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New BBC subscription streaming channel in India signals future beyond the TV licence fee

The BBC will launch a Netflix-style subscription service in India, offering hit shows including Strictly Come Dancing, in a move signalling the broadcaster is preparing for a future beyond the licence fee.

The BBC hopes to gain a foothold in India’s £1.4bn streaming market by selling £5 annual passes to a subscription-only streaming platform, giving viewers access to the “best of British” TV, including Sherlock, Strictly, Happy Valley and Top Gear.

A BBC insider said it would play a “significant role” in supporting the corporation, which has question marks over its future funding model.

The India deal will please ministers, currently reviewing the licence fee, who want the BBC to maximise its commercial income by selling hit shows and channels abroad.

A BBC insider said: “A global streaming service offering the best of British TV would play a significant role in filling the funding gap if the licence fee is cut back further. But it’s challenging because the BBC doesn’t have the international rights to include every show.”

BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial wing, has struck a deal with Amazon to offer India’s 20 million Prime Video users add-on subscriptions to a new BBC Player and BBC Kids channel.

Last year BBC Studios generated £2bn in sales, returning a record £362m to the core BBC to bolster the licence fee, with £177m invested in creating new shows.

For just 599 rupees (£5.70), subscribers in India get annual access to BBC Player, a “one-stop curated destination” which also features non-BBC hits including Bake Off and ITV crime drama Unforgotten.

Children’s favourites like Hey Duggee feature on BBC Kids, which is included in the Player fee.

With the iPlayer not legally available to users outside the UK, since it is funded by licence fee payers at home, executives believe there is an untapped international market for a BBC-branded streaming service.

BBC Player is currently available in Singapore, Malaysia, Germany and Poland, with more countries set to follow.

Stanley Fernandes, VP of distribution at BBC Studios, South Asia, said the Player would offer “the best of British entertainment to the discerning Indian audience”.

LONDON, UK - JANUARY 29: Indian diaspora gather outside BBC headquarters in London to protest against BBC documentary on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on January 29, 2023 in London, UK. (Photo by Burak Bir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The BBC faced protests over a documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi which angered the Indian government (Photo: Getty)

The BBC believes Indian viewers will be intrigued to see the original British version of its hit celebrity dance show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa. Sanjeev Bhaskar’s leading role in Unforgotten will be used to market the police drama which originally starred Nicola Walker.

Cracking the Indian streaming market has proved tough for Netflix however.

Executive chairman Reed Hastings admitted the tech giant was frustrated by its performance in the country where Netflix lags behind Amazon Prime and Disney +.

In a separate deal, BBC Studios will also create localised adaptations of popular UK dramas for Indian audiences, beginning with Shameless, the series about an anarchic family on a council estate which ran on Channel 4.

Relations between the BBC and the Indian government remain sensitive after the authorities attempted to block people sharing a critical documentary produced by the corporation about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The BBC’s Delhi offices were raided by Indian income tax authorities, and in April an investigation was opened into the broadcaster for alleged violations of foreign exchange rules.

The BBC will make suggestions for reforming the licence fee to a government review into its funding announced this week. Options include switching the charge to a digital household levy, which would potentially mean more people paying for the BBC.

New commercial initiatives could include selling a “weekend pass”, giving music fans complete digital access to the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, whilst headline sets remain on free channels.

Vivek Srivastava, head of Prime Video Channels, India said: “We are thrilled to collaborate with BBC Studios. Their wide range of programming is highly renowned and enjoyed by audiences world over.”

“With the launch of BBC Player and BBC Kids, Prime members in India too, will be able to enjoy their favourite British content on a single destination for the first time.”

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