Thursday, July 5, 2007

BBC too slow to launch iPlayer

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

The long-awaited BBC iPlayer is set to launch on 27th July this year.  Knocking around in one form or another for around four years now, and beset by rights and regulatory troubles, the iPlayer is joining a market that looks very different now to the environment at the time of its conception.

The iPlayer is a program that’s installed on a PC (bad luck, Mac users) that allows the viewer to watch BBC TV shows from the past seven days.  Programmes are downloaded to the user’s PC (streaming, which allows the user to watch there and then without waiting for the download, will follow) so the picture quality’s good, and they can be transferred onto a portable device (video iPod or phone) so you can watch on the go.

Last year, the morning after I’d installed the software on my laptop, I got stuck on the tube in one of those familiar ‘District Line moments’, with nothing to read and no phone signal.  Out came the laptop, and I watched an episode of Horizon.  During the few weeks I had the trial system, I came to love it – my kids got to watch TV on long car journeys, and it became pretty much the only TV I watched.

But Sky’s Anytime TV by PC service went live last year, Channel 4 launched 4OD early year, and even ITV expect to debut their 30-day catchup service soon, leaving poor old Auntie reduced to announcing (for the umpteenth time) that it’s launching soon too.  

So the BBC’s gone from being market leading to market laggard – bogged down by interminable wranglings over whether it should be allowed to launch the platform, together with problems in securing the agreement of the independent production companies who control the ongoing rights for programming. 

Is there still a market for the iPlayer, or is the BBC too late?

There are two key issues that will determine whether the new platform will have a chance.
First, the DRM.  Digital Rights Management is much derided in the online world.  Officially, these software solutions protect the copyright holder by preventing copying or sharing of content between users – in the BBC’s case effectively erasing any programme you’ve downloaded after thirty days.  But whilst these systems are an inconvenience to the everyday user, often they’re just a speedbump to the technically competent, who usually find ways around them.

Last year, one broadcaster’s service was temporarily suspended after software was released that enabled Microsoft’s DRM to be circumvented by users.  Although they issued a fix for this, within three days it too had been nobbled, and the game of tag continues.

The problem is that whilst internet users dislike DRM, the deals struck by the BBC mean the producers don’t sell their programmes to the BBC, instead licensing them for limited usage.  If the BBC wants to buyout the rights, it’s going to take money – meaning overall fewer programmes can be acquired for a given level of investment.

Perhaps more of a gripe for consumers is the sheer amount of software users are being expected to download.  Channel 4, the BBC and Sky all require different systems to be installed – rather like having a different set-top box for each.  This lack of interoperability is a pain for viewers and will hold back the development of the platform.  With the exception of Sky, who are developing this as part of their pay-TV portfolio, control of the platform isn’t a particular competitive advantage, so we may see future co-operation between broadcasters on this, especially when faced with the corporation’s considerable marketing muscle.

But bigger, perhaps, than either of these is the BBC’s own bureaucracy.  Viewers may welcome the new service, and with a reputed 19million online visitors to the BBC website every month, there’s an appetite online, but unless Auntie can get her skates on, the world will have moved on.  The digital world moves at warp speed, and taking four years to get to market is just not going to cut it.