BBC iPlayer is part of their digital DNA

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 21, 2014
The on demand iPlayer service has been one of the BBC’s shining lights in recent years, but's its absence over the past few days and the reaction that provoked indicates a higher status in the digital DNA.

Over the past year as the BBC was being hauled over the coals over its astonishing waste of £100 million of public money on its doomed Digital Media Initiative, there’s been one thing that the broadcaster has been able to point to with pride as proof that of its technical capabilities: iPlayer.

The on demand iPlayer service has been one of the BBC’s shining lights in recent years, positioning the corporation well in an age of time-shift viewing where the published schedules effectively become just the ‘day of publication’ as it were.

The stats are impressive. For the full year 2013, the BBC saw:

a record 3 billion requests, up a third on 2012
a 104% increase year on year in BBC iPlayer requests from tablets
downloads of the BBC iPlayer mobile app hitting over 20 million.
Top shows were Top Gear with 3.4 million requests, and Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary Day of the Doctor on 3.1 million.

So when the iPlayer suddenly wasn’t there this weekend, cutting viewers off from EastEnders, the German Grand Prix and the British Open, it became a national talking point, affirming perhaps that the way we watch television has changed forever.

This was a major problem for many people who had become used to the convenience of deciding when and where and how to consume content - and they didn’t like that choice being taken away from them!

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The problems began on 19 July with the build-up of a severe load on the servers underlying the video-on-demand system. Viewers were getting slow response times for some services or were seeing errors saying a programme or clip was not available on various other BBC online sites. Then network engineers at internet service providers (ISPs) including Virgin Media, starting flagging up reports of problems with the iPlayer and other BBC video traffic.

As of this morning, normal service appears to have been resumed with a BBC spokesperson stating:

BBC iPlayer, BBC iPlayer Radio and other parts of BBC Online that were affected by problems over the weekend are now up and running. Our teams continue to investigate the problem to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

The big question now is whether this was an accidental overload of the system or a deliberate attempt to cause problems? With the BBC’s status as the UK state broadcaster - and the place to turn in times of crisis - having the BBC News homepage effectively out of action was a sorry situation.

The shape of things to come

The outage came just a week before the BBC’s new CTO Matthew Postgate is due to take up his role. Ironically Postgate was one of the poineering team behind iPlayer and led its first public value test.

Postgate is the full time replacement for John Linwood, who was ousted in 2013 after being held accountable for the failure of the £100 million Digital Media Initiative. Linwood has claimed he was unfairly dismissed and is awaiting the ruling of an employment tribunal.


This is the first major outage for iPlayer, but there are precedents of course elsewhere, most notably the Christmas 2012 crash of NetFlix in the US, Canada and Latin America, which was caused by problems with Amazon Web Services.

Dot's missing her iPlayer

But it’s really interesting to observe the palapable sense of ‘loss’ that the BBC problems have generated. On a personal note, I’ve felt deeply annoyed at not being able to catch-up on a couple of programmes over the weekend, especially as a non-sports fan trapped in a summer of televised sporting hell!

The general reaction to the outage highlights how quickly the iPlayer functionality has altered the viewing patterns and expectations of a digitally savyy audience on a national scale. It’s little wonder then that the BBC places so much importance on it and its future development.

One thorny question remains that fact that iPlayer offers a way around having to pay the BBC licence fee. For non-UK readers, the BBC is funded through a compulsary £145.50 levy, non-payment of which can result in a fine of £1000.

But the licence fee system was put in place long before digital innovations such as iPlayer and before people were as likely to use their iPad to watch Strictly Come Dancing as they are a TV set in the corner of the room.

So as long as you don’t view live streaming of TV programmes and only use the catch-up capabilties, then iPlayer can be accessed entirely free of charge.

This has led to calls from many parties for a radical overhaul of the existing system. The BBC estimates that 2% of households – 500,000 – in the UK only consume on-demand TV content, rather than watching programmes live.

Earlier this month Lord Burns, the CEO of rival broadcaster Channel 4, called for iPlayer to become a paid subscription service along the same lines as Netflix, Now TV and Prime Instant Video. This would, he argued - less than persuasively - be a good thing as it would lead to greater engagment with a younger demographic:

This is the first big opportunity to move towards conditional access - no pay, no play - but they won’t even think about it because they think it is the first step towards subscription. They will not even think about it because they are so wedded to the licence fee.

All the young people who are watching on their computers [without a licence fee] and don’t realise they are breaking the law, these are the first people who are showing us what is going to happen. The BBC have said they want the iPlayer to be at the centre of the future. Down the road, later in life, everything will be internet based.

Now that's making a lot of assumptions about the 'young people' and their attitude to the licence fee. Some clearly have their own thoughts on the matter:

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In any case, this is not something that the BBC, fiercely resistant to any change to the current model of funding, is ready to contemplate. Earlier this year, BBC Director General Tony Hall stated:

To those who say that the licence fee undermines competition, I point to ITV, Sky, BT, Virgin Media, YouTube, Mail Online, Apple, Netflix and Amazon and say “I refute it thus”

[Critics] say the licence fee is a dinosaur from a pre-digital age, doomed to inevitable extinction in an on-demand world where you don’t watch live TV.

The facts just don’t bear this out. Around 90% of all television viewing is still live. Well under 2% of households consume only on-demand TV content. And this number is growing only slowly.

Meanwhile James Purnell, the BBC’s director of strategy and digital, argues that with online delivery as the future of television, charging a subscription fee would be akin to locking the BBC in what he poetically calls the

ghetto of the past.

You can't sonic this one better

Last month, giving evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry into the future of the BBC, Purnell expanded on his points to a committee of legislators during which he argued that it was up to Parliament to take action and expressed surprise that it hadn’t done so before now:

There is a question of how the licence fee works in practice and the technology around that, that can be solved through parliament.

One proposal that has been put forward is to have a core TV licence, supplemented by a ‘top up’ fee for non-core content, but Purnell has his doubts, beginning with the problem of how to define ‘core’ and ‘non-core’:

How do you decide which services would be in the main licence fee and which would be in the top up. It is likely quite hard to get to agreement about that. Creating the bit for marginal [services] would be very hard. And it might be pretty hard to get money to fund those services.”

Even if it could be done I’m not sure it would be a terribly good idea in practice. We tried to model it - putting BBC3, BBC4, online and iPlayer [in top up] - and it would only save a household £1.40 per month. But if they wanted to pay to get them all back they would pay twice the [monthly] licence fee they are at the moment. Far more people would lose than win, and what they are getting is quite marginal.

My take

What did we do before the iPlayer?

It’s a genuine question as the ability to shape the TV schedules around my own schedule has become a vital part of my life. When it was taken away at the weekend, it was an unexpected shock. It’s probably not a particularly healthy reaction but it prompted genuine irritation.

But as iPlayer has become such a crucial strategic platform for the BBC - to the extent of closing down one of its TV channels and moving it to iPlayer only! - there does need to be a wider debate about funding.

Director General Hall has already pointed the way toward encrypting iPlayer so that only licence fee holders can access it, but it’s hard to see how this works in practical terms. Some hard thinking needs to take place about what form the BBC wants its digital future to take - and how it plans to pay for it.

But for now, I’ve got some programmes to catch up on…

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