BBC iPlayer: Playing Catch Up

BBC director-general Tony Hall recently declared that the corporation’s digital catch-up service, iPlayer, must be “fundamentally reinvented.” Does this herald the start of a great game of catch up?

Proclaiming the launch of the original iPlayer in the previous charter “a revolution”, the once-leading catch up service is to be updated to a “must-visit destination”, according to Lord Hall. This move is widely seen as a response to the swift rise of Netflix and Amazon’s streaming services. It’s no wonder considering that the spending power of Netflix and Amazon combined totalled a whopping $9bn in 2015, dwarfing the BBC’s $3.1bn (which includes television broadcast content). That being said, viewing figures still sway heavily in favour of the BBC, with 33% of the British population reportedly using iPlayer against Netflix’s 16%.

So why is the BBC making these changes when they still theoretically head the market with a significantly smaller budget? The changes could be construed as future proofing, but in reality, it’s more a case of the BBC desperately trying to catch up with the competition.

Having popularised the medium during noughties, the 2010s have seen iPlayer fall behind in its own game, losing ground against the likes of All 4 and ITV Hub. One reason for this is that the player has failed to evolve with the format. Whilst iPlayer might have started out a catch-up service for missed terrestrial programmes, it’s now much more than that for most other on-demand platforms who create original, digital first formats. All 4 for example recently celebrated its most successful digital first launch to date with the rebirth of Trigger Happy. The online series proved so popular that Channel 4 commissioned a TV Christmas special off the online reception alone. Not only does this prove that streaming services are a viable and established medium, it shows that the audiences are sizeable enough to influence what broadcasters commission across all of their channels. For Channel 4, it’s a strategy which is clearly working given its tremendous year on year cross-channel audience growth.

Now this isn’t to say that the BBC hasn’t taken steps to improve its digital presence: in 2016 it permanently moved BBC Three online in a bid both to save money and better reach the 18-24 year old demographic that forms the majority of its audience. However, despite this widely opposed move starting out fairly positively for the channel, the brand identity still seems to be struggling to find its footing 10 months after launch. In fact, the channel has already been rebranded, suggesting that its new digital home still lacks a clear identity for what it does and indeed for what it stands for.

Perhaps a reason behind the lack of direction is a lack of research. Both All 4 and ITV Hub require users to login to their free service, giving the broadcasters crucial viewer information such as age, gender and email addresses which they use to correlate with user viewing habits. The BBC, on the other hand, allows users unfettered access to all of its content. Whilst this might sound good for user experience, it’s severely hampering the BBC’s ability to understand its audience.

In summary, the BBC needs to act hard and fast to ensure that it isn’t confined to the history books. Consequently, using the words of Lord Hall, the struggling iPlayer must do the only thing it can to catch up with the competition: be fundamentally reinvented.