Its Time To Break Up BBC iPlayer

Sept 2011 - New NW BW Head & Shoulders (thumbnail)Steve Hewlett published an article in the press last week that suggested Tony Hall’s big challenge was to sort out the BBC’s ‘digital’ strategy. Steve was onto something in latching onto ‘digital’ as a key area requiring attention, but we think he erred in thinking that ‘digital’ was somehow a separate problem to core strategy.  This article makes the case that you can’t separate ‘digital’ from the rest of BBC strategy.  More importantly, it makes the case that there is a fundamental flaw in the way new media, and iPlayer in particular, are organised and managed within the core of the BBC. We believe that this flaw is now having a significant impact on the arguably more important BBC broadcast brands. Three BBC announcements in the last month have highlighted the need for a fundamental re-think.

The first announcement that concerned us, this month, was the slightly incoherent one heralding the trial of ‘VOD-first’ launches of new TV programmes on iPlayer.  Announced by BBC centrally, with no comment from the channels involved or the TV division itself, they spoke of an organisation ill-at ease with what was happening.  This was not a proud BBC1 or BBC3 announcement of a home grown innovation. It felt like activity undertaken by iPlayer around and despite the channels.

Secondly, the announcement of poor BBC2 viewing figures spoke a broadcaster that is losing sight of its core broadcast function.  Our research indicates that poor scheduling and weak brand support for BBC2 has played its part in the audience decline, but the failure to support broadcast brands online, in favour of iPlayer is a big factor – particularly with young audiences. It is instructive that iPlayer has become a more recognisable brand than the BBC’s second most important TV brand, even though it delivers a fraction of the total viewing time.

The third announcement, that of the resignation of Dan Danker, Head of iPlayer is a serious loss for the organisation because, seemingly alone among new media execs at the BBC, he was aware of the problem.  The only positive we can take is that his departure comes as Tony Hall starts his tenure as DG, and James Parnell takes over as Strategy Director. This provides a potential opportunity to recognise the flaws and reassess the way iPlayer and Future Media are structured within the BBC.

But What Is The Flaw and Why Does It Matter?

The central flaw that concerns us is that the iPlayer team control not only innovation and future developments of iPlayer, but they retain operational control of day-to-day delivery of BBC online output.  They also control, and have dramatically reduced the wider web presence of the channel brands and restrict their ability to express themselves and build connections with their viewers.

This structure means that a key part of the day to day business of TV and radio in the BBC report, via FutureMedia, to Strategy not to the heads of TV or Radio. Of most concern is the fact that new media distribution of BBC TV programmes bypasses the normal TV chain of command.  They are free to make decisions which support their own agenda, not the wider TV one. Hence the muted announcement of the VOD only programmes.

In their battle against the OTT web players like Netflix, it is crucial that we don’t get knee-jerk responses from broadcasters.  The VOD-first announcements from the BBC fall into that category.  Broadcasters like the BBC need to deploy the one powerful weapon that the OTT players don’t have – broadcast.  It is the only mechanism that can deliver large punch-through audiences for a TV show which can then be carried into the catch-up window. But for this to work, it has to be done using a single, coherent presentational brand – the channel brand.  Pre-releasing into VOD, under the iPlayer banner, blunts this weapon and renders the subsequent broadcast impotent in the fight.  For the BBC to try this is a clear case of the new media ‘tail’ wagging the content ‘dog’.

Had a single team been responsible for all broadcast and catch up distribution, it is inconceivable that this outcome could have been arrived at.  What has been interesting is the silence from Zai Bennett, Controller of BBC3 or Roger Mosey, the current head of Television.  All the announcements have come from BBC central PR or from the iPlayer team.  The only sensible comment on this has come from Kay Mellor, writer of the Syndicate, who declared that she wouldn’t want her programmes treated like this, because she wanted them to grow a proper TV audience on a broadcast channel first.

Is this the comment of someone who is a new media ‘rejecter’, or someone who has retained a proper sense of perspective of new media’s role in the TV distribution mix?  ‘VOD-first’ distribution should have been slapped down as an ‘audience destroying’ idea when FutureMedia first tabled it.  However, from the outside it feels like senior BBC management have been held in thrall to the cult of iPlayer since 2007. They have been unable to make tough decisions about iPlayer for fear of being held up to be Luddites.

