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BBC Trust Puts Kibosh on Open iPlayer Federation Plans
Proposals to allow the BBC to share or licence the technology and expertise behind catch-up service iPlayer have been axed as unexpectedly as they were announced in September, but the BBC still plans on international expansion.
Tues., Oct. 27, by Adrian Pennington

Erik Huggers, the BBC's Future Media and Technology (FM&T) director, energised the IBC conference last month by announcing that Open iPlayer would create a "federation of on-demand public service broadcasting services" offering the best of the BBC and commercial PSB programming at the same online destination. A website providing a TV guide linking to partnering UK sites—notably Channel 4, ITV and Channel Five—would be created to help UK viewers navigate to content.

However the BBC Trust, the broadcaster’s ruling body which earlier this year blocked plans for VOD consortia Kangaroo, has declined to give its blessing to the initiative for reasons which are opaque at best.

"We concluded that the Open iPlayer plans in their proposed form, combining both commercial and public service elements, were too complicated," said Diane Coyle, chair of the BBC Trust’s strategic approvals committee. "We were not convinced that there was enough potential value to licence-fee payers in the public service part of the proposal."

"The federation part of it was where the complexity came in, and we didn't see the structure as necessary," she added. "We have a preference for an open model, open standards, like [Project] Canvas. When proposals get beyond a pretty straightforward definition like that it gets more problematic."

There had been interest expressed by overseas broadcasters in looking to license the iPlayer technology.

The public interest argument is odd. Huggers had pointed out that one of the most searched for items on iPlayer was the serial drama Coronation Street, which happens to be made and broadcast by its chief commercial rival ITV. It is surely in the interest of British viewers to have better, clearer access to UK VOD content.

While the BBC’s FM&T team were fully behind the move, and reportedly incensed by the decision to squash it, it seems the regulator has taken a more protectionist view of the BBC’s innovation.

However the Corporation is still proceeding to push its on-demand content to as many different third-party platforms as possible. It issued new guidelines last week for developers of connected TVs and other devices that are intended to enable delivery of iPlayer.

The BBC has to strike a balance between the public value consideration of ensuring that license fee payers can "access BBC content in a way that is convenient to them" said Kerstin Mogul, COO of FM&T, and the fact that a significant investment is involved in adapting the iPlayer for each new platform.

The new guidelines state that "The BBC will consider adjusting its standard iPlayer technology products for specific device families with an installed base of over 100,000," and "will consider bespoke development of iPlayer technology for specific device families with an installed base of over 500,000."

The majority of the 100 million streams delivered each month come via the internet, with a quarter from Virgin Media’s cable service, and 10% from Sony’s PS3. iPlayer is also accessible from 12 mobile devices.

The timing of this release can be seen as a response to the BBC Trust’s block on the export of iPlayer technology. One way or another the iPlayer will seek to extend its market share.

Additionally BBC Worldwide, the profit-making arm of the corporation, is lining up a global iPlayer, or international portal which would charge non-domestic audiences for BBC and other UK original archive content.

The focus is the US, where 20 million of BBC.com’s 50 million users are registered. It is suggested that audiences would be prepared to pay $10 an episode for "premium catalogue material" such as motoring magazine Top Gear or sci-fi drama Dr. Who.