On January the 7th, the BBC announced plans to reinvent its iPlayer service with the aim of “…making it a destination in its own right, with box sets, live programming and archive titles that champion quality UK content and offer great programmes for longer.

A related consultation document recognises that in the future, “BBC iPlayer will be the main way that audiences watch BBC television programmes and not just a catch-up service”, that Amazon Prime, Netflix and other SVOD services have changed audience expectations and viewing habits and that people now want to see more content which is available for longer.

The specific proposals to upgrade iPlayer include:

  • A longer initial period of availability of at least 12 months for all programmes
  • Complete series box sets for selected titles made up of new returning seasons and their previous series
  • And a desire to make more archive content available

Assuming that the UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, gives the go-ahead to these changes (and that’s not a given – more on that later), this is good news on many levels. From a consumer standpoint, a beefier iPlayer certainly provides more viewing choices. And from the BBC’s own perspective, it shows that the corporation is making moves to stay relevant and safeguard its legacy as the UK’s biggest linear and on-demand broadcaster.

So, thumbs up, right? Sure. But bringing these proposals to fruition in practice is a huge job. How does the BBC – or indeed, any broadcaster – open up its archive? What are the strategic, legal, financial, technical and manpower challenges? And for some broadcasters, including the BBC, is there a longer-term political downside in making these changes?

I’ve been speaking to industry colleagues, as well as a former senior BBC exec, about this and here are some thoughts.

#1. Scaling Up Content Rights

When it comes to content distribution, the big six US film studios – 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros and Universal – have it relatively easy. Since 1995, they’ve released between them, on average, 102 movies a year (2006 was most productive with 127 movies; 2013 saw only 78 new films) and as they’ve been doing this a long time, they have established channels, partners and pro forma legal agreements that can be tailored to specific pay windows, territories, screens and devices. To be sure, the sale of VOD rights is a newer thing but there’s now, usually, a known structure and methodology in place. 

So that’s from the sell-side. For the biggest broadcasters, however, who are on the buy-side, the complexity of acquiring content rights increases by orders of magnitude.

Last Wednesday, the 30th of January, for example, was an ordinary day on BBC One. There was no live extended sport, no planned coverage of a Royal Wedding and no channel takeover because of an unexpected news event. And yet that day, BBC One televised 25 different programmes including news and weather bulletins. Multiply that by 7 (days in the week) and again by 2.33 (the BBC has two all-day linear channels, BBC One and Two, and a third, BBC Four, that broadcasts from 7pm to 4am) and you get to just over 400 shows a week.

Admittedly, a lot of these will be made by the BBC itself (via BBC Studios), or by a smallish number of production companies, but factoring in local and international negotiations, special cases (like sport) and the need to reconfigure existing arrangements, the BBC legal department dedicated to this task has an unenviable workload.

#2. Pay Windows & The Promiscuity of Content

A related issue for the BBC will be how to square its desire for linear content to be made available on iPlayer for twelve months, presumably on an exclusive basis, with the objectives of production partners who, to maximise income, would want to sell to as many platforms, in as many pay windows, as possible.

There are at least three angles here.

First, does the BBC, or your broadcaster, have the budget to pay for exclusivity? How would greater spend to secure these rights for twelve months, instead of the current thirty days, affect your ability to make / buy more content or indeed, open up more of the archive?

Second, and to continue the theme, the BBC is financially hampered because it’s a licence-fee funded PSB. If it spends big on content acquisition (as opposed to content production) there’s no concomitant uplift in revenues compared to say, a company like Sky whose exclusive five-year, £275m deal with HBO, including Game of Thrones, can lead to an increase in pay-TV customers.

