BBC News reaches an average of 468 million people a week worldwide, up by 11% in a year. That was partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, BBC News recorded the highest reach of any international media organisation in the world, with 310 million people accessing coverage across 42 languages. The BBC is now planning to launch an online subscription video service, initially aimed at North America, but reaching scale remains a challenge.

“We are without question one of Britain’s strongest and best-known brands, synonymous with quality and accuracy worldwide,” said Lord Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, who also talked of “unleashing the full global potential of the BBC.”

India represents the largest national market for the BBC outside Britain, with over 60 million users of BBC News. It is followed by the United States, with nearly 50 million, and Nigeria, with 37 million, according to the BBC Global Audience Measure.

The BBC is planning to establish a new ‘highly curated’ subscription video service, specialising in politics, culture and ideas. Initially aimed at North America, it could be expanded to a wider international market.

A team of executives at BBC Studios, the commercial arm of the corporation, have been working on the project. Staff are being recruited in New York to lead the launch.

Tim Davie, the chief executive of BBC Studios, will become the director general of the BBC in September. One of his key challenges will be how to secure the funding of the corporation.

The question remains whether the BBC can translate its global reach and recognition into a substantial subscription business.

For many years, the BBC has been building up a catalogue of high-quality factual programming commissioned for BBC Four, originating over 100 hours a year. With a relatively modest budget of £44 million, BBC Four aims to be the most intellectually and culturally enriching channel on British television, offering an ambitious range of national and international arts, music, culture and factual programmes.

BBC Four has a relatively small but loyal audience, reaching about 12% of the population in the United Kingdom each week. In the first week of July 2020, the top programme on the channel was Art of Persia, presented by BBC journalist Samira Ahmed, with an audience of 723,000.

There is likely to be as much demand for this type of programming internationally and some may even be prepared to pay a small monthly subscription for access.

The challenge will be competing with big names like Netflix, with approaching 200 million subscribers worldwide, with over 72 million in the United States and Canada, up by 6.4 million in a year.

The BBC currently has a joint venture with commercial broadcaster ITV in BritBox, which launched in the United States in 2017, followed by Canada in 2018. It has over a million subscribers after three years, paying $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year. It is due to expand to Australia and up to 25 countries. A version launched in the United Kingdom in November 2019, with the BBC taking a 10% stake, with the option to extend to 25%. It is said to be ‘on plan’ although no subscriber numbers have been released.