days: America and the Pandemic, which is a compelling take on the last 12 months in America and how COVID crept up. There was a sense that everyone had it under control, but actually it was a systematic failure, and it became this monster that no one had anticipated.  

BBC Select Docuseries '54 Days: America and the Pandemic'

BBC Select chief Jon Farrar says '54 Days America and the Pandemic' is an example of a 'spiky, pointed, one-off documentary that will create a noise' for his new SVOD service. (Image credit: BBC)

Next: How many original documentaries are on BBC Select?
Just over a third of the service will have never have been seen in North America before. And over two thirds of the programs are only available on BBC Select in North America. That's really important to us. When we tested the service many months ago, there was a sense that audiences want something new and they are tired of the same stories being told again and again. We want fresh voices. We want fresh shows and a sense of newness in terms of the stories that we bring to America. 

Next: You are up against big streaming services with deep pockets. Do you feel you can compete with Netflix and Amazon to get the directors you want to work with?J.F.: This is one of the things that is a real strength for us, which is that filmmakers trust the BBC to tell their stories. If we were another brand, I might have worries, but I think the BBC is held in such high regard. If you look back at the history of documentary filmmaking, the BBC has not only changed how we see the world, but also actually changed the nature of documentary filmmaking itself over the decades. It will always be a place where great storytellers want to want to come and tell their stories. 

Next: Is the goal to get BBC Select on more platforms come summer/fall?
J.F.: We want as many people as possible to see these films. So we are looking at our distribution strategies across North America.

Next: Will there be any day and date releases?
J.F.: Day and date is really important. It’s something that we are working with our partners in London on to make sure that we get the most frictionless, easy, quickest route through to North America.

Next: Why isn’t BBC Select part of the Stateside streamer BritBox?
J.F.: BritBox is a very different proposition. It's a drama and comedy service and is aimed at a very different audience. What we are bringing to America is a service that's purely documentaries and the audience is completely different to the BritBox audience. So running them together as an integrated product would not make sense. These are two very separate needs that the market has. 

Next: What is the target audience for BBC Select?
J.F.: We call them the “affluencers.” They are a slightly more up-market audience. They are likely to be urban. They are really keen to keep abreast of what's going on in the world and have an incredibly adventurous appetite for culture and for learning more about the state of the world. They are global in their outlook. They are interested in what's happening beyond their shores. Our sweet spot is probably 35- to 55-year-olds, equally male and female. 

Next: You told Variety your biggest competitors aren’t BBC America, PBS or Acorn TV, but instead magazines. Why?
J.F.: The frames of reference when I was developing this service were less about the documentary players already in the market and more about what is it that magazines are offering the market? What is it that newspapers offer the market that perhaps the (doc market) isn’t currently offering? When you look at the documentary streaming markets and the documentary channels markets, there is a certain type of documentary that for years have been the backbone. That tends to be films that are more evergreen that are going back and looking at history or science or big space or natural history. What I'm interested in with this service is documentary films that are more about the zeitgeist and that seems to be an area that is covered particularly well with magazines. I think about The Atlantic and Vanity Fair and The New Yorker as operating and in that space and what they tend to do really well is rather than reporting current events as the news they take the long view.

Next: Would you consider New York Times Op-Docs a competitor?
In a world where there's so much saturation and there is this overload of information and content out there, there is a real competition for eyeballs. So everybody is competition. 

Next: What is the target with regard to subscribers in the next six months?
J.F.: The subscriber projections are commercially sensitive information.