BBC forced into iPlayer U-turn, casting doubt on ITV joint venture

The BBC’s decision to revamp its iPlayer in preparation for global streaming competition raises more questions than it answers and fails to address the corporation’s two great dilemmas, how to compete with the big SVoD or OTT streamers over content investment, and how to unlock an archive bogged down by secondary rights that it does not own.

In one sense, the BBC is merely ploughing the same furrow as its pubcaster counterparts elsewhere, especially in Europe, by investing in its streaming portal to compete with Netflix, Amazon and, in future, Disney, AT&T’s Warner Media, Comcast’s NBC Universal and Apple. These pubcasters share the BBC’s first problem of struggling to compete with these big players for original content investment, and so some are pooling resources at both national and pan-European levels. But the archive problem is more peculiar to the BBC, springing from its history of being funded entirely by taxpayers through a license fee. The archive issue dates back to the 1950s when the then conservative government was reluctant to allow a publicly owned institution to accumulate exclusive copyright and instead wanted writers, creators, actors on the cast and freelancers involved in production to retain secondary rights entitling them to payments whenever the programme was repeated – or now accessed online via the iPlayer or otherwise.

So, the irony is that while the BBC owns the primary rights to one of the biggest TV archives in the world, it has avoided making a lot of that content publicly available because of the rights payments that would have to be made. By contrast, other pubcasters that are funded partly through advertising have tended to retain full ownership of the copyright, usually having paid cast and creators more up front in return. They can therefore show repeats or provide online access without even informing these original participants. By contrast the BBC sometimes has to go on paying the estates of former participants or creators even after they are dead.

This shadow is hanging over the BBC’s reinvention of the iPlayer, as is the question of making more recently made content available on the portal indefinitely, rather than being limited to a month as at present, having originally been just a week.

Similar constraints have been imposed by regulators on other pubcasters, initially to mitigate what was deemed an unfair advantage over competitors, with the BBC having lobbied hard like its peers to have these restrictions removed. But controversy still hangs over the plan to show content indefinitely, with Pact, the body representing independent UK TV producers, making it clear that no agreements have been reached regarding compensation for its members over repeated access. It looks like the BBC is trying to steamroller these proposals through.

This comes at a time when the iPlayer has been quite rapidly losing share of online viewing in the UK against the advances of Netflix and Amazon in particular, but also because of other factors such as erosion of sports rights and changing viewing patterns among millennials.

Yet, the iPlayer was the envy of the world for several years after its launch in July 2007 and widely credited as a streaming pioneer, quickly gaining much larger numbers of viewers than commercial or pubcaster counterparts elsewhere, which were slow to catch up technically.

Even quite recently the portal has enabled the BBC to innovate with models admittedly now taken from the streamers, such as creating boxsets of entire series online during or before their linear TV broadcast. This has allowed the BBC to compare results of different packaging and consumption methods.

Otherwise, iPlayer has lost its advantage and indeed been overtaken in terms of the UI by the streamers, apart from being hamstring until now by the one month limit on how long new content can be made available, as well as the failure to liberate its archive.

The issue is not quality of service (QoS) of delivery itself, which is as much in the gift of the ISP as the BBC, and is no more of an issue than for any other service delivering both on demand and live. Apart from the archive and window issues, it is all about redesigning the UI and setting up the portal as the BBC’s primary vehicle for delivery, with Tony Hall, its director general, announcing this week that it will be “a new front door for British creativity”, providing “unprecedented levels of creative freedom” and a “broader shop window” on BBC platforms.

All well and good, but one aspect that is unclear is where this leaves the joint BritBox venture with its long-standing commercial rival ITV, which is due to launch around now for £5.99 (about $7.50) a month, pitched as a direct streaming alternative to Netflix at a lower price, just as Disney+ is in various markets. Now we have Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s director of content, saying, “iPlayer will become the heart of everything we do; the gateway to all our programmes – a ‘total TV’ experience, which will bring everything you want from BBC television into one place for the first time.”

And yet Hall has admitted that the BBC cannot compete over content budgets with Netflix, Amazon or Disney on its own, raising the question why it appears to be diluting its efforts around the collaborative BritBox venture. We have seen the impact of its content budget falling behind by desertion of major talent to the streamers. Amazon Video in September 2019 signed an exclusive three-year deal with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of the popular one-woman show Fleabag, worth about $20 million a year, to produce new shows exclusively for the platform. In the past, the BBC would have been tipped to sign up Waller-Bridge, having held UK rights to streaming of the shows from London’s National Theatre.

With the new iPlayer, the BBC will set out its stall as the master curator identifying more niche content, perhaps with more local appeal, which does suggest it may be reining back on its international strategy which has proved quite successful given the global demand for English language content.

The corporation argues, rather disingenuously, that it can score by avoiding the algorithms Netflix uses, which it argues lead gluts of series along themes identified as popular, such as drug crime barons. Yet a study of Netflix’s catalogue reveals that while there is a lot of such content, possibly too much, there are also plenty of more niche themes covered. The algorithms are more flexible than the BBC appreciates, or perhaps hopes, and are capable of identifying spreads of genres and themes and so precipitating production across a broader content base, not just a common denominator. If anything, the challenge for Netflix is leading all its subscribers towards something they may want to watch but did not realize was there or even did not appreciate they might like.

Mind you, some of the BBC’s European pubcaster peers seem to be flaying about in equally desperate search of inspiration to tackle the big streamers. After French regulators gave the go-ahead, erstwhile pubcaster commercial rivals France Televisions, rivals M6 and TF1 teamed up to create a joint subscription streaming platform Salto, set to launch Q1 2020. France Télévisions director-general Delphine Ernotte expressed annoyance at the regulatory delays that had delayed the launch, leaving pubcasters fiddling while Netflix burned acquisitions at the heady of 1 million in a year. The Salto case had been bounced between the European Commission and the French Autorité de la concurrence before both realized rather late that the enemy was not after all within France. Instead, former hatchets were buried to face the common foes from the US. Even then, in that most bureaucratic of countries, the final approval in August 2019 came with some thick strings attached, including guarantees against anticompetitive coordination in the rights acquisition market, commercialization of TV channels, distribution of pay TV services and exploiting the advertising market.

So, with one hand still tied, prospects for Salto do not look particularly good. There is also an air of pessimism in Spain around the joint catch-up platform, LovesTV, established by FTA broadcasters RTVE, Atresmedia, and Mediaset España without clear agreement over strategy.

There is greater optimism in France’s biggest neighbor, Germany, where pubcaster ProSiebenSat.1 has a taken a different tack by collaborating with Discovery, itself the first major pay TV operator to go global. This is focusing around several clear genres, including sports and lifestyle, rather than attempting to offer a complete OTT package, with plans then to expand its content range as it gains subscribers.

Some of these same pubcasters are also collaborating on a pan European scale through The Alliance, a co-production and co-financing venture. This begs the question of which language most of the content will be made in, given that inaugural members were Italy’s RAI, France Televisions and Germany’s ZDF. The answer seems to be English, judging by the case of Around the World in Eighty Days commissioned by Nathalie Biancolli of EVP International Scripted, and Médéric Albouy, Head of Drama Co-Productions, France Télévisions.

If so, the aim would be to compete with the big streamers on the international stage by pooling resources. It seems then that the big pubcasters can only really remain serious content players either through such partnerships or by collaborating with the big streamers themselves, as some of them have done. There is no use pretending, as the BBC seems to be doing, that success can be found through a personal curating touch opposing those supposedly cold algorithms. The BBC should note that recommendations have progressed a long way since the days of basic collaborative filtering as originally deployed by Amazon.