The decision to give the iPlayer brand such dominance in TV VOD robs the broadcast channels of chance to provide coherence around their offering at a time when they are already under assault, not just from OTT players but from platform brands like VirginTivo, Sky and surprisingly, Youview.    Previously, a consumer had  a simple relationship with a broadcaster, with the centre of gravity being the channel brand. On platforms like Virgin Tivo and Sky this clarity has now gone as the platforms flex their brand muscles.  But the BBC have the greatest problem, because FutureMedia control platform strategy.  They are incentivised to look after their own brand, not maximise the strength of the channel brand. The same applies to YouView, which should have been a broadcast centric platform, designed to maximise the interests of the channels. Unfortunately, it was colonised early by iPlayer people and went ‘platform-centric’.  It is possible to spend an evening watching BBC3 content, and come away with the YouView and iPlayer logos lodged in your brain.

This is happening at a time when we are finally seeing convergence between broadcast and on-demand. This convergence is best observed on the backwards EPGs on Virgin Tivo and YouView.  It is now possible to jump from a BBC3 programme on the broadcast EPG, directly into its catch up version. However, because the development decisions were made by the iPlayer team without, it would appear, any discussion with the channel brands, the journey immediately becomes an iPlayer branded journey, not a BBC3 one.  On both platforms, it is a dog’s breakfast of a consumer experience. These decisions were previously agreed to by senior BBC management and Trust figures, who didn’t have the understanding to push back or question the iPlayer teams.  Senior management were so scared of being seen to be out of touch that iPlayer ran rings round them. The new management have a chance to put this right.

The emphasis on iPlayer has also robbed the broadcast channels of the tools to build audience relationships on the web and mobile.  It is an astounding fact that there is no BBC3 web site where new  initiatives, like the VOD launches, could be announced and discussed.  Yes, BBC3 has an automatic programme page where metadata on upcoming shows is provided via an algorythm. Each channel also has the prerequisite, tick box elements like a Facebook page and YouTube channel. But all video plays jump you into iPlayer and even the individual channel blogs have recently been rolled up into a generic ‘TV blog’.

The net result is that there is no online expression of  a BBC TV channels’ editorial position and nowhere for announcements, or web explanation of the new VOD-first idea.  If we believe that channels like BBC2, 3 and 4 have distinct audiences, with the editorial strategy to suit, then they should be free to use new media to go out and build those relationships.  They shouldn’t be forced to drive audiences to a central, monolithic ‘BBC’ entitiy.  Most importantly, they should be able to use the iPlayer mechanism to offer those audiences video on their sites, without being forced to use the iPlayer brand.

This critique is often mistaken for an attack on iPlayer. However we don’t mean it that way. If you focus solely on iPlayer as a new media phenomenon then its success is indisputable. Its take-up and usage stats are the envy of new media operations the world over, and it can arguably be said to have eased the arrival of on-demand and catch-up in the consciousness of the mass of the British public. However, if we look at iPlayer as mechanism owned by a larger broadcast operation, then its impact is more controversial. This success has been bought with the programming and audience goodwill built by the broadcast channels with no sense that iPlayer should have a subservient role.

What people appear to have forgotten is that iPlayer was designed and created as an alternative destination to broadcast, at a time when people still feared that the internet would beat TV and not the other way round.  It most certainly wasn’t designed as a support component of a broadcast centric organisation.  It was created by a team led by Anthony Rose who declared at a conference that year that ‘broadcast is dead’.  Its look and feel, was created to sit outside the core branding of BBC channels and genres, and it was intended to eventually develop its own content strategy.  It was effectively set up as the ‘anti-BBC’.  For a long period, its employees were the shock troops of the new future of TV. In the early stages this allowed great progress at a time of change, but Mark Thompson missed the moment to bring it back into the fold. The organisational structure he bequeathed  is now an impediment to iPlayer’s integration in the rest of the BBC.

The world of TV has changed significantly since iPlayer’s inception. For one, it has been shown that linear broadcast has retained its central place in the UK viewers TV experience.  This fact should have been reflected in the way new media is integrated with the whole BBC.  For Future Media to retain new media innovation AND operations makes no sense in this new world.  Far from being the new media guru that the New York Times thought it was hiring, Mark Thompson can be argued to have ducked the one big, brave decision he should have made, having first thrown tons of money at it.

