Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, has been talking about the TV of tomorrow. That sounds like a good name for a show. He said there is a proud and powerful place for public service broadcasting, despite profound changes in the viewing environment. He suggests the answer is the BBC iPlayer, supported by its proposals for BritBox. But perhaps the telly of tomorrow is television.
The head of the BBC used plenty of numbers to support this strategy, although they deserve further scrutiny.
He began with the drama Bodyguard. The last episode, transmitted on 23 September 2018, was watched by 17.06 million.
That was the most viewers for a new BBC drama in the multichannel era. According to BARB figures, over 93% of them watched it on a television screen. 1.17 million watched on a computer, tablet or phone, within 28 days of broadcast.
On average, around 56% of BBC iPlayer requests are on television platforms. The BBC reported that episode of Bodyguard received a total of 3.04 million requests on iPlayer in September and a further 1.36 million requests in October.
However, the number of requests is not equivalent to the number of viewers as reported by BARB. The BBC counts a BBC iPlayer request when a stream or download starts, whether or not any or all of a programme is viewed. BARB considers the programme audience as the average of all the audiences for each minute of the programme.
So in BARB terms, that works out at around 2.66 million viewers to the last episode of Bodyguard within a month of its broadcast. That is equivalent to about 16% of the broadcast audience, which is significant, but clearly the vast majority of viewers watched the programme on traditional television, including those that recorded it off air.
Ironically, although Bodyguard was a BBC commission, it was an independent production, distributed by ITV, which had acquired the company, and sold to Netflix which promotes it as an original production.
The next number was for the drama series Killing Eve, which he said had 45 million requests to view on the BBC iPlayer.
The first episode had a total 28-day audience of 8.25 million, with 89% watching on a television screen. The BBC reported that it had 4.62 million requests on the BBC iPlayer. However, the audience fell away over subsequent episodes, and by episode five it was viewed by 4.66 million, with 1.73 million requests on the BBC iPlayer.
So that 45 million requests appears to be a cumulative number across all eight episodes of the series. 19 million of them apparently came before the programme was broadcast on television.
Killing Eve was also an independent production, distributed by IMG, first shown on BBC America, before being shown on BBC One and as a box set series on the BBC iPlayer. In America it is available on Hulu.
According to the director general of the BBC, this demonstrates that “on our best creative form, the BBC and UK creativity are unbeatable — world-class”.
“It also tells us that there remains a proud and powerful place for public service broadcasting, right at the heart of today’s TV landscape.”
Or, it might be argued, these are programmes that could have been commissioned and produced by others.
As the head of the BBC acknowledged, “It’s hard to overstate how profoundly and rapidly the giant global players are reshaping the market around us.”
Netflix spent an estimated $13 million on programming in 2018, compared to the £1.5 billion spent by BBC Television.
So how should public service broadcasters respond? He suggested that firstly “we can make linear and non-linear, TV channels and video-on-demand, work together.” Secondly, he said “PSBs are strongest in the content that UK audiences love”. Thirdly, “PSBs have the brand, the reputation, and the archive”.
What needs to change, he said, “is how audiences get to that content”.
11 years after the BBC iPlayer began in streaming form, at the end of 2007, the BBC claims it is “one of the country’s biggest and most recognised brands”.
“Our plan is simple,” he said. “We want iPlayer to build on the very best of the past, to deliver the TV of tomorrow. The best mix of live and recorded programmes.”
“So our iPlayer strategy is clear,” he stated.
“First, we’ll have programmes available for at least 12 months after they’re first shown. And some of those as multiseries boxsets.”
“Second, we’ll have more personalisation, with more people signed-in,” he said. “Audiences tell us they want a tailored, personalised offer. They want us to deliver a mix of data-driven content and curated programming — a mix that only the BBC can provide.”
“Third, we’ll have more live programming, and more content from our archive,” he said. “Our Christmas boxset releases proved what an appetite there is for our classic television. 7 million of nearly 60 million requests were for titles over ten years old.”
“This is the telly of tomorrow.”
He went on to justify the extension catalogue programming on the iPlayer. “It’s the extension of our initial public service window, that’s not normally available for commercial exploitation in the UK. So it won’t affect our ability to maximise commercial returns. When we need to go beyond that, we’ll pay fair market rates. It doesn’t impact either on sales outside the UK – where the majority of commercial investment and return comes from.”
Then, he spoke of the commercial partnership with ITV. “This is a new model of public service and commercial partnership in the UK.”
“BritBox will provide an unrivalled collection of British boxsets as well as new original series that you won’t see anywhere else, on demand, all in one place. And, crucially, UK audiences will always know who to credit for what they’re watching. Both ITV and the BBC will have full branding and attribution at service and programme level.”
He also suggested that it is a partnership that supports the whole public service broadcaster ecology and he hopes that others will come on board too.
The chief executive of Channel 4, Alex Mahon, confirmed that the state-owned commercial broadcaster was having “positive and constructive discussions with ITV and the BBC about how Channel 4 could partner with them to build the scale of BritBox”.
For the BBC, it is all about delivering value for the licence fee.
“It might be five years away, it might be 10, but soon our digital services will be the only ones some audiences use. And increasingly, their idea of what constitutes value will be unique and personal to them,” the director general of the BBC concluded.
“Not long ago, traditional broadcasters and media organisations could each do our thing and expect audiences to make time to come to us. Now we must fit around their lives. Deliver value directly to them. Or we all risk irrelevance.”
“We need to provide something of value to everyone, but in very different ways and at very different times,” he said. “We need a new and personal relationship with individuals and households. We need to be ready to inform, educate and entertain, no matter what the future holds.”
So the BBC sees the iPlayer as the way forward, although after a decade it still only contributes a relatively small proportion of its overall viewing.
Some of the most popular programmes are drama, which are most vulnerable to substitution by other providers with deeper pockets, serving a global audience.
In the first week of February, 9 out of the top 10 programmes on BBC television were dramas, including four episodes of the popular serial EastEnders.
The only factual programme was Antiques Roadshow, which may be stretching the definition, with an audience of 5.92 million over a month, of which only 133,573, or less than 0.5%, watched on a device other than a television.
Perhaps the television of tomorrow is simply television.