Market Insight

BBC calls for changes to end decline in iPlayer

May 03, 2019

Tim Westcott Tim Westcott Director, Research and Analysis, Programming

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The BBC wants to make changes to its online BBC iPlayer service with the stated aim of transforming it from a 'catch-up service to a destination'. The public broadcaster published its plans this week at the behest of communications regulator Ofcom, which has launched a consultation to assess the impact of changes to the iPlayer on competing services.

The BBC's main proposed changes are:

  • To extend the availability of all BBC commissions from the current 30 days to at least 12 months after the release of the last episode
  • To make full box sets of selected returning titles available
  • A selection of non-returning programmes made available for longer or brought back from the archive.

In its proposal, the BBC said that the iPlayer, launched in 2007, had seen its share of video-on-demand viewing fall from 40% in 2014 to around 15% now. A key reason is that people looking for online content tend not to go to the iPlayer as a first choice, with many audiences only visiting the iPlayer one or twice in a quarter. A key reason, the BBC believes, is that consumers are more likely to browse other services which have a deeper and broader offer of content. Its research found that 71% of respondents said they would use the iPlayer more often if its changes are introduced.

The changes would, the BBC's research found, increase reach of the iPlayer by 13.6% and increase time spent on it. Crucially, however, BBC share of on demand viewing would be almost unchanged given the overall growth of the market. The BBC believes that its proposed changes are simply bringing the BBC 'into line with the industry standard', would give licence fee payers better value for their money. ITV has recently amended its terms of trade to allow it to retain online rights to commissions for 12 months, while Channel 4 has a five-year window for content on its All 4 online service.  

The BBC does accept that an increase in usage of the iPlayer would impact on other streaming services, US-owned SVoD services and linear TV channels. However, it argues that this impact is marginal and would not 'crowd out' competition.

Ofcom said it expected to make a decision on whether to approve that iPlayer changes in around three months.

Our analysis

The BBC makes a strong case for the changes to the iPlayer - with its current 30-day window looking increasingly out of sync with the industry norm in the UK. A longer window is clearly beneficial from a public value point of view. The BBC tested its art history documentary series Civilisations on a 12-month iPlayer window and while views inevitably tailed off over time, cumulative views increased by 10% (compared to the initial 30 days). 

However, while a longer window for the iPlayer makes sense for the free-to-view side of the BBC's offering, the BritBox subscription service, which the BBC is planning to launch in partnership with ITV and possibly other UK broadcasters, will pose further questions about how to optimise exploitation of BBC content, with scope for possible consumer confusion. It seems likely that only older box sets will be available on BritBox, given the likelihood that past seasons of continuing series on the BBC are likely to be earmarked for the iPlayer.

The other trade-off the BBC will make is with its lucrative licensing deals with US-owned subscription video-on-demand platforms, Amazon and Netflix. They will be less interested in acquiring streaming rights to BBC-produced series if they have to wait an additional 11 months. The BBC will effectively be realising no additional revenue from archive series on the iPlayer which would otherwise have been licensing to third parties.   

Another conundrum relates to independent commissions. Producers association PACT has expressed concern about the impact of a 12-month window on the secondary market for their commissions in the UK, and on their ability to raise production funding. The BBC argues that the impact on will be limited given that it fully funds half of its independent commissions. 

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