In a speech to the Royal Television Society last night the BBC's
director general, Mark Thompson, talked publicly for the first time
about 'Project Barcelona' - a new download service that will allow
people to buy and own BBC programmes for a "relatively-modest"
charge. This fee is thought to be about £1.89 a show but more on
that in a moment.
to the BBC website, Thompson also said that:
- UK producers would need to give their support to the
- The BBC intended to open up a "digital shop" for downloads
- Other existing providers (e.g. Lovefilm, Netflix etc.) would
also be able to buy the content
- And that more and more programmes from the BBC archive would be
added to the service
"It could mark an important step in broadcast's journey from
being a transitory medium into a growing body of outstanding and
valuable content which is always available to enjoy and which
persists forever," he added.
Sounds good but here are some questions - and possible answers -
about how it's going to work and what consumers, competitors and
partners alike will make of the new service.
#1. What nature of "digital shop" will the BBC launch?
So, it sounds like this is going to be TVOD (transactional
video-on-demand) as opposed to SVOD (subscription video-on-demand).
In other words, customers will buy specific pieces of content
rather paying a view-all monthly fee. If that's the case the BBC
could launch an iTunes-style store, a 'wallet' solution which
consumers use to deposit and top-up funds, a simple credit-card
payment facility, a link to an existing payment services provider
or indeed some, as yet unknown, pioneering micropayments
#2. Will bought content work across different platforms and
The answer to this question is very much linked to #1 above.
iTunes, for example, serves as a shop front, a gateway and a media
player in that it's used to buy content, play content and sync that
content to different devices like the iPhone and iPad. It's easy to
see how the BBC's service could work along similar lines. An
alternative is to use the Ultraviolet model - a library which
stores digital proofs of purchase and is then "called" by an
end-device to verify that the viewer has the rights to watch a
movie or a show. The added flexibility here (one BBC account may
serve a whole family) may make it more attractive. Of course the
BBC could just integrate with Ultraviolet itself and save itself
the trouble of reinventing the wheel.
#3. Why do UK licence-fee payers have to pay again at all?
Mark Thompson described Project Barcelona as "not a second
licence-fee by stealth or any reduction in the current public
service offering from the BBC - it's the exact analogy of going
into a high-street shop to buy a DVD or, before that, a VHS
"For decades the British public has understood the
distinction between watching Dad's Army on BBC1 and then going out
to buy a permanent copy of it. Barcelona is the digital equivalent
of doing the second."
You can understand why Thompson chose to frame the argument this
way. As consumers we do expect to pay for content if we want to own
it permanently (unless we record it to PVR / DVD / videotape at the
point of broadcast) but, for me, this is a false analogy.
As UK licence-fee payers we've already paid for BBC shows once
and up until now, the limitations of technology have meant that if
we wanted to see a programme again we'd either to have to wait for
it to be repeated or go and buy our own copy. With on-demand
viewing a reality however, the mechanics have completely changed:
the BBC can now deliver programmes to viewers wherever and whenever
they want them.
As the BBC's own website says:
"All licence fee payers, wherever they are, expect to be
able to get the programmes they want, when they want them. And
there is an ever-increasing number of platforms and devices on
which people expect to be able to access BBC content. The Trust has
set the BBC the aim of ensuring that every household has convenient
access to all relevant BBC services, free at the point of use. This
means the BBC must invest in new technology as platforms develop
and yet make careful choices to ensure that audiences are served
fairly and that the BBC keeps its primary focus on investing in
The crucial phrase in the above quote is "free at the point of
use". We're still using this content so why isn't it still
#4. What does this do to the retail chain?
HMV, Amazon, WHSmith and many of the other big retailers must be
a little worried. DVD sales were already declining worldwide
US for example the Digital Entertainment Group reported sales down
a staggering 20% in 2010) and now the BBC is launching
its own service which may eventually bypass the retail chain
altogether. So how big a hit to their revenues could this be?
"Despite a challenging market,"
says the BBC website "BBC Worldwide's DVD
business performed extremely well in the UK, finishing 2010 as the
UK's fifth-largest distributor and outperforming the market in the
US, where overall DVD sales declined".
Sales of "consumer products" - DVDs, download-to-own products,
books and music - generated an increase in profits of 13.7% to
#5. What will the service's new brand name be?
'Project Barcelona' is surely a working title so what will the
BBC's brand name for the new service be? It's got to be i-something
Any suggestions? Send to your friends and share your thoughts
Note: here's more information about Project
Barcelona that the BBC published on Friday: