The BBC Trust has provisionally concluded that the BBC should make its public service television programmes available on demand exclusively through the BBC iPlayer. In response to an invitation to industry stakeholders to submit their views, informitv offers this open letter to the BBC Trust, recommending that to avoid further distorting the market and inhibiting innovation, these BBC programmes should additionally be made available in suitable formats, on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, to allow third parties to distribute such material through their own platforms under appropriate licence.

In its review of the existing on-demand syndication policy, the governing body of the BBC has provisionally concluded that BBC public service television programmes longer than twenty minutes in duration should only be made available for viewing on demand within a BBC service, currently the BBC iPlayer. This means that other providers will not be able to offer selected BBC programmes through their own on-demand services. The BBC Trust also proposes to terminate existing distribution agreements with BT Vision, Talk Talk and Virgin Media, with a view to migrating to a standard implementation of the BBC iPlayer.

The BBC considers that the BBC iPlayer and associated programming should only be made available to third parties in standard formats, initially based on HTML, Flash and MHEG implementations, which could be supplemented with further generic versions in the future. Requests to allow bespoke versions will generally be refused, although they may be considered on an exceptional basis, with any costs of development and ongoing maintenance to be reimbursed to the BBC.

This proposed approach is unique in the broadcast business, in relying entirely on over the top delivery of online video and actively precluding distribution through traditional cable television video on demand or proprietary internet protocol television services. As such it runs counter to mainstream practice in other developed markets. How far this will benefit viewers, and ultimately the long-term future of the BBC is unclear.

Although the BBC Trust refers to on-demand syndication, the proposed policy is not one of syndication in the generally accepted sense of the term within the media industry. Syndication implies making material available to third parties for distribution through their own channels. On the contrary, the BBC interpretation of syndication is making its public service programmes available on demand only within a BBC service, currently branded as BBC iPlayer. The BBC refers to this as aggregation, although it appears actively opposed to any form of aggregation of its programming by others.

The BBC would appear to prefer to provide a walled garden within which only its own programmes will be available, free of competition from other distractions. The suggestion is that audiences benefit from the presentation of BBC programmes in a consistent context that offers access to the wide range of output. The concern is apparently that third parties might choose to selectively distribute some programmes and not others, and that the BBC would lose control of the way in which its programmes are presented.

So the BBC Trust launched a consultation. Nearly 2,000 individuals responded and only 53% of their observations supported the view that BBC programming should be provided exclusively in the context of a package, while this was opposed by the majority of platform operators and manufacturers that responded. This is hardly a broad endorsement from either users or the wider industry.

Four main arguments were advanced against the BBC approach and in favour of disaggregated distribution.

  • It reduces the reach of BBC programming, denying access to on-demand material to many millions of individuals that use other television platforms.
  • It results in higher costs to the BBC and lower value for the licence payer as it requires the BBC to design and develop multiple versions of its service.
  • It distorts competition, and is likely to stifle innovation for players, platforms and programme guides, conferring an advantage to certain products and platforms.
  • It inconveniences users who would otherwise find it more convenient to access programming from multiple sources through a single interface.

These are compelling criticisms which appear to be unarguable.

The counter proposal from several platform operators was that the BBC should make programmes available to properly licensed platforms through some central distribution mechanism.

This would appear to be an eminently sensible and economically more cost-effective suggestion.

Yet the BBC Trust has once again endorsed the views of its executive.

The main argument is that as a public service broadcaster the packaging of programming into linear channels has historically ensured that the BBC has been able to achieve its public purposes by providing access to a broad range of output with a clear brand identify and consistency of user experience, free to view and without commercial advertising.

It is argued that this can encourage viewers to experience a wider range of programming, and enable the BBC to promote its programming and maintain a direct relationship with its audience through which it can serve them better.

It is suggested that third parties will be more likely to promote popular programming, or may even request payment for promoting certain programmes, although no real evidence is presented for this concern.

The remit of the BBC is to provide programming to the widest possible audience. Yet over half the television licence paying homes in the United Kingdom now subscribe to a pay-television service and this proportion is likely to increase.

Virgin Media customers currently have access to a subset of BBC public service programming available on demand through the cable television platform. There is the potential for its latest generation boxes to support an online service as proposed by the BBC, but this is not possible on the existing legacy platform, which delivers over a fifth of BBC iPlayer requests.

Sky, which now accounts for over ten million homes, does not currently provide any BBC programming on demand. The new Sky Anytime+ service will enable Sky+ high-definition boxes to connect to Sky Broadband to receive online video services but will not technically be capable of supporting any of the available generic BBC iPlayer implementations. In any case, Sky would argue that as a television platform operator it should be able to integrate its own solution, consistent with its other services.

These paying television customers, which account for around half the television homes in the country, still watch more BBC television programming than that of any other broadcaster or channel. They will be denied the opportunity to view BBC programmes on demand in the same environment as the rest of the programming to which they subscribe, although they will of course still be able to access the BBC iPlayer directly over broadband. It is difficult to understand how this represents an optimum user experience.

However, there is no valid commercial or technical reason that the BBC should not be able to develop its own public service offering, both on the web and to open connected television devices and displays, while making some or all of this programming available for distribution under licence to third-party platforms for incorporation into their own services and propositions.

