The BBC has a lot riding on the long-delayed launch of iPlayer, its on-demand TV service delivered over the internet, which goes live this month. The corporation predicts the free iPlayer software, which allows users to download BBC programmes to their computers, could have up to 16 million users within four years. Director-general Mark Thompson claims it is as important as the launch of colour television 40 years ago.
But critics are sceptical about its potential, pointing to the slow take-up of similar services by ITV and Channel 4. The iPlayer allows consumers to download BBC programmes – but only from the previous seven days and with a window of just 30 days to watch them. Controversially, and in the face of opposition from commercial rivals, it also permits “series stacking”, where episodes from series of a defined length – ie, not soap operas – can be stored and watched back-to-back after the last episode is broadcast.
Some Freeview kudos
For Ashley Highfield, the corporation’s technology and online head, who is leading the launch, this is a career-defining moment. If the iPlayer is a success it could bring him similar kudos to that gained by BBC marketing director Andy Duncan when he launched Freeview in 2002. Its success helped propel him into the chief executive’s chair at C4 less than two years later.
On the other hand, if it isn’t, it would leave Highfield’s reputation – and that of the department he has led for seven years – in tatters.
The service “Beta” launches this month on PCs, with cable television, Apple Mac and Windows Vista platforms following in the autumn, backed by a heavy marketing campaign.
Rivals have lambasted the iPlayer, which BBC executives admit could have launched 18 months ago (though not “as good”), as anti-competitive and yet another instance of the BBC wielding its might to the disadvantage of the commercial sector. Undaunted, the BBC’s governing body gave it the go-ahead just weeks ago after submissions from Ofcom, the public and competitors.
The corporation has staked much on the launch. Director of BBC Vision Jana Bennett labels it “revolutionary”. “It is really important for the BBC in terms of TV truly joining the Web,” she adds. The corporation could raise revenues through BBC Worldwide, with ad-funded or subscription-based iPlayers for sale abroad or through add-on archive services in the UK.
Highfield, BBC director of future media and technology, says it will eventually be accessed from any platform, including mobiles and PDA devices. He discloses ambitious targets of 500,000 users within six months and a million after a year. But he adds that within three or four years it could have 16 million users – the number of people accessing the BBC Web portal each month.
This would be a hard task, according to Decipher founder and chief executive Nigel Walley, if the likes of C4’s 4oD and ITV’s relaunched portal are anything to go by. The BBC’s plan to get ahead of rivals by allowing iPlayer to be linked to the TV screen, as well as PC monitors, is unimpressive, he says, though the might of the BBC brand will help.
“There is an awful lot of nervousness in the market. What we’re essentially seeing is technology-led launches rather than consumer-driven launches,” he adds.
Furthermore, he says, customers will want to view content from different channels from one service, such as Joost, though he contends that it would be difficult to get agreement from different broadcasters on such a service. That said, there have been rumours of such a plan under the title “Project Kangaroo” which has attracted plenty of Web attention.
Not yet a major turn-on
Tiscali UK chief executive Mary Turner adds: “PC TV is still not mass-market although I’m not saying that in the future the two won’t converge.” Yet the BBC insists that the “revolutionary” iPlayer will not just benefit consumers but business as well. Highfield says internet service providers, far from feeling nervous about the high levels of rich data such applications require, should see it as an opportunity.
“For them, in many ways it is a marketing and upsell opportunity,” he says. “One of the responsibilities of the BBC is to be a force for good and drive consumption, not to bring the internet down.” “This is not about ‘island BBC’,” he insists.