As the on demand TV revolution has built up pace, the BBC has had a major asset at its disposal in the form of iPlayer, a project into which the Corporation ploughed a lot of investment prior to its launch in 2007 at a time when the ROI on such spend was still largely a leap of faith.
Since then, the advent of similar on demand viewing technologies and the rise of the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix has changed the nature of how people watch television. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC was never shackled (officially) by the need to chase ratings and as such has been better placed to evolve towards the on demand model than, for example, ITV, which still needs to deliver ratings on the night to keep its advertisers happy.
The recent Christmas holiday viewing figures illustrate perfectly how much has changed. Overnight figures on Christmas Day make the point that ‘live’ viewing is now a highly fickle state of affairs. Christmas Night 2016 saw an overnight audience of 5.9 million for EastEnders, a far cry from the towering heights of 30 million for the same show on Christmas Day back in the late eighties.
That’s no reflection on EastEnders - all the BBC’s Christmas Day ‘bankers’ were down year-on-year. And they all added significantly to their final ratings figures, released a week later, once the catch-up numbers on iPlayer were factored in. In fact, for the week from 26 December to 1 January, iPlayer had its best ever week, with 69.3 million viewing requests, topping off its best ever month with 281 million viewing requests.
So iPlayer matters a lot to the BBC, particularly in a TV market in which Netflix is producing more and more content and effectively morphing into an original content creator like the BBC itself. What makes this even more interesting is that the BBC itself has a case of Netflix-envy and wants to build more of its upstart rival’s business and operating models into its own workings. That’s hugely significant at a time when there is much debate about the future role and funding of the Corporation.
In the UK, iPlayer enjoys phenomenal brand awareness, coming third on YouGov BrandIndex’s list of the top brands, but Netflix made its debut the Top Ten this year. coming in in sixth place. According to 2016 figures from regulator Ofcom, in 2015 iPlayer was used by almost a third of the UK population, compared to Netflix on 16%.
But Netflix is now engaged on a major global expansion and throwing $6 billion this year alone on original content, while its subscriber numbers are on the rise. So all told, now’s the time to start thinking about how to shore up the iPlayer brand and to build out functionality for the future.
That’s certainly top of mind for BBC Director General Tony Hall, who’s calling for a near complete overhaul of iPlayer through Artificial Intelligence, voice recognition and increased personalisation capabilities as part of the wider drive to “reinvent public broadcasting for a new generation”.
At the heart of his ambitions is the need to move from being a catch-up service to being a Netflix-type broadcaster of original content:
We need it to make the leap from a catch-up service to a must-visit destination in its own right. Our goal, even in the face of rapid growth by our competitors, is for iPlayer to be the number one online TV service in the UK. That will mean doubling our reach, and quadrupling the time each person spends on it every week. And we want do it by 2020. That's tough, but I know we can do it.
Hall acknowledges that the changing nature of the competitive global broadcast markets has significant implications for the BBC. Nation may well continue to speak unto nation, but these days there’s no guarantee that anyone’s listening. They might be too busy with the latest series of Orange Is The New Black.
Data and the audience
Once upon a time the BBC was affectionately referred to as Auntie - as in Auntie knows best and will tell you, the viewer, what you need and what is best for you. That’s not going to fly anymore and Hall knows it. The trick now is knowing your audience and following them, but with the added complication for the BBC of having to also meet its public service broadcaster remit. Hall says:
Data is creating a flight to quality. It means audiences can find the best of public service broadcasting - but only if they sign in. Each month, we now have around three million active signed-in users. I want to make that 20 million. And I want us to get there as quickly as possible.
More than anything else, this is what our future success will depend on. By finding out more about our audiences and what they like, we can make better content, make it more relevant, and bring it to them more effectively. The closer and more personal our relationship with our audiences, the more I'm certain they will choose the BBC.
In terms of the existing BBC operating model, the most radical shift could end up being appeasing the ‘box set binge’ mentality that Netflix has fostered. Currently, the BBC will produce a new series of Poldark or Doctor Who and drip-feed out the episodes a week at a time on broadcast television, before then making the broadcast episodes available for a fixed period of time on iPlayer for catch-up.
Meanwhile Netflix tees up 10 episodes of The Crown or 13 episodes of House of Cards and drops them all online at the same time, allowing viewers to consume all at once or over whatever time period they choose. It’s possible in the future that the BBC might consider launching the next series of Poldark in a ‘box set’ before following up with episodes on broadcast channels. a complete reversal of the norm today.
There’s been an attempt to experiment with this with the recent production of Class, a spin-off from Doctor Who which aired first on BBC3, now only available via iPlayer online. In this instance, the eight episodes were released sequentially, not in one go, with the BBC1 broadcast of the same episodes only now taking place.
The success or otherwise of this will be tracked closely no doubt, but it’s questionable how much can really be discerned from this case in point. It’s notable that the BBC chose to experiment with a new brand with some tangential relationship to Doctor Who rather than risk one of its biggest global brands by dropping the next series of the mothership show online.
The future role of the BBC is something that has been a national agenda topic in the UK since the Corporation’s inception. Successive governments, of whatever political complexion, end up with BBC-paranoia at some stage, suspicious that the broadcaster is undermining them or favoring their rivals. It’s usually a good indicator of balance - and at a time when the Trump administration seems hellbent on eliminating the freedom of the press in the US, the need for the BBC is greater than ever.
But it has to adapt and change and at present it’s a complicated hybrid beast. It’s funded by the state in the main, but its commercial interests are ever more visible, including ventures such as BBC America. As more and more choice becomes available, the BBC’s ideological and political enemies will make the case ever more shrilly that the mandate licence fee funding model is archaic.
With that in mind, investing in iPlayer’s capabilities is a clear priority. It’s not going to solve all the BBC’s problems or answer all the questions around its future shape and role - and there are legitimate questions that need to be addressed - but it’s a major asset and it needs to be nurtured. My only caution - don’t fixate on being Netflix; fixate on being a 21st Century BBC.