Dror Ginzberg
Dror Ginzberg 23 January 2018
Categories Content, Technology

Ten Years On: How BBC iPlayer Changed TV Forever

It began life as a prototype mired in delays, outcry and regulatory red tape - but it soon set the template for the way in which people around the world consume on-demand television.

December 25, 2007, was the day the web version of the BBC’s iPlayer left beta and went live. Within a fortnight, it had served over 3.5m programmes. But it wasn’t always plain sailing.

Then director general Mark Thompson had first announced plans to create a TV show download service, dubbed MyBBCPlayer, at the Edinburgh Television Festival two years earlier, declaring: “On-demand, in many ways, actually a better environment for the BBC to build public value than either conventional TV or radio”.

But, just like the story of someone else who famously arrived on Christmas Day, the journey was arduous.

Under digital director Ashley Highfield, Auntie began a five-month trial of MyBBCPlayer in October 2005 and planned a full roll-out in 2006 but, in fact, spent more than a year in further technical development. MyBBCPlayer was re-christened iPlayer, a new trial began in November 2006 - amid complaints about faults and an outcry that iPlayer ran only on PCs running Windows XP.

The regulating BBC Trust approved the new service in July 2007 after a nine-month value test, but the iPlayer’s manifestation at the time rankled still. At the time, iPlayer was a downloadable application that required viewers download shows to their computers, over peer-to-peer distribution technology.

After hiring technologist Anthony Rose from P2P streaming app KaZaA and striking a deal with Adobe to launch a platform-neutral web version in Flash with streaming video, the BBC improved the service and went all-in with a Christmas Day marketing launch.

A whole four years after the project began as iMP (Integrated Media Player), a TV ad starring a cuddly flock of penguins, in front of the year’s biggest TV audience, bonded iPlayer to the nation’s hearts.

Now serving toward 250m monthly TV requests, iPlayer is available on a plethora of devices. But iPlayer’s influence on the digital video landscape has been far wider than all this tech talk.

By launching a new service under its own steam and with its own name, the BBC had charted a course for the corporation, and for all other media companies, that would break from the traditional aggregated TV bundle experience.

Until then, a world of TV had been consumed using a common interface. Terrestrial had Freeview, satellite had Sky, cable had Virgin Media - all offered dozens or hundreds of channels through their respective common platform. Yet here was a new platform which offered content from only one supplier, the BBC.

You can understand why. When he took on Thompson’s project, Highfield was acutely concerned about the potential threat from big US internet operators like Google. iPlayer was their attempt to ready the British broadcasting landscape for the digital future.

And every other broadcaster has fallen into line. From Channel 4 and ITV to TF1 and Iview from Australia’s ABC - in an app-centric world, all the networks had followed iPlayer’s lead, choosing to become platform operators by introducing own-brand services.

iPlayer’s influence has even extended to the subscription world. The likes of DisneyLife, at £4.99 per month, likely would not have materialised were it not for the template that had been laid down - the blueprint in which every content owner can go direct to viewers.

Arguably, this operator-centric approach has led to the fracturing of consumer experience - save for Hulu in the US, there are few online aggregators parallel to traditional Freeview, where viewers can get content from all broadcasters in a single place.

But iPlayer has become about more than just this, and that little prototype kicked off by a group of forward-thinking but concerned executives has long since left behind all the technical concerns which once plagued it.

iPlayer has now become so popular and forged such a strong relationship with its audience, it has become a crucible for future BBC strategy in its entirety.

When today’s decision-makers consider axing a television or radio service, they point to iPlayer as a likely alternative distribution channel. Now that iPlayer required both a BBC online account and declaration of TV License ownership, iPlayer will also likely become the focus for a renewed discussion about how the BBC is paid for in its next Charter period.

That won’t happen until 2027. What will the second decade of iPlayer look like until then? I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

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