A one-time chance to take iPlayer sky high

As Stuart Smith writes in his comment on page 13 (a welcome weekly addition to the magazine from here on in), economic conditions such as these can benefit those brands with imagination and know how. A recession, says my colleague, can give brands a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to put real distance between them and their rivals.

The BBC appears to have clocked this. The broadcaster’s appointment of Microsoft marketer Sharon Baylay as Tim Davie’s replacement on Monday (revealed first on MarketingWeek.co.uk and Mad.co.uk since you ask), will be seen as a move designed to add technological expertise and market knowledge to the development of iPlayer, the jewel in its crown. For, if the BBC has had a chequered year in terms of its reputation, the iPlayer has become the newest symbol of an age-old love affair between the BBC and its public.

The pace at which it has continued to gain share in an entirely new market since its launch on Christmas Day 2007, will have been as surprising to the BBC as it has been demoralising to rival services. Despite the fact that iPlayer was launched after Channel 4’s TV-on-demand offering, 4OD, and shares a technology provider with ITV Player in Microsoft, it has become the standard for consumers wanting their media content at their chosen time of day.

A significant chunk of Baylay’s remit will be to increase the BBC’s share further in a market that can only rocket in size and importance going forward. Who believes she is not capable? If a world class FMCG marketer was the right appointment when the BBC took Davie from PepsiCo in 2005, then an online services specialist is certainly the correct hiring now. Or, put another way, if persuading the general manager of Microsoft’s online services division that the BBC is the right career move would have demonstrated commendable foresight on the part of the BBC at any time, now in particular it feels like an almost killer blow to 4OD and ITV Player. The pair are freshly shaken out of a two-year limbo by the news that UK video-on-demand joint venture Project Kangaroo has been blocked by the Competition Commission.

I say “almost” because there is hope for the BBC’s rivals. The technology employed by ITV and Channel 4 is not radically different from that used for the iPlayer. And both recognise the importance of upping their game in this market. Channel 4 is relaunching its online catch-up service at the end of March, and ITV, while suffering badly at the sharpest end of the downturn in ad revenues, is looking at expanding its multi-platform customer base wherever possible. A deal was signed last month with Virgin Media, meaning its customers can now access its services along with BT Vision’s subscribers. Sky is not yet on board.

But where the others really lose out – and this has always been the feather in the BBC’s cap – is content. None of its rivals can yet compare with the full range of content drawn from all of the BBC’s TV channels or radio stations. The content that will be available to Baylay for her to work with, as well as the timing of her job offer in among the peculiar landscape of the current market, may have convinced her that this is her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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