The BBC has outlined plans to share its iPlayer with other broadcasters and bring it to the television set by developing a common industry approach to on-demand and internet services. It says the plans are already being progressed by a group including the BBC, ITV and BT. They have yet to be approved by the BBC Trust. The British public broadcaster could face further competition concerns unless the plans are shared with the industry as a whole on an open basis.
Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, outlined the partnership plans, presented as securing the future of public service broadcasting.
“We are proposing that the BBC shares some of the benefits of its scale and security with the rest of the industry to strengthen it for the long term,” he said. “Through partnerships I believe broadcasters can help secure the future of public service broadcasting in this country.”
The wide-ranging proposals cover the production, distribution and exploitation of programming. They are outlined in a publication entitled The BBC and the Future of Public Service Broadcasting.
The corporation says the partnerships would mean the British public service broadcasters working together, with the BBC as a catalyst, to achieve long term benefits.
The proposals include a public service iPlayer, available for use beyond BBC programming. That could mean opening up software, interfaces, or simply naming schemes to enable services to interoperate.
They also cover offering internet services to the television: working closely with ITV and BT to enable audiences to access on-demand and interactive services through their television sets.
The BBC proposes to invest in and share technology that will allow a common industry approach to producing, sharing and editing digital material. Discussions are also apparently underway to explore areas of commercial cooperation between BBC Worldwide and Channel 4.
The announcements come as the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 prepare to respond to the Competition Commission which found that their proposals for a joint video on demand venture would restrict competition.
The BBC has floated the possibility that its iPlayer could become a federation of on-demand services. Users could access this federation either via a single broadcaster-neutral central site or through separate sections of each participating public service broadcaster web site, where programmes would be viewed.
Each participant would then exploit its own rights, maintaining the benefits of creative competition and editorial independence, but maximising the benefits of shared technology and user experience.
That sounds sensible, but note that the BBC refers only to public service broadcasters, which could therefore exclude other commercial broadcasters, independent producers or platform operators, such as Sky.
The BBC says the concept is compatible with other public service broadcaster partnerships including Kangaroo, to which the BBC and other shareholders remain committed. Quite how it will support the Kangaroo concept is unclear. Helping to establish a platform that could be commercially exploited is one possibility.
The BBC has apparently been developing a standards-based open environment for internet-connected television, working closely with ITV and in discussion with other public service broadcasters and industry partners including BT.
This standard would be designed to offer consumers an integrated broadband and broadcast service, free-to-air and accessed through a single, simple user experience. It could be made available by any internet service provider offering a suitable broadband connection.
The proposal would offer audiences existing free-to-air radio and television services including high definition, while also bringing on-demand video, audio and web-based content like iPlayer to the television set. Above all it says it would help protect the competitiveness of free-to-air platforms and a direct open relationship between public service broadcasters and their audiences.
“I am pleased that the BBC is working with industry partners such as device manufacturers, ISPs and other content providers on proposals which will bring real benefits for consumers,” said Mark Thompson of the BBC.
However, many industry participants have yet to be involved in such discussions, including informitv which has already offered to co-ordinate an industry forum to establish such standards.
The BBC now says that “the initiative is open for all public service broadcasters, device developers and other ISPs.”
Michael Grade, the chairman of ITV and former chairman of the BBC Governors, said: “This makes convergence a reality. It will also future-proof our free-to-air platforms, Freeview and Freesat. We are delighted to be working with the BBC, BT and other ISPs to bring this idea to fruition for viewers.”
Ian Livingston, the chief executive of BT, said: “Television and broadband are a compelling combination.” He added that: “We are looking forward to working with the BBC, ITV and other internet service providers to support an open standard for the free to air market in the UK.”
That also raises the question of the relationship between BT and Microsoft. The Microsoft Mediaroom platform powers the BT Vision broadband video service that is also based on the free to air Freeview digital terrestrial television offering.
The real issue is whether much needed standards to bring together broadcast and broadband networks will be developed in an open partnership and made available on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.
There has been some concern that other initiatives, such as Freesat, another collaboration between the BBC and ITV, have not been entirely open. The standards and specifications for the platform have not been published and are only available to manufacturers that have been prepared to commit to commercial agreements with the consortium.
Many leading consumer electronics companies are already fitting network connections to their televisions, or have plans to launch such products. In some cases they will be supported by proprietary walled garden services.
What is desperately needed is an open environment that will allow anyone in the ecosystem to participate. The issues lie not so much in the technical standards, but in ways in which such services will be made available and presented to the user.
Given that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, with all the legal expertise available to them, have already run into trouble with the Competition Commission over their proposed Kangaroo project, where it seems they did not anticipated competition concerns, they may need to tread carefully.
The BBC has invested considerable public money in the development of its iPlayer and is proposing to spend more in various digital production and metadata initiatives.
Ironically, in aiming to support other commercially funded public service broadcasters, and possibly exclude other commercial competitors, the BBC may once again risk a run in with regulators.
Any potential subsidy in a partnership with other broadcasters could be seen as illegal state aid, a possibility confirmed to informitv by a partner at a leading London law firm.
The BBC previously had to abandon its digital curriculum project, having spent nearly £100 million, following complaints to the European Commission from the commercial sector, alleging that it had exceeded its remit.
These are all issues that the BBC Trust will have to consider in approving the partnership plans.
Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, welcomed “an imaginative and far-reaching set of partnership proposals with the potential to offer the sustainable solutions we seek.”
He was careful to address the question of competition. “Of course, coming together as partners must not imply a reduction in competition,” he said. “The Trust will want to ensure that the proposals can accommodate changes in the family of PSB providers and also that they do not impair competition with others.”
The BBC, he observed, “has a good record of developing new broadcast technologies and standards, including PAL, Teletext, and NICAM, and sharing them openly and freely with the rest of the industry.”
He invited proposals from potential partners, policy makers and the industry as a whole, as well as the public, as part of a three-month consultation process.
Some of the proposals he said will trigger the formal regulatory process. For example, opening the iPlayer to other public service broadcasters will not go ahead before a full public value test from Ofcom. He suggested that if the BBC and its partners can build on the productive work done so far, then the benefits could be seen within a year.
Andy Duncan, the chief executive of Channel 4, which would like to see a share of the BBC licence fee revenue, has already dismissed the plans.
“With the exception of the suggested partnership with BBC Worldwide, we don’t believe these proposals offer any tangible financial benefit for Channel 4,” he said in a statement.
“Based on our experience of selling advertising around on-demand viewing, we’ve given the BBC clear feedback that their assumptions about the commercial benefits of a link with the iPlayer are inaccurate. We don’t share their view that this particular proposal could deliver an immediate and sizeable financial upside,” he added.
The other main national network, Five, which has perhaps felt excluded from the public service broadcaster club, was more positive. “We believe the ideas they have outlined could make a significant difference to sustaining the PSB system, in particular sharing the iPlayer,” said Charles Constable, director of strategy at the channel.