Ofcom has paused the Beeb’s plans to expand BBC iPlayer, over apparent concerns for its commercial competitors.
The BBC has made no secret of its plans to grow iPlayer into a digital hub in its own right, evolving it from a catch-up destination to a platform for long-term box sets, with such additional features as voice recognition, personalisation and artificial intelligence. Indeed, the BBC is facing a tough test in the current online marketplace, as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others enjoy rapid growth – according to recent Ofcom figures, iPlayer is the most popular on-demand service in the UK, used by around a third of the country, ahead of Netflix’s 16 per cent. Around 10 million people visit BBC iPlayer every week. The BBC hopes to double that to 20 million.
Personalisation has already started to be introduced, with box set launches of new programmes alongside their weekly broadcast an increasingly common occurrence – Killing Eve, Trust and Informer are just some of the shows that have been released all-at-once on iPlayer in recent weeks. Over Christmas last year, meanwhile, box sets including Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders delivered BBC iPlayer’s best week on record, with more than 29.4 million requests a day for the additional content. Only last week, the BBC revealed the first of several planned exclusive box sets aimed at young adults, with the debut of The A List, iPlayer’s answer to Riverdale.
But while the BBC and government have agreed to include iPlayer until the TV Licence Fee, the corporation is simultaneously facing financial pressures, which makes it even more of a challenge, as commercial companies such as Netflix can spend far greater amounts on content and marketing. In 2017, the BBC confirmed that £34 million will be spent by the corporation in children’s content and services over the next three years, to help boost its offering for children, both in terms of content and interactivity. Netflix, by comparison, is spending $8 billion on content this year. While the streaming giants can splash £100 million on The Crown, for example, the Beeb is under pressure by the government to cut its costs by around £800 million.
One option considered has been to launch a paid subscription streaming service for shows from the BBC’s archive, alongside ITV and Channel 4. Even with talks resuming once again earlier this year, though, that idea is yet to gather any steam.
Any further official expansion, meanwhile, has been placed on hold by Ofcom, which claims that there are concerns about the “public interest” involved in iPlayer’s success as it could impact other, commercial streaming services, including ITV Hub, All 4 and My5.
“As a result of the BBC offering substantial amounts of extra content, free of charge and free from advertising, commercial video-on-demand services may be squeezed and find it harder to make money from their own content,” said Ofcom in a report released yesterday.
“We support the BBC’s ambition to evolve and renew its content and services,” it added, “but we are also mindful that when the BBC wishes to make changes, this could significantly affect competition in the wider UK media market.”
For example, the changes might “[crowd] out investment in UK content and services from other companies, which could ultimately reduce choice for viewers and listeners”.
“While the BBC faces increasing competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, in the UK it remains a large organisation with a unique funding mechanism,” commented Ofcom.
The regulator will allow the BBC to keep its current box sets and add other series already approved for distribution on BBC iPlayer, but further plans beyond “minor changes” must be halted until a public interest test has been carried out. This test will involve the corporation fully considering competition concerns if a new and improved iPlayer were developed and launched. The BBC Board originally assessed its planned changed and decided they weren’t material enough to warrant a public interest test. Ofcom, however, disagreed.
A BBC spokesperson told The Telegraph: “BBC iPlayer is vital to our audiences, particularly younger ones – it’s the way they increasingly consume content. Our approach is simply about making the iPlayer a better experience for users with the great British content they love, such as Bodyguard, Killing Eve and Blue Planet II. The reality is that we are operating in a UK market which has changed fundamentally with the advent of global tech giants who have deep pockets but do not reflect Britain and all its diversity. Ultimately, we need to ensure that regulation acts in the interest of the wider public and supports the healthy future of Britain’s creative industries. We are sure Ofcom will recognise that.”