Monday, September 14, 2015

Streaming Showcase: Acorn TV

My Streaming Showcase series looks at both SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) streaming services AND free channels. We took a look at the free-but-not-even-worth-the-hassle-at-that-price Crackle; today it's Acorn TV, a much, much better offering that comes at a price.

(Reminder: my judgments of these services/channels are based on viewing them on Roku 3 unless otherwise noted)

Acorn TV is a service created by what is now RLJ Entertainment to utilize the television catalog of Acorn Media, a company specializing in British TV DVDs. Acorn Online offers fairly upscale gifts along with DVDs, and for $4.99 a month (or $49.99 for a full year), you get free shipping as well as access to the Acorn TV service.

Acorn is a niche service, to be sure, and if you are opposed to accents in general or British programs in general, then you can move on (though you can get a month free). You might wonder, "Isn't all this stuff on BBC America or PBS or Hulu?" Well, not at all. Acorn offers not just recent series, but a significant amount of library material dating back to the 1970. BBC America of course doesn't bother with that sort of thing anymore, and while you can certainly see some of this on your local PBS station on the weekend, Acorn offers a lot more than just played-out Britcoms like "Are  You Being Served?" Uh, I should mention that one is NOT on Acorn at all, actually. You can also find a lot of this content on Hulu or even YouTube, but Acorn runs it commercial free in good (if not HD) quality, often with closed captioning and therefore provides a superior experience.

Additionally, Acorn has started co-producing original content that does end up on PBS but premiering it first on its own channel. As an example, the most recent series of "Foyle's War"debuted as an Acorn exclusive, as did the sixth season of "Doc Martin." The company announced last week that "Doc Martin" series 7 will premiere in October on Acorn before eventually turning up on PBS stations. As a fan of both programs, I'll warn anyone tempted to just wait for the free airings that in the past, American public broadcasting versions have been edited down, but Acorn has the full episodes.

Acorn carries many complete runs of programs, some selections of multiple seasons/"series", and some it doles out one season at a time. What kind of programming does it emphasize? If you guessed "mysteries" and "crime shows," well, you are either psychic or you have just noticed what 85% of all British programming that makes it over here is. In both the older and newer content on the service, mystery and crime reigns supreme.

You can enjoy staples like "Cracker," "Poirot," "Inspector Morse," "Prime Suspect," and "Midsomer Murders." However, Acorn has branched out by going beyond England, Scotland, and Ireland to add programs from places like Australia and New Zealand.

"A Place to Call Home," a post-WWII melodrama, is one of the more popular non-British, non-mystery shows on Acorn. In addition to the dramas, there is also an assortment of comedies, and this year Acorn has expanded its collection of documentaries and non-fiction series focusing on history, the arts, and the monarchy among other topics.

I know that the crime procedurals bring in a lot of eyeballs both here and on other channels that provide British TV stateside, and it's great to have access to so much of it in one place. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to some of the quirkier and lesser known efforts. I just saw and greatly enjoyed the first episode of a new half-hour dramedy called "The Detectorists" with Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as two metal detector enthusiasts. Old episodes of an outstanding comedy panel/quiz show called "QI," hosted by Stephen Fry, are available with more coming next month.

Other personal favorites: Dramedy "Cold Feet" with the great James Nesbitt, finally available to me after BBC America pulled it years ago before I could see the final seasons; "Monroe" with Nesbitt as a difficult but brilliant neurosurgeon; "Trivia," a delightful, low-key comedy about a pub-quiz-obsessed man with some social maladjustments; and "Drop the Dead Donkey," a fast-paced, dialogue-driven, topical sitcom set in a TV newsroom in the early 1990s.

Acorn TV is thankfully easy to use. You can add series to a watchlist, and while it takes a while to load up your full list, it is accessible and simple to navigate. There are options to browse and search the catalog, and I can't remember having any kind of streaming problem once a program began. Pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding are smooth.

Best of all is the transparency about programming. Often learning what is coming to a SVOD service like Netflix is a bigger mystery than even "Agatha Christie's Marple" (which IS on Acorn) could solve, but Acorn is refreshing in its openness about what is coming and going. Each month it announces what is leaving and what is arriving, and it always gives at least 30 days' notice so you can catch up with something if need be.

Plus the selection is stable. Acorn has about 150 distinct programs (with multiple seasons of each), miniseries, and movies by my count, and each month it adds a handful new ones, with only a few leaving in most months. I have never noticed the kind of exodus you get when a Netflix contract expires, presumably because Acorn has more control over these streaming rights.

It must be said, as well, that Acorn TV's library is much, much smaller than that of a Netflix. As I said, it's a niche product. However, it offers quality, and I think it's "no BS" interface plus lack of commercials helps provde value for your 5 bucks a month. I do have some qualms about the content; I'd like to see more variety and particular more comedies. Some lower-brow comedies like "Men Behaving Badly," with Acorn star Martin Clunes, would be nice. Hulu has only 3 seasons of that one, and I'd love to see the rest on here.

Really anything apart from the recent mysteries and crime dramas would be a nice change of pace. I continue to look for more Britcoms and more 1970s and 1980s programming.  Yes, a lot of that is in heavy rotation on PBS stations, but there is plenty of quality out there to give us. For comedies, how about the original "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" (the remake with Clunes is on Acorn)?  I don't believe "The Royle Family" is streaming anywhere now, nor "The Thin Blue Line."

A few other suggestions: How about the brilliant political espionage drama "The Sandbaggers"? Or if you want to stick to the crime zone, how about "The Sweeney"?

Basically I love what is on Acorn and how to view it, but I only wish there were more of it. I do appreciate the fact that this channel doesn't rotate tons of shows in and out like, say, Warner Archive Instant. Folks who compare Acorn TV to some of the big boys of SVOD may balk at the subscription fee, but this channel delivers what it promises, and I think fans of British television will easily get their five dollars' worth each month.

Grade: B+ (A- in months with new episodes of "Doc Martin" and "Foyle's War")

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