As the world’s most successful public service broadcaster, the BBC is better placed than its European counterparts to survive and thrive in the TV Anywhere era by exploiting its global brand to export paid content. This is already happening with its iPlayer catch up online portal, which offers content free in the UK but for a fee in some other countries, using the global version of the system. BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial and export arm, released the Global iPlayer for Western Europe in July 2011 as an App for the Apple iPad at both monthly and annual subscriptions.
To begin with, though the European version (available in 11 countries including France, Germany, Italy and Spain) only provides access to archived content, including old classics like Fawlty Towers and episodes of recent series like the motoring show Top Gear. It will not provide all the last week’s catch up material, which is available free in the UK to Internet subscribers, as well as to customers of the Virgin Media pay TV service. Availability in the US is likely to follow late in 2011.
In all countries, the Global iPlayer will be very different from the UK version, partly reflecting the fact that the BBC’s full catalogue of linear content is not available overseas. If the content has not been broadcast in the first place by definition, there is nothing to catch up on so the whole thrust of the service must be different. Equally important, some of the BBC’s linear content is broadcast overseas by partners, which means the corporation wants to avoid cannibalizing this arrangement by making the same material available via iPlayer. Indeed, during the recent IBC exhibition and conference in Amsterdam, BBC Worldwide’s CEO John Smith elaborated on its global content strategy, emphasising the need for careful expansion of iPlayer in overseas markets. The BBC would avoid cannibalizing its other distribution channels through judicious use of windowing, Smith said, so that scheduled content broadcast via a partner channel would only be available on the iPlayer after a set time.
Smith pointed out that the BBC’s revenues and profits were growing rapidly, albeit from a low base compared with its licence fee income, which is currently frozen at £3.5 billion ($5.5 billion) until 2013. The strategy to boost this substantially involves being far more active in seeking partnerships — both with distributors and content providers around the world. Distributing content from other sources is a fairly new departure for the BBC enabled by iPlayer itself, which in the UK provides access to programming from other content providers, including free to air commercial broadcaster ITV, which historically has been the BBC’s arch rival.
In one respect though, the BBC will not become like other European public service broadcasters, which sell advertising in their home countries. The BBC will continue to avoid advertising in programs or its web site in the UK. How long this policy will survive in the face of dwindling income in real terms for the licence fee will depend partly on the success of BBC Worldwide, which does sell advertising on the website outside the UK.