This would protect the ability for users to access the entire range of public service programming in a BBC branded environment, with appropriate promotions and recommendations, free of advertising, and free at the point of use. It would also enable this programming to be available on demand in the pay-television environment to which the majority of licence fee payers now subscribe.

The television and video environment is inherently one in which services from multiple sources are aggregated and compete for the attention of the viewer. Whether it likes it not, the BBC operates in a free market in which consumers have the freedom to exercise choice.

The BBC is widely viewed as world class broadcaster and does not need to rely on protectionist measures to ensure its reputation. As an organisation, the BBC should have more confidence in its own ability to provide compelling and competitive programming, through a brand that is widely trusted and respected.

On-demand services are by definition different and distinct to broadcasting. As the term suggests, programmes are viewed on demand, at the request of the user. The key concepts of mixed channel scheduling that have characterised public service broadcasting — presenting less popular programmes alongside mass audience attractions — no longer apply. Instead, programmes need to rely upon promotion and recommendation, and ultimately their own merits.

The suggestion that this will necessarily disadvantage particular programmes is patronisingly false. The evidence of the BBC iPlayer suggests that niche programmes benefit from the ability to be viewed on demand.

As with books, magazines, videotapes or discs, programmes that are published for viewing on demand compete for attention directly with other titles. Populist programming will always be popular, but in an appropriately open on-demand environment there is more opportunity to discover more esoteric material.

The question is whether there should be a store in which only BBC titles should be stocked, or whether they should be available alongside those of other brands. It is interesting that many of the arguments advanced defend a walled garden do not appear to apply when the BBC enters commercial markets. There it seems the BBC brand can be not only adequately protected but actively exploited to promote products.

In the commercial market the BBC has already learnt that a shop that exclusively sells BBC products may have some value but will only have limited commercial success. Publications benefit from the scale of distribution and the wider range of choice available when they are aggregated with and compete alongside similar products. This is generally the case in a physical marketplace but it is all the more true in an online environment, such as Amazon or Apple iTunes.

In the online world, virtual shelf space is virtually unlimited. There is no commercial, technical or practical reason that a service provider should not offer access to the widest possible range of BBC programming.

Ironically, the approach proposed by the BBC executive and endorsed by its governing body appears to limit one of the key benefits of YouView, the proposed platform joint venture in which the Trust also approved the involvement of the BBC.

YouView will aim to offer an integrated electronic programme guide through which users can scroll back to view programmes on demand.

However, the BBC Trust argues that BBC programming should only be accessible within the walled garden of the BBC iPlayer. Logically this means that the YouView programme guide will have to link to a generic BBC iPlayer application interface. This will provide an inconsistent and incoherent experience between different broadcasters and significantly undermines the opportunity for YouView to offer a unique selling proposition.

This also illustrates the frustrations faced by competing platforms and product manufacturers that may wish to integrate BBC on-demand programmes within a unified user interface.

In determining that the BBC should exclusively be responsible for the development of the application environment in which its programmes may be viewed on demand, any opportunity for innovation by third parties will necessarily be restricted.

While the implementation of the BBC iPlayer is highly regarded by users and industry experts alike, it is far from flawless and the current “big screen” HTML version offers a less than optimal user experience.

The success of the BBC iPlayer to date can be largely attributed to the access it provides to a range of high quality programming, uninterrupted by advertising, and heavily promoted on air. There is nothing particularly unique in the technical implementation of the BBC iPlayer. Similar services, such as Hulu in the United States have enjoyed equal success. The view that the BBC alone is best placed to engineer the user experience runs the risk of appearing arrogant and will fail to benefit from the innovations of others.

None of this is in the interests of the viewer, user or licence fee payer.

Arguments appealing to a general conception of public value are increasingly being used by the BBC Trust to justify positions that appear otherwise indefensible. Apparently it creates public value to distribute programmes as a bundle but it diminishes public value to make them available individually. It creates public value if the BBC creates an application but not if it is created by a third party. The resulting specious sophistry threatens to erode the reputation of the institution.

The primary role of the BBC should lie in acquiring, commissioning and producing distinctive programmes that are widely enjoyed and highly valued. The BBC already outsources many key aspects of the playout and transmission of its broadcast channels to third parties and should not indulge in developing and operating end-to-end on-demand distribution platforms, any more than it should produce television displays.

In relation to the provision of programming on demand, informitv believes that the BBC should continue to develop and promote its own BBC iPlayer proposition, and make this available as a bundled offering in appropriate technical implementations for third parties that choose to use it in this form.

However, the BBC should also make the equivalent media assets available, rights permitting, as streams or files in one or more generally accepted industry standard formats. These should be published, together with the relevant descriptive metadata, to authorised third parties through a managed application programming interface, subject to a distribution licence agreement, on a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis. This should be conditional on meeting and maintaining appropriate technical standards to prevent further unauthorised distribution and to ensure that programmes are presented with appropriate branding, attribution and promotion.

That is really all that is required in order to meet the stated public purposes of the BBC and meet the needs of the wider industry and the end user and licence payer.

This submission was provided by Dr William Cooper, former Head of New Media Operations at the BBC and now chief executive at the broadband and broadcast convergence consultancy informitv.

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