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BBC Reinvents iPlayer, Funds Original Content Budget
The corporation's new digital strategy aims to create communal experiences around live events on the second screen.

The BBC has placed its online platform iPlayer front and centre of a revamped digital strategy offering viewers a more personalised viewing experience and the chance to watch pre-recorded programming online before it goes to air.

A series of eye-catching recent announcements culminated last night in news of a planned appointment of an iPlayer controller to sit alongside -- and, crucially, on par with - the heads of linear networks BBC1, 2, 3, and 4.

“From now on. I want us to think of BBC iPlayer as having the same status and value as a linear channel service,” said BBC director of television Danny Cohenat last night'sRoyal Television Society event. “In essence, it becomes our fifth channel, creating and sharing content alongside our linear services.”

The iPlayer is to get new functionality including a shift from its current 7- to 30-day catch-up window (subject to BBC Trust approval) and the chance for users to access content hours before it is broadcast on TV, from which it is a short-cut to viewers being their own scheduler.

The new iPlayer controller (who will be in position early next year) will have a budget of about £100 million ($160 million) to implement the changes, a portion of which is to be allocated to generate original iPlayer-only content and iPlayer channels.

Announcing this digital vision in his first major speech since taking the role in April, BBC director general Tony Hall said he wanted to “harness the energy of the YouTube generation.”

“We’ll invite them into the BBC and fund them to make brilliant programmes," Hall said. "We’ll free them from the conventional commissioning process and encourage them to experiment and make original online content so they can inform, educate and entertain -- each other."

“The iPlayer is the best in the world -- but we want to make it even better. We want it to transform it from being catch-up TV to online TV. So, starting next year, we will reinvent the iPlayer,” Hall added

"iPlayer channels" refers to the idea of making iPlayer the portal for bespoke experiences and greater interactivity around live events. An idea adopted from the BBC's successful London Olympics digital coverage, temporary channels and data services may "pop-up" around live events like next summer's Commonwealth Games, music festival Glastonbury, or major news events like election nights allowing viewers to dictate which aspect of an event they watch.

Far from fragmenting the audience into its constituent members, the BBC's second screen strategy aims to reunite them in interacting with a live event in ways that were never possible with broadcast TV.

The shared experience is often held up as the main emotional driver behind broadcast events watched live on TV, but the BBC wants to build connectivity using social media between individual second screen viewers.

“During the Olympics, 1 million viewers watched [British cyclist] Bradley Wiggins win a gold medal on the BBC website, but 999,999 people probably thought they were watching it on their own,” observed BBC head of sport Ben Gallop. “During the Brazil World Cup 2014 we will definitely do more to make the moment shared, more social, more connected.”

Half of the U.K. adult population used the BBC Sport website, which featured 24 live event streams, during London 2012. “A year on and that is now a hygiene factor,” said Gallop. “They expect it to be delivered.”

“The challenge for any broadcaster is how you keep technology moving on in a meaningful way for the audience, and not doing it for technology's sake," Gallop added.

Other broadcasters and sports rights holders are following similar initiatives. The host broadcaster of the FIFA World Cup is offering broadcasters a white label Broadcast Player that will allow viewers a chance to pick their own feeds from an interactive camera plan, pause live streams, and request extra data while the game is in progress.

Also announced in relation to iPlayer:

  • A new iTunes-style BBC Store will allow U.K. viewers to download to own a selection of BBC programmes spanning its decades-old archive. Previously called Project Barcelona, the commerical service remains subject to approval of overseeing body BBC Trust, which shuttered BBC Worldwide plans to develop global video-on-demand Project Kangaroo in 2009.
  • The iPlayer's processing engine has been ported to a BBC-developed cloud-based system called Video Factory, replacing the previous On Demand Production Service commissioned from Red Bee Media in 2006. “Video Factory was developed by engineers in BBC Future Media, in partnership with leading transcoding and packaging providers, and features a number of improvements,” explained Marina Kalkanis, head of live services, programmes, and on-demand for BBC Future Media on her blog. “One advantage of using cloud services is we don’t have a fixed amount of storage so we no longer have to limit the hours of content we can process, nor do we have to limit the hours of HD content we can handle. And because it is easier to add in new services our system is much more flexible in creating content for new devices.”
  • New digital music service BBC Playlister will allow listeners to tag any piece of music they hear on the BBC and listen to it later on any device via integration with YouTube, Deezer, and Spotify. The service will launch globally.
  • The BBC says it aims to double its global online audience to 500 million users a week in 2022 by producing more regional output. BBC.com will transition from a text-based site into a video service to aid that cause.
  • A new BBC iPlayer Downloads programme has replaced BBC iPlayer Desktop software which had glitches resulting from its underlying Adobe AIR base. According to Dan Taylor, head of BBC iPlayer, “Issues with the BBC iPlayer Desktop [meant] users reporting that they had lost downloaded programmes and/or were unable to download any new programmes. BBC iPlayer Downloads doesn't require users to download and install Adobe AIR and, consequently, shouldn't be vulnerable to issues resulting from updates to Adobe AIR.”
  • In August (the last month for which the BBC released figures) there were 234 million BBC iPlayer requests, up 19 percent from a year ago, with mobile and tablet requests comprising 32 percent of the total. August saw an average of 7 million daily requests, with weekly requests remaining steady at around 49 million.

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