17 million programmes have now been downloaded from the BBC iPlayer, disposing of the gap that had opened with the commercial sector during beta trials and Public Value Tests. Julian Clover reports
Commercial operators will complain, sometimes with good cause, that the BBC uses public money to sweep them aside with new programme ideas. The iPlayer is a difficult one to judge because of both the time it spent in beta and the hoops that the BBC Future Media department was required to jump through in order to pass the Public Value Test required by the BBC Trust and Ofcom.
In all this time commercial companies also had the space to establish their own web based on demand platforms. The difference here is that they did and yet still failed to get them into the public consciousness. The possible exception is Sky Anytime, though this is largely restricted to Sky subscribers.
Both ITV and Channel 4 have established platforms and like the BBC have the means to promote them. Two separate business models have been put in place: ITV.com is commercially supported while 4oD requires payment. Unlike the BBC there is not the separation between public and commercial activities even though Channel 4 remains a public corporation.
One senior BBC staff member suggested to me that ITV had not gone far enough with the technical infrastructure that restricts viewing to just a small portion of the computer screen. The BBC iPlayer on the other hand is more than capable of displaying full screen when streaming, which BBC director of BBC Future Media and Technology Ashley Highfield puts down to the significant advances that have taken place in streaming technology over the past 12 months.
The Future Media division has done great work with the iPlayer, and the BBC Trust removed any doubt that this would be a Microsoft-leaning operation, following the recruitment of a number of Mr Softie’s former employees. There is also an arm’s length being put between the publicly funded iPlayer and the commercial activities of BBC Worldwide that includes this week’s tie-up with Apple and the Kangaroo venture with ITV and Channel 4.
Since its launch at Christmas the iPlayer has established itself as a serious distribution platform for BBC content, in turn boosting traffic to bbc.co.uk, helped by excerpts from BBC programmes that have been released to YouTube, Bebo and most recently Yahoo.
But is the BBC in the delivery business? In the mid 1990s the BBC was forced to sell off its radio and transmitter network and this is now the subject of a takeover bid by Arqiva from the present owners National Grid Wireless. It is the BBC’s responsibility to encourage the take-up of new technologies, or at least reduce the digital divide by making services available to the widest possible audiences, though not to do the job of the commercial market even if it can do it better.