Views on BBC iPlayer fell for the third month in a row in April. Is it a temporary blip or a longer trend?
The BBC’s catch-up service has enjoyed a strong start to 2015, with January seeing 343 million TV and radio requests – the highest number in its history. Since then, though, usage of iPlayer has steadily declined, with requests falling to 299 million in February, then 278 million in March. April 2015 saw 271 million requests, its third consecutive month-on-month decline.
The drop in activity arrives just as the BBC premiered its first BBC One sitcom online ahead of linear TV broadcast: Peter Kay’s Car Share. The show performed well in April, with Episode 1 receiving 1.495 million requests (including live-streams and on-demand), making it the month’s most popular episode.
All six instalments totalled 3.7 million requests in April, although it’s notable that no other episodes were in the top 20, meaning that fewer than 853,000 watched each subsequent chapter while they were available early on iPlayer. Poldark Episode 5 and 6 made up the second and third most popular episodes, as viewers continued to tune in to the drama, while Ordinary Lies also accounted for three of the 20 most popular episodes.
A range of factual titles also performed strongly, including Louis Theroux’s Transgender Kids (the fifth most popular programme); Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia (the eighth most popular programme); Young, Welsh And Pretty Skint (ninth); and Masterchef (10th).
Why the dip in demand? Dan Taylor-Watt, Head of BBC iPlayer, took to the BBC’s blogs to defend the decreasing audience, highlighting how much viewing behaviours change throughout the year.
“iPlayer usage changes significantly depending on the season with higher volumes of requests in the autumn and winter months, and lower volumes in the spring and summer,” he writes, noting that “as the majority of iPlayer consumption is still catch-up TV, there is a strong link between what’s broadcast on ‘telly’ and programmes requested on iPlayer”.
Indeed, EastEnders continues to account for a large proportion of activity on BBC iPlayer, regardless of the year, while viewing figures for other shows vary: during January’s record period, Christmas specials of Top Gear and Miranda helped to fuel activity.
April, though, remained surprisingly stable, with an average of 7.3 million TV requests per day, slightly up from 7.1 million in March 2015. Weekly TV requests fell to a low of 42 million in March but have risen now to a more consistent 51 million. Both, though, are down from the 69 million recorded in February.
There is the additional issue of how to measure viewing behaviour: BBC iPlayer is now watched on over 1,700 different devices and platforms, which means that it is becoming more difficult to track activity. The figures released every month do not include Virgin Media cable or Sky, while in March, 17 million requests were missing from the records. (It is worth noting that the figures do not include short-form content or iPlayer exclusives, such as Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake.)
BBC iPlayer also faces competition from other VOD services, as Netflix, Amazon Prime and others grow in popularity. The iPlayer chief argues that iPlayer “has not just maintained but continued to grow its usage” in the face of an increasing number of video on-demand services during recent years.
On a 12-month basis, April 2015’s 271 million total requests were up from 268 million in April last year. TV requests alone (218 million) were up by 14 million year-on-year, while the average 7.3 million daily TV requests have risen by 0.5 million.
“The last 12 months alone have seen a record-breaking 2.6 billion requests for TV programmes – up 10 per cent on the previous 12 months,” adds Taylor-Watt.
When compared to 2014, therefore, usage of BBC iPlayer is actually growing. As the summer arrives, though, will BBC iPlayer continue to perform better than previous years? Unlike 2014, there is no World Cup to help counter any seasonal decline in audiences. At the same time, Netflix is stepping up its original content with the high profile releases of both Sense8 and Orange Is the New Black Season 3. Which leaves one other question lingering in the air: is this what the future could be like for BBC iPlayer without Top Gear?