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BBC worries that its iPlayer may be too successful

The Global BBC iPlayer international version is still officially in beta and only a forerunner of an eventual full blown international service, but has already gained a substantial subscriber base since its launch in July 2011, according to its General Manager Matthew Littleford.

But, speaking at the IP&TV World Forum in London last week, Littleford owned up to concerns that the Global BBC iPlayer’s success was interfering with the existing overseas arm selling individual programming to local broadcasters and distributors, meaning that the corporation was wasting resources competing with itself.

Littleford told his keynote audience that the BBC had had its “Kodak moment" with the popular iPlayer, referring to the once dominant film processing company Eastman Kodak that filed for bankruptcy in January 2012. Kodak had been killed by the baby it created, having invented the digital camera that destroyed its core business in film manufacture and processing. Like many other companies in a dominant position, Kodak could not enthusiastically embrace a new technology that cannibalized its mainstream business, but yet, in not doing so ensured its own demise.

The analogy with the BBC is inexact at best, since the corporation did not invent catch up and has embraced it strongly, nor is its core linear business going to disappear anytime soon. But, the analogy does capture the dilemma faced by broadcasters in deciding how to balance on-demand with linear services in the emerging multiscreen world. As Littleford pointed out, nobody has found the ideal mix yet, noting that his experience with the Global iPlayer already indicates this will depend on the region.

Although giving no hard figures for usage of Global BBC iPlayer, now available on the iPad, iPod and iPhone in 16 countries including Western Europe, Canada and Australia, Littleford did highlight some significant variations between these markets.

Australia is now the biggest market for Global iPlayer in terms of subscribers, ahead of Germany and the US. Australians like BBC's comedy output the most, while Germans prefer culinary programs, Canadians crime related content, and Italians drama. There will equally be regional variations in the way people like to interact with different screens.

One common theme was that while the big programs or series such as Dr. Who and Top Gear pull in audiences in the first place, it is the less well known or niche content, once referred to as the “long tail,” that retains viewers. If that is the case, the BBC is well placed, because it has a longer and more attractive tail than almost any other worldwide broadcaster.