BBC iPlayer: The First Three Months—Trials, Tribulations, and Success?

Users have viewed over 17 million shows since Christmas day, but a recent survey of more than 1,500 Britons, conducted by Entertainment Media Research (EMR), showed that there was still a lack of penetration by online channels. In the survey, the Virgin Media service was the most popular offering, with 20% of the survey respondents saying they used it regulary or occasionally, followed by Channel 4's ondemand service, 4oD, which was used by 15%, and the BBC iPlayer, which was used by 13%. Joost, a service with considerable backing from Viacom, was used by only 4% of the survey’s respondents.

In this initial three-month period, the fact that one in eight people in the U.K. downloaded content using the BBC iPlayer looks promising for the future of on-demand delivery of TV content over the web in the U.K. That is not to say that the iPlayer is a wonderfully flexible tool with innovative content, but if the BBC can significantly increase the market penetration within the next six months beyond the core demographic for these types of services, it will be very interesting to see how mainstream the iPlayer can truly become. The BBC also has a track record of developing innovative online content, so going forward, this kind of programming could become a core driver for developing the iPlayer audience.

However, the iPlayer’s initial success has also raised another issue. Some of the U.K.’s major ISPs have raised concerns about the strain the iPlayer could put on the broadband network infrastructure if it achieves mainstream popularity. This has led ISPs to actually consider throttling traffic to the iPlayer or even, in extreme cases, restricting access to the service completely. The solution that ISPs are currently discussing with the BBC is to find a way in which the corporation could contribute toward network costs to offset the potential increase in load represented by the iPlayer. The only other option, the ISPs say, is throttling or restricting access to the service.

This poses some interesting questions. Can the BBC make the iPlayer a mass market tool without the ISPs’ support, and if it does offer them some kind of help with infrastructure costs, will that be seen as state aid? This is a problem to which an acceptable solution must be found if the iPlayer is to grow its audience significantly.

According to the EMR research, one of the key barriers to widespread adoption is the lack of a one-stop shop for TV content. More than half of the respondents in the survey said they would watch content online more if it was available from one location.

The much-mooted Project Kangaroo—which will see the content of BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 channels available through a downloadable platform—may yet herald something of this scope and would provide access to around 57% of the multichannel content viewed in the U.K. However, this service, which will incorporate the iPlayer, is still in development, with a planned launch proposed for sometime in 2008.

The next six months are key to the development of the iPlayer, with its launch onto cable networks through Virgin Media and the continued development of the BBC World version of the service, which will offer programming on a pay-per-view model to overseas audiences. Of course, to really capitalise on this opportunity, an agreement with the ISPs is fundamental to maintaining the scalability and quality of the application’s service.

With the current top ten of iPlayer programs containing a wider diversity of programming targeting demographics outside of the majority 18-to-35 male audience, there is a real chance that the iPlayer can become mass market before the end of the year. If Project Kangaroo can build on that success, there is a good chance that the U.K. can lead the world in having a mass market TV on-demand service that is truly ubiquitous.

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