Amid fears of millennials ditching iPlayer for Netflix, the BBC is stepping up its on-demand video ambitions. Expect more box sets, original shows and personalisation
- When the beta of the BBC's iPlayer launched in July 2007, Netflix had only just pivoted to streaming movies over the internet. Fast forward a decade and Netflix is dominant. And that's a worry the BBC.
"iPlayer needs to change," Tony Hall, the BBC's director general, said earlier this year when outlining the corporation's plans for the live-streaming and catchup service. In 2017, Hall said the BBC needed to "reinvent" iPlayer.
"Our goal, even in the face of rapid growth by our competitors, is for iPlayer to be the number one online TV service in the UK," the BBC boss said last year.
As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Netflix, which still has a successful DVD rental arm, has amassed 130 million subscribers globally. In the UK, Netflix is used in 8.2m households, with Amazon Prime on 4.3m and Now TV on 1.5m, according to figures from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB).
Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Now TV have some fundamental differences to the BBC's offering: they're all based on user subscriptions and mostly focus on movies and boxsets that are viewable for several months, or years. By comparison, iPlayer mostly makes shows available for 30 days after they were first broadcast and is paid for through the annual licence fee.
To compete with Netflix, the BBC is making iPlayer more like Netflix. "It was way ahead of everything else," says Tom Harrington, a senior broadcast research analyst at Enders Analysis. "It has really plateaued as a result of it being a catchup service rather than one where you can get full series of television shows."
"They're worried about iPlayer and understandably obsessed with declining viewership numbers for younger people," Harrington adds. 82 per cent of children use YouTube for on-demand content, 50 per cent often use Netflix and around 29 per cent use the BBC's iPlayer, according to the public broadcaster's annual 2018-19 plan says. Each week, people aged 16 to 24 spend more time on Netflix than all of the BBC's TV output, including iPlayer.
So, with iPlayer getting fewer younger viewers and the BBC admitting it needs to reinvent the service, what's happening? "They want to transform it from a pure catchup service to a service that people go to and browse for content," Harrington says.
As such, the BBC has been adding more boxsets and archive footage to iPlayer – and they don't have 30 day expiration periods. In June this year, every episode of Dr Who created since 2005 was added to iPlayer, The Musketeers was added in July, and 2016's version of War and Peace was also added. Most recently, the organisation added Pride and Prejudice, the original British version of House of Cards and period drama North & South.
The aim is for iPlayer to feature shows that haven't been on television recently and people may want to watch. In 2017, Hall said iPlayer needs to "make the leap from a catch-up service to a must-visit destination in its own right". Over the last six months, the iPlayer's archive section has been filled with more shows than ever before. Analysis from Enders found that boxsets added around Christmas 2017 brought 360,000 unique viewers per week to iPlayer.
The BBC's own data for April 2018 shows there were 277 million TV programme requests for the month – a three per cent year-on-year increase. The most-watched shows were dramas with most viewers under the age of 55.
Separately, the BBC's director general has argued that user personalisation is key to iPlayer's growth. The BBC says 15 million people sign-in to iPlayer each month and are presented with shows they may be interested in. The corporation is planning more personalisation, although it has not said what or how, during 2018.
The BBC has also been working on new content specifically for iPlayer and has commissioned popular YouTuber's to create a series of 20-minute shows aimed at 13 to 15-year-olds. The stars it relies upon are also becoming more involved: Louis Theroux has picked out a selection of documentaries that had a profound impact on his work, all of which are now available to stream on iPlayer. Separately, Netflix is increasing the number of original shows it is creating and spending $8 billion on new content in 2018.
The majority of the TV shows and movies commissioned or produced by the BBC don't end up on iPlayer for extended periods of time as it has the ability to make money from them elsewhere. BBC shows are licensed to Netflix – Planet Earth, Luther and Sherlock for instance. BBC Worldwide also sells shows to international markets.
Harrington says if the BBC keeps its own shows on iPlayer for longer it is in the tricky position that they will be worth less when it comes to sell them. "The immediate problem of transitioning a bolstered iPlayer into a competitive offering is that the added cost of purchasing or retaining additional rights to make the platform desirable to viewers will cut into content expenditure across the board," he wrote in a research paper earlier this year.
But other events mean the UK's on-demand TV market could change more radically. Virgin Media has dropped channels from UKTV, which is part owned by BBC Worldwide, after a row around it its ability to show the channel's shows on-demand. Reports have also suggested the BBC and ITV are working on a subscription service and may remove their content from Netflix. Before streaming your favourite shows gets any easier, it looks set to get a whole lot more complex.
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