IPlayer boosts BBC – but only for now

As we move rapidly into the age of simulcast and catch-up TV, there is every indication that the BBC is going to do unto the commercial television sector what it has already done unto commercial radio. And for much the same reasons.

The BBC is monolithic, it has a proper strategy and is more than capable of outspending its relatively weak and divided competition on marketing its proprietary media player.

Early feedback from the launch of the BBC iPlayer does not make happy reading for ITV or Channel 4 executives. After the soft launch last year come the hard facts. In January, the BBC recorded 11 million programmes streamed or downloaded. ITV’s equivalent was about 2 million during the same period, according to its own figures. The figure for Channel 4’s analogous service, 4oD, trails both.

This BBC surge probably has relatively little to do with the user friendliness, or otherwise, of the competing media player technologies. Indeed, analysts seem quite impressed with the ITV.com offering.

But it undoubtedly has a lot to do with marketing. The BBC launched a major marketing offensive on Christmas Day, featuring Jeremy Clarkson and David Attenborough. The effect has been to knock back ITV.com figures, which reached a peak in November. Nor is this a flash in the pan. The competition can expect to be regularly outspent. The BBC has earmarked £130m over five years to market the iPlayer. ITV and Channel 4 have nowhere near that depth of financial resources.

If only the tale of woe stopped there. But it does not. The iPlayer enjoys a huge establishment advantage owing to the overwhelming popularity of its bbc.co.uk website as a destination.

What’s more, BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, has had the wit to sign an early (though non-exclusive) content deal with iTunes. iTunes is on a cusp. Having pretty much sewn up its position as the leading platform for music and speech downloads, it must now turn its attention to the world of MP4 and video streaming. And where better to look for content than the BBC? For the BBC, by contrast, the deal offers programme longevity outside the iPlayer framework (not to mention the possibility of yet more money).

In the longer run, however, there are a couple of factors which may stem the BBC’s inexorable Web TV advance. The first is that hoary old chestnut the licence fee. To the extent that Web TV becomes the preferred channel of delivery, with the BBC chief content deliverer, how can it justify the continuing exaction of that fee? Will there have to be a universal tax on computer screens as opposed to television sets? It seems politically unlikely; all the more so if a charge is already being levied on downloads from the likes of iTunes.

Then too, as Andrew Harrison pointed out in these pages last week, there is the looming problem of broadband spectrum. Computer and broadband technology is inherently more flaky than the tried and tested television delivery platform. That may not be an issue while broadband television is still a minority pleasure. Once it enters the mainstream, however, the burden such viewing places on the ‘pipe’ infrastructure might be unbearable. And not simply for other people watching Web TV. At that point, some kind of broadband tax and rationing system will become an unfortunate reality. Unfortunate for ISPs; unfortunate for us punters; and unfortunate for the BBC, which will be expected to pick up some of the cost.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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