Britbox Australia review: Great content — with some big catches

Britbox Australia

The UK-centric streaming service Britbox has rather quietly and subtly “soft launched” into Australia, at $8.99 a month. Here’s my early impressions of what it does right — and wrong.

You’ll have to forgive me here, because I’m having a moment of severe deja vu.

I can’t help but feel like I’ve been down this path before. You see, nearly a decade ago, the BBC launched a video streaming service in Australia, and I was one of the first journalists to write about it. You can still read that first review, and my later impressions over at Gizmodo Australia. The Australia-only version of BBC iPlayer didn’t last long — I think it was around a year or so — and then faded away.

So when Britbox launched in the US, I was interested, but figured that between iPlayer’s failure in market and the fact that a lot of BBC and ITV content is already widely available through other subscription platforms that we’d be lucky to see much of a service.

Rather quietly, and seemingly on a Sunday for some reason, it’s live in Australia. I’ve spent a little time digging through what’s one offer. Here’s my early thoughts.

What is it?

Britbox Australia is a subscription streaming service, offering up select drama, crime drama, comedy, documentary and lifestyle content from the archives of the BBC and ITV. It really does do what it says on the tin!

How much does it cost?

There’s two pricing tiers (at least via the Apple signup I’ve done; it’s feasible that outside the Apple store markup it may be different) at $8.99/month or $89.99 for a year if you pay upfront.

Update: Confirmed — looks like the local site is now live, as per the image below:

Is there a free trial?

There is a free Britbox Australia trial, but it’s only for seven days.

It’s worth noting that if you don’t want more than the free trial, you have to cancel “at least 24 hours before the end of your free trial”.  So it’s sorta-kinda-like a six day trial in many respects.

So what’s good about Britbox?

Like any streaming service, it’s all about the content, and I’m going to assume that if you’re keen on a service called Britbox, you’re keen on specifically British TV.

Britbox has quite a lot of this, mostly covering what you might call “classic” British TV series. There’s a lot of the extant episodes of Doctor Who to watch, including some of the animated reconstructions, which should typically be enough to get me excited… if I didn’t own them all on DVD and Blu-Ray already. But I can totally see the value here for folks who don’t like physical media.

There’s also a very small quantity of “original” content, headlined by a new series of Spitting Image, if that’s your sort of thing.

Most of the interface follows the standards you’d expect if you’ve used any other streaming platform, with large and easy to follow carousel style display for discovery, as well as an included search feature for more specific content.

For my own purposes (and bear in mind these are mostly first impressions) I’ve been watching via an iPhone. One pleasing feature here is support for both AirPlay and Chromecast from an iPhone. Not every service has that kind of support, making it pretty easy to fling content up to your TV.

So what’s not-so-good about Britbox?

App support seems a little sketchy; I could easily find it on an iOS device and I’ve read online reports suggesting it’s available for Android phones, but testing with a Shield TV, I couldn’t find the app at all. That’s where the Chromecasting ability came in dead handy, of course.

The big “new” Spitting Image series? It’s bloody awful, at least based on the couple of minutes I could bear to watch. Terrible impersonations, ordinary puppetry and the most obvious and bland jokes possible. Must do better if original content is meant to be the big hook.

Then there’s the content gaps, which are equal parts obvious and subtle. You’d think that a classic series like Dad’s Army would be an obvious inclusion, right? It’s not there. Spender? Not to be found. Auf Weidersehen, Pet? Nein. The Bill? It’s been nicked, it seems.

Doctor Who is there, and you’re promised “every Doctor” — and even get oddball fare like K9 and Company — but there are missing bits, most notably in Tom Baker’s run which (at the time of writing) seems to end with The Face of Evil.

Literally you jump from Season 14 to Season 19, and I have no idea why. Again, I don’t need these stories myself, but to many people Tom Baker is EXACTLY who they think of when they think of a classic Doctor.

Update: No, they are actually there for the classic series. However, if you go into Doctor Who via the Fourth Doctor link, they don’t show up at all. Go into Doctor Who as a show by itself, and the “missing” seasons are indeed there. This is BAD user interface design, just shoddy stuff. It really is.

Also annoying: No season 12 of Doctor Who — although that is on Stan right now.

Looking for Doctor Who eps also showed me that the search isn’t terribly good. The best episode of Christopher Eccleston’s run of the show is easily “Dalek”, and it is on Britbox — but you wouldn’t know that if you used the search function to look for “Dalek”.

There’s a genuinely weird catch if you subscribe via Apple or Amazon; according to Britbox’s own help notes, you can then only watch through those channels, and not on additional devices on other platforms.

As per the help files you get sent to via the Britbox app — although I should note they relate to the US version’s help files because that’s what you get pushed towards if you tap “help”:

There is one restriction to note. If you subscribe to BritBox through an add-on subscription to Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV Channels, unfortunately you’ll only be able to watch in their platforms.

Ouch. That’s a pretty nasty restriction to keep in mind.

Update: Now that the local site is live, I can confirm this isn’t the case, thankfully — I’ve been able to watch content through a browser even though I signed up through an iPhone. Maybe that’s US only? Either way, it’s not well explained or well handled.

Then there’s the question of the actual content. I’m a UK TV junkie from way back, but quite a lot of what’s in Britbox is already present on other streaming platforms. Content like the new Who seasons, BlackAdder, The Vicar of Dibley and others are pretty regularly available across the streaming services you’re probably already subscribed to, which somewhat lessens the Britbox value proposition.

There’s another, slightly more subtle issue here, and it’s to do with what we don’t get. In the US, a key part of the Britbox experience is the “Now” section, which fast-tracks UK content — and especially soap operas — for quick showing within hours of their UK broadcast.

There’s no such feature in the Australian version. In fact, if you’re a fan of EastEnders, Coronation Street or Hollyoaks, I’ve got some bad news for you. They’re not on Britbox at all.

We almost certainly have the deals in place for Foxtel’s UKTV to thank for that.

With a tip of the hat to Ben Ross for pointing it out to me, it’s also worth noting that there’s no offline or download facility, so you need a persistent streaming connections and can’t load up on shows for times when your Internet access might be sub-par. That’s a fairly common feature for many of Britbox’s competitors in the local streaming space.

Is Britbox Australia worth it?

Look, you’ve got little to risk if you sign up for a 7 day trial, and that can probably tell you more than I could in terms of your own watching habits.

There’s certainly plenty of content on Britbox Australia, and given the general very high quality of UK TV productions some of it is amongst the very best in the world, hands down. You could keep yourself very busy and very happy for a good long time with what’s available at launch, at least.

This is pretty clearly a “soft” launch — the word online seemed to suggest more of a media blitz tomorrow, and maybe that’s so. As a soft launch though, there’s a fair bit of work to do to get it up to speed with other competing services. I may well give Britbox a month of my subscription money — but I’m not 100% convinced that the year’s subscription would be money well spent right now.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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