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Many British TV fans will be surprised to know that in spite of the increasing popularity of British television, Acorn TV owner RLJ Entertainment has been on shaky financial footing for a while now. In spite of a huge and rapidly-growing subscriber base, revenue and net income have been on the decline. In 2016, they faced possible NASDAQ delisting, but it was resolved by an initial investment from AMC. Now, AMC is going to exercise an option to purchase majority ownership. There’s still a chance it may not go through, but it does seem promising.
Why Has RLJ Struggled?
After the launch of Acorn TV in 2011, RLJ saw subscriber growth of 100% year-over-year. At the end of 2015, they had roughly 195,000 subscribers. By September 2016, it was 375,000, and they recently announced that their combined streaming services have topped 700,000. Given those numbers, you’d probably expect things to be going well. RLJ also owns UMC, the “Urban Movie Channel”, which focuses on black content (not strictly African American, as there’s a substantial amount of international content, too). It launched in 2015 and in the 2016 Q3 Earnings Call, RLJ CEO Miguel Pinella said they expected to hit 20,0000 subscribers by the end of 2016.
I’ll be honest – As someone well-acquainted with British TV with a primary vocation in freelance digital marketing and strategy consulting, I was a bit surprised to hear that a company so heavily invested in British content would then expand into black urban content. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but my gut feeling is that they could have better leveraged their existing audience and customer relationships by diving into (a separate channel for) non-British European content. A quick look at the demographic data and the the photos of people who comment on our Facebook page will tell you that North American Anglophiles are largely older. white, and female. We welcome everybody, of course, but we don’t choose who shows up (though we love you all). Walter Presents didn’t start until January of 2016, and mHZ Choice was only a few months earlier in October 2015. It’s puzzling to us that RLJ didn’t get in there sooner, as a huge number of our readers express a secondary interest in European TV.
In 2017, RLJ stopped reporting separate subscriber numbers for UMC and Acorn, so that 700,000 number above includes both Acorn and UMC – but knowledge of the market makes it seem like the overwhelming majority of those numbers must come from Acorn. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve seen the growth in British TV, I know many of the people who love it, and almost everyone around here subscribes to Acorn TV. More than that, many British TV fans are older and insatiable when it comes to British content, and that can be hard to find elsewhere. They tend to have a good combination of disposable income, free time, and a willingness to spend money to support what they love. The content that Acorn provides within that niche is premium, too. These shows are (mostly) the best output the UK has to offer.
When you look at the content on UMC, you see that it definitely skews younger in focus, and much of it appears to be independent rather than premium, big-name content. I’m just not sure it presents the same kind of value Acorn TV does. Plus, the younger you go in terms of target market, the more likely it is you’ll lose audience to illegal downloading. Though I occasionally see people talking about illegal streaming sites for hard-to-find British shows, I don’t think I’ve ever seen talk of torrents – and there’s almost always a preference to “just watch something on Acorn or BritBox”. I know these are subtle and hard-to-measure differences, but I just can’t see UMC as a strong performer by comparison.
There’s also the fact that UMC’s website is listed with an Alexa ranking of 983,000, while Acorn.TV is roughly 47,900. Though Alexa rankings aren’t terribly precise when you get up towards a million and higher, a number under 50,000 means Acorn.tv is getting exponentially more traffic than UMC. SimilarWeb shows an even greater disparity (see below). Have they invested too much into UMC vs. doubling down on the loyal British TV audience they’ve been building for much longer? I can’t be sure without more information, but my guess would be yes. We realize, of course, that Robert L. Johnson (the RLJ in RLJ Entertainment) was the founder of BET and the first black American billionaire, so maybe that factored into the decision. A dedicated European TV channel just seems like it would have been more profitable, more quickly.
In the 2016 call, Pinella also mentioned that part of their success strategy would be to increase investment in original content. Yet, it was only in early 2018 that they announced they’d be funding a second series of Agatha Raisin. Why did it take so long? Who knows. Big companies often move very slowly. They did release a film called Mayhem in late 2017, and it will stream on one of AMC’s channels early this year. The movie cost $2.5 million to make (miniscule for a feature film), and it starred Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead. Those types of budget movies are often a good investment, especially if having an Asian lead actor helps it get some attention in the rapidly exploding Asian movie market. Still, we’d love to see more original British content (a Rosemary & Thyme reboot with Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris would be a dream come true).
Another big thing that’s likely weighing down RLJ is the decrease in DVD sales. With so much streaming these days, most of us only buy DVDs when we want subtitles, we can’t find a title elsewhere, we know something is going to be removed from streaming soon, or we reallllly want a DVD that has particularly enticing special features. The weird part is that many DVDs (both from RLJ and others) don’t do a good job of making sure the caption availability and special features are adequately listed and described on the pages of their various sales channels.