Third – and not necessarily at the BBC – is the need for a change in thinking and culture. Broadcasters all over the world are coming around to the idea that content is platform-promiscuous. iPlayer’s most-requested programme in 2018 was Bodyguard, written by Jed Mercurio. Made by one of ITV Studio’s partners and pre-sold to Netflix, in earlier times, the BBC may, understandably, have felt some ownership of the show. It may have thought that it gave Bodyguard, – its writers, directors, actors and producers – pre-eminence and a boost in sell-on rights by allowing it to be first aired on one of the BBC channels. And so, as a result, Bodyguard should be proprietary to it and iPlayer.

Not so much. Viewers have more choice than ever before. They don’t always associate content with where it was first broadcast and are happy to wait before the show hits their preferred platforms.

#3. Paying Actors, Directors, Musicians, Producers for the “Deep Archive”

Another of the BBC’s proposals is to make older archive material available and, for me, this is where the real value of an expanded iPlayer lies: the public service long-tail – the ability to get nostalgic, to watch the Strictly Come Dancing final from 2017, watch Garrow’s Law from 2011, watch the entire night’s general election coverage from 1997 when the world seemed about to get better. Yeah, I’m eclectic.

But whereas distributors now automatically consider VOD rights for newer TV shows and movies, what about content that is say ten years old or twenty or thirty? How does the BBC pay the estate of Tony Hancock for his 1954 television series; Ken Hannam for The Day of the Triffids (1981); or every musician who has ever appeared on Top of the Pops?

That’s an open question and one which I’m planning to write more about in a separate piece. Please do drop me a line if you’d like to share your thoughts on this and / or the value of long tail content in VOD services.   

#4. How Much of Your Content is Digitised?

Even as late as 2011, the business case for UK broadcasters to digitise their archive content had yet to be fully made. Why spend money on ingesting tapes, encoding them to digital, or transcoding existing digital files to better formats, when the only buyer in town was Lovefilm (later acquired by Amazon)? Of course, Netflix then came on to the scene. In preparation for an early-2012 launch, and with deep pockets, the competition between Netflix and Amazon kicked off a virtuous circle: the more content that broadcasters made available, the more that Netflix and Amazon could buy. The more they bought, the more money would be available for greater digitisation.

So, if you’re thinking about opening your archive, how much of your content is ready to be made available to your VOD service?

Digitisation is now a largely commoditised process and so is cheaper than it used to be. You may still have associated costs, however, in ensuring that your media / digital asset management systems, scheduling systems, workflows, metadata generation methods, metadata silos, content delivery paths and servers (whether on-site or in the cloud) are optimised for a new push.

#5. Regulatory Issues & Competition

I mentioned earlier that it wasn’t assured that Ofcom will let the BBC show content for 12 months or open its deep archive to iPlayer. Why not? First, Ofcom has decided that these changes represents a material change in the nature of the service and so will need to pass a public interest test – that’s what this consultation period is about. And whilst it’s laudable that the BBC wants to add more content, Ofcom wants to understand what its effect might be on the BBC’s competition – ITV, Channel 4 etc. – and their ability to invest in content and their own on-demand platforms. There are, in other words, some regulatory hurdles still to be jumped.

Is there too a political downside for the BBC in making these changes? For example, will maintaining an upgraded iPlayer (in content, manpower and financial terms) lead to greater internal pressure for more funding? In turn, will that translate to calls, initially from politicians and then perhaps the general public, for part of iPlayer to become an AVOD or SVOD service?

Ultimately, this is all about licence-fee payers getting more value for money; a challenge that all broadcasters, whatever their funding models, are facing. I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

What do you think? Send me a note via the VOD Pro website or add your comments below.


Kauser Kanji has been working in online video for 19 years, formerly at Virgin Media, ITN and NBC Universal, and founded VOD Professional in 2011. He has since completed major OTT projects for, amongst others, A+E Networks, the BBC, BBC Studios, Channel 4, DR (Denmark), Liberty Global, Netflix, Sony Pictures, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation and UKTV. He now writes industry analyses, hosts an online debate show, OTT Question Time, as well as its in-person sister event, OTT Question Time Live

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