Watching BBC Programming in the US (legally)

My wife likes one particular BBC show: The Repair Shop, and it seems silly to subscribe to Discovery Plus just for that one show. Since it’s a BBC program, I’d thought it might also be on a BBC streaming service. There are at least five ways to get BBC shows in the US:

  • BBC America
  • BBC Select
  • BritBox
  • AcornTV
  • Discovery+

Neither of these seem to have the full breath and scope of all the BBC programs. Instead you have to figure out which ones have which programs (which isn’t easy because they don’t really list all of their programs), and you might have to subscribe to more than one, and even then, you might not get the program you’re looking for.

There is one other option that has all BBC programs, and that’s BBC’s iPlayer which also has ITV and other independent British produced programs. The catch, it’s not licensed in the US. I could use a VPN and pretend I’m in the UK and watch it, but that’s not really legal.

So, why not just allow you to subscribe to iPlayer outside of the UK? I’d be happy to pay for it. If you want to stream BBC fair, what do you use?

Wikipedia’s article about iPlayer says this:

Although US availability was also anticipated in 2011, an American launch date was never announced. Reports from the summer of 2012 claimed that American cable providers threatened to drop BBC America if the iPlayer, which duplicates much of the content on the cable channel, were made available in the US market. In a statement on the difficulties facing the US rollout, BBC’s Head of Communications for Global iPlayer Tessa Matchett said: “The United States is a very complex media market. Currently, we have one very successful cable channel in BBC America, and we’re looking into what options we have to roll out additional platforms in that country.”

Licensing media content across borders seems to be a very complicated thing.


That was almost a decade ago which is a lifetime in this market.

Back in 2012, cable companies ruled TV and made a ton of money on their cable offerings. You want your streaming channel on cable, you had to do what the cable companies told you to do. Now, it’s the channels that dictate to the cable companies. Cable TV isn’t profitable as it use to be.

Cable companies now make almost all of their money from Internet service. As far as cable companies are concerned, if cable tv fell disappeared tomorrow, they’d be thrilled. It’s just a hot mess of costs and rules and regulations.

Back in 2012, you couldn’t get HBO without cable. Now, HBO has more direct subscribers than people who subscribe through it via cable. The same is true for more other services.

Since then, the BBC has been offering BBC Select which is owned 100% by the BBC and I believe is streaming only. Why not offer all BBC and ITV content on that?

Maybe it’s licensing deals they previously signed with BBC America, Acorn, and BritBox. As you said, licensing media seems to be a very complicated thing.

This is because BBC America is a partnership with the US based AMC commercial network. AMC owns 49.9%, and they are a commercial TV station that sells advertising. It’s a whole different revenue generator then the subscription based, advertising free UK channels.

It’s also why you can watch Star Trek on BBC America in prime time or near prime time, but Dr. Who is scheduled later at night…Officer Spock brings in bigger bucks. But non commercial US PBS stations pay to broadcast The Great British Baking Challenge, Call The Midwife, etc., and after the season is done, they wind up streaming on Netflix. Without the big bucks coming in from licensees abroad, the annual BBC subscription in Britain would cost a dramatically whole lot more.

It’s also why the BBC is increasing its newsrooms in the US, their BBC Worldwide channel in the US as well as coverage of US news channel, has been very successfully selling advertising:

“The Americas business has grown to bring in around a third of our total sales, with most of those revenues coming from the U.S.,” she added, referring to North and South America. Baird declined to share raw revenue figures. The BBC’s U.S. sales team has offices in L.A., Chicago and New York. The BBC has recently created branded content campaigns with advertisers like Hyundai and Corteva.”

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They still rule, and especially with the legalization of sports betting, the revenue is expected to grow exponentially:

Apple TV+ has debuted a new natural history series they produced with BBC Studios and David Attenborough:

TV+ is also launching the second season of a successful BBC series, Trying, they produced with the BBC:

And Apple is producing a TV+ series based on my very favorite Edith Wharton novel, The Buccaneers:

I do remember watching an excellent series of The Buccaneers around 30- 40 years ago that I think was produced by the BBC. I hope this series will be even better.

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I found out that Discovery+ is only 99¢ for the first two months, so I decided to do that. I really wanted to see The Repair Shop, Season 6, Episode 11 because of a betting bag on that episode. The Lock Picking Lawyer featured a strange lock he had no idea what it was. Someone said that this particular episode featured such a bag, and I wanted to see that episode.