The British Elephant in the Room
Of course, no discussion of RLJ and Acorn could ignore the fact that the BBC and ITV joined together and launched BritBox in early 2017. When it comes to marketing, BritBox is blowing Acorn TV out of the water. As I said earlier, I’ve been doing digital marketing and strategy for many household name companies for more than a decade now, so I’ve studied the differences between the two as a matter of curiosity. Acorn is missing out on a lot of relatively small changes that could create outsized results and help them stay more competitive. As for why it’s happening, who knows? Maybe they don’t have enough budget, maybe they don’t have enough people, or maybe they just have the wrong combination of people. It’s impossible to say without inside knowledge.
It also doesn’t help that BritBox is taking over the broadcast of new episodes for some favorites like Vera. At present, Vera Series 3 has moved over to BritBox, and the new series is only on BritBox. As for Midsomer Murders, a deal was announced (Sources: Deadline Hollywood, Hollywood Reporter, Variety) that will give BritBox all 20 series,
though it’s not specifically stated whether it’s exclusive and they will disappear from Netflix and Acorn, where they remain for now.
UPDATE: We’ve received official confirmation from the folks at Acorn TV letting us know that in spite of the Midsomer deal with BritBox, Acorn TV *WILL* continue to air it.
In its earliest stages, BritBox had fewer titles than AcornTV, but when I counted this morning, BritBox had taken the lead. As of late February 2018, I’m seeing 283 titles on BritBox and 266 on Acorn TV.
Acorn appears to hold the lead in traffic for now, but BritBox is making incredible gains considering how long they’ve been around. As the SimilarWeb comparison below shows, BritBox is seeing increases, while Acorn is seeing the opposite. According to their traffic estimates, BritBox currently gets about 60% as much traffic as Acorn. They also have about half as many sites linking to their service, which is not too shabby for roughly one year in operation. While Acorn and BritBox both put substantial effort into search engine marketing, BritBox’s organic to paid ratio is slightly more favorable, and BritBox has extensive display campaigns across other networks. Most of the competitive intelligence tools I checked show far less display advertising activity from Acorn.
What Does This Mean for British TV Lovers?
In the short-term, probably not much. In the long-term, Acorn TV is going to face the same issue Netflix is facing right now. Original rights holders are recognizing the value of their content and hanging onto more of it. Meanwhile, more and more Americans are discovering British TV and driving up the value of those rights. It will be tough for a company like RLJ/Acorn to compete unless they spend more or get involved at the production stages by either commissioning the content themselves or getting involved in the funding as shows are produced so they can secure the rights early. Granted, that’s a riskier strategy since you can’t always know in advance what will be successful – but once something is a hit, those rights become a lot more expensive. This is something AMC has been doing pretty well with (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead). They may be able to score some deals buying production rights to canceled shows that maybe didn’t do so well in the UK, but which were well-received by US audiences (as seems to be the case with Agatha Raisin).
We still strongly recommend Acorn TV as a streaming service, as that and BritBox are by far the best options out there for British television. We do worry a bit about Acorn’s future, though, especially since we love the way they’ve aggregated so much British content in one convenient place. Lately, we’ve seen some other networks get exclusive rights to prime British content – like the JK Rowling Cormoran Strike series at Cinemax – and that’s just annoying for everyone. Nobody wants to maintain half a dozen different subcriptions to get content, particularly when those services only offer one or two things we actually want.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Quarterly losses have been decreasing, and RLJ’s majority ownership of the Agatha Christie rights continues to deliver solid returns. If an AMC takeover allows for even greater creative leverage of each company’s assets, the future could be bright. It’s too soon to tell.
The one thing we REALLY hope they don’t do is redesign the user interface to make it more like Netflix or Amazon (or god forbid, that ridiculous new Hulu interface). I constantly hear people mentioning how great it is that Acorn TV has a simple, functional interface that isn’t constantly changing. I agree, and I’m especially grateful they’ve resisted the temptation to do that obnoxious auto-play thing Netflix does. It’s nice when something just works, so THANK YOU, Acorn TV.
We genuinely wish RLJ and AMC the best, whatever their future relationship may be. They face an increasingly competitive marketplace, and we hope their team is able to successfully navigate those challenges and keep delivering quality British content for many years to come.
Edit: One of our readers, Liberty W., mentioned that AMC regularly solicits opinions through their Popular Culturists program. To sign up and make sure your voice is heard, click here.