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BBC to launch pay to use service

The BBC has unveiled its Project Barcelona as a scheme for opening up its large programming archive and making money without contravening its status as a Free-To-Air public broadcaster.

The BBC’s director general Mark Thompson outlined its plans in a speech to the Royal Television Society last week. Thompson pointed out that nearly all the content that it either commissioned or broadcast currently ceased to be available to the public upon expiration of its window on the iPlayer catch-up service. Under the new scheme, archived content would be made available on a download basis for permanent use. This would end the current situation where its content effectively disappears into a black hole as soon as the catch-up window within which it is available via its iPlayer service expires — for now one week after broadcast.

The BBC believes its archive is a gold mine waiting to be exploited, both for consumers and the sake of its own finances, given that income from license fees has been frozen until 2017. Income from these compulsory fees, imposed on anyone with a TV or viewing device in the UK, was once the BBC’s sole source of income. But now, the corporation is earning increasing sums from overseas sales of content via its commercial arm — BBC World. The BBC hopes that this income can be supplemented by pay to download fees paid mostly by UK residents, but will have to tread carefully because it has a remit to provide free access to its programming, as UK viewers have already paid for it via the license fee and should not be charged twice. But the BBC is arguing that everyone has a chance to view content both upon initial broadcast and afterwards via BBC iPlayer, and has plans to extend that catch-up window beyond a week.

Thompson described Project Barcelona as the equivalent of going into a high street shop to buy a DVD of a BBC show, and promised that the fees would be modest and give permanent ownership.

“Our ambition would ultimately be to let our audiences have access to all of our programs on this basis and, over time, to load more and more of our archive into the window,” he said.

The BBC also has to reach agreement with partners and the producers association (PACT) about the new plan, which will later in 2012 be submitted to the BBC Trust, its governing body.