I signed up for Discovery+, went to The Repair Shop, and it only goes up to Season 5. Seasons 6 through 10 are just not available for streaming.

You can’t win…

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The BBC are difficult to deal with. Even in Ireland the Player is successfully blocked. You have to use a VPN such as Mullvad and select a UK based server to even try. Then you will need a BBC account, email etc. Log in, assure them you have a TV license (which funds public broadcasting over here) and then, maybe, it will work.

To be honest, I’ve found Britbox, while it may not have your specific show, to be a reasonably good selection of UK programmes.

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That’s what you get for declaring your independence from the UK. Of course, you also didn’t have to put up with Boris Johnson as your Prime Minister, so we’ll call it a wash. :wink:

(Apparently even in the UK, Season 6 of The Repair Shop isn’t streaming, so maybe the whole thing has to do with Brexit.)

Can you watch BBC TV live in Ireland over cable or satellite? If so, my guess is that streaming might have run amiss of intellectual property issues. The Irish government might not have been able to negotiate what they consider to a fair price for a big package that includes streaming, downloading and broadcasting with the BBC.

Is advertising a part of the iPlayer service? There could be very convoluted issues if this is the case. And more often than not, intellectual property issues tend to be very confusing anyway.

Strangy-er and Strangy-er…

In the Discover Channel App, Season 6 of the Repair Shop doesn’t show up. However, if I open the Apple TV+ app, it shows me that Season 6 is available from the Discovery Channel App.

And yes, I saw the bag that the strange lock was for. This was an actually produced commercial bag called the TicTock Bag. It looks like the one on The Lock Picking Lawyer might be a homemade bag.

This isn’t the case – iPlayer only has BBC programmes. At one point if you searched for an ITV programme it would come up in the listings, but then kick you over to the ITV Hub to watch it (I think this was some sort of government-imposed ‘competition’ requirement). However, even that doesn’t seem to be in place anymore.

My understanding of how any of this works comes entirely from the excellent podcast “Downstream”. But according to them, the cable providers still impose significant limitations on what’s available on streaming in the US, either because of previously-signed deals that last for many years, or because there is still a lot of money to be made from linear TV. This came up when they were discussing the short-lived CNN+ which (I think) couldn’t show the normal news feed that’s available on cable.

Without getting into whether it’s a good system or not, this is because the BBC in the UK, including iPlayer, is funded by the licence fee and so restricted to UK residents. The BBC outside the UK is an entirely separate operation (used to be called BBC Worldwide, I don’t know if that’s still the name). Although it’s a subsidiary of the UK BBC, it has to be entirely self-sufficient financially.

Legally the BBC aren’t allowed to make iPlayer available in Ireland (or anywhere else). They could of course develop a separate non-UK version that requires a subscription fee. But I think that’s essentially what BritBox is supposed to be.

Note, also, that media rights are very complicated so even if none of this applied, the BBC might have the rights to air/stream something in the UK, but the production company has sold the rights to some other broadcaster for other countries. That is not a UK-specific issue, but often leads to streaming services being geo-fenced.


Oh I’m fully aware of the legals/rights issues. I simply meant by ‘difficult’ that they were good at enforcing it!


I understand that even using a VPN server in the UK will not work with iPlayer. It will not let you in at all if using a VPN.

So what about UK ex-pats living abroad?

(just curious)

As I mentioned before, BBC America is a partnership with AMC, a US commercial TV station. I also sourced some articles in this discussion, and one of them discusses how profitable the BBC has been in the Americas.

Expats wouldn’t be paying the licence fee so aren’t entitled to the (TV) service (of course the radio and web services remain largely available globally). It’s not about your citizenship, it’s about your residence.

The more genuine issue is a UK resident (with a valid TV licence) travelling: in the modern age of streaming, it doesn’t seem right that as soon as they are out of the UK they lose access to iPlayer. My understanding is that this is not unique to the BBC as there are other streaming services that are only available in certain geographies, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating.

iPlayer tries to block access from VPN servers, but some VPN services are good at either keeping under the radar or changing IP addresses frequently enough that they do allow access to iPlayer.

Yep, Mullvad VPN works from time to time.