To his credit, Daniel Danker recognised this early and has done a sterling job at bringing iPlayer back towards the fold. He has been asking how to bring channel brands properly into iPlayer, and how better to integrate operations with them. His new red button links on VirginTivo and Smart TV are a step in the right direction.  However, we believe that the strategy starts from completely the wrong place.  The question should be, what does a 21st century broadcast channel need to maintain its central role in TV in the face of onslaughts from both the TV platforms and new OTT providers.  The answer is a TV distribution strategy built around broadcast.   The belated inclusion of channel brands into iPlayer in the last couple of years, reflects Danker’s attempt to move towards this.  We are told that his final act will be to release a new version of iPlayer that somehow closes this gap further. But it won’t be the outcome that a broadcast channel would design if it had a chance to put in place the utopian new media outcome.

Why Does This Matter?

Decipher make the case that this matters for two reasons: Firstly, this is our licence-fee  money that is being used to prop up personal fiefdoms, and fund huge amounts of over-lapping or unnecessary activity. The current structure reflects the personal egos of Eric Huggers and Ashley Highfield, not the current needs of the BBC.  To have a separate Head of FutureMedia and BBC R&D while claiming poverty under the DQF process is iniquitous.

Secondly, and more importantly, it hampers the proper evolution of the BBC as a broadcast centric organisation.  In 1997, the BBC was 3 years ahead of any other UK broadcaster. It is now well behind the curve with ITV and Channel4 having done a much better job of integrating new media into a wider broadcast operation. The BBC like to hold themselves up as a template for other broadcasters. Not only can they no longer do this, but unless this flaw is rectified, they will fall further behind in defining the 21 century role for broadcasters.


We would make the following recommendations:

1. Clarify the key centre of gravity for TV and Radio in the BBC – We believe that this should be the broadcast channels and their brands, with new media distribution strategy rebuilt to support not compete with them. The BBC is, at heart, a broadcast organisation and it needs to be communicated clearly internally and externally

2. Split TV new media from Radio new media – their distribution strategies and functional requirements are already diverging. The radio player has developed a broad, commercial radio supporting position in the market quite unlike the TV player. Let the different genres dictate their needs and future direction.

3 Put channel heads in charge –  Give distribution and presentation control of new media to the TV and Radio heads. Give them the power to build new media strategies that support the wider aims of their channels.  They will need training and support to do this and if they can’t or won’t embrace it, replace them.

4.  Let the channels fight the platforms – Where BBC catch-up content appears somewhere with a dominant platform brand (eg Sky, VirginTivo) then let the channel brands lead – and remove the iPlayer brand.  The backwards EPG makes this an even more pressing requirement. When we click on a BBC3 show, from the BBC3 line of the EPG, we expect a BBC3 branded page to appear. We should be able to have a powerful, all encompassing BBC3 experience on Sky, Virgin or Youview.

5. Retire the black and pink iPlayer branding completely-   It is a divisive brand livery  and the BBC should unify the branding and presentation of on-demand content with the broadcast genres (TV and radio) that its meant to support. This means there should be a single brand architecture for TV at the BBC, with individual channel identities built within it.  BBC iPlayer look and feel should reflect this TV brand architecture not compete against it as present.  This is what ITV have successfully done with the recent ITV Player re-design.

6. Stop trying to build iPlayer as a BBC ‘platform’.  However hard you want it to be true, no consumer views content that way any more.  It is a strategy that will eventually isolate the BBC, not help it retains its position as the dominant beast in the broadcast TV pack.  It is a strategy that works well in the export market, as a US iPlayer demonstrates. However, in the home market, the UK view increasingly wants aggregators to pull content together across broadcasters. This means increasingly working through the platforms, not against them.

7. Stop quoting iPlayer stats – the PR team behind FutureMedia have become adept at the classic social media tactic of bombarding the press with ‘scale’ statistics about iPlayer (see previous blog about Twitter). We are much more interested in the number of people who watch BBC  on TV as part of a wider TV experience. This is never broken out in the numbers.

8.  Finally, the rump of BBC Future Media, retaining the innovation brief, should be merged with BBC R&D. As a licence-fee payer I don’t understand why I need both.

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