The BBC Trust has made significant concessions in its policy for the distribution of BBC programmes for access on demand. It previously stipulated that the corporation should only make its public service programming available on demand through standard versions of the BBC iPlayer. Following an extensive consultation, in response to complaints from operators including Sky and Virgin Media and a submission from informitv, the Trust has now published a number of proposed principles that must be observed but stops short of prescribing the technical implementation. That leaves some scope for special arrangements that may not be tied directly to the BBC iPlayer. In theory, it could also open the door to distribution through the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google, or Netflix, a scenario the BBC seemed keen to avoid.
The proposals advanced by BBC management argued that aggregation of programmes through a limited number of standard versions of the BBC iPlayer was essential to control both the content and context of presentation and secure brand attribution and due prominence.
The proposed draft syndication policy originally stated that the BBC could not syndicate full-length public service television programming outside a BBC aggregation product, currently the BBC iPlayer. The Trust concluded that versions in HTML, Flash and MHEG would be sufficient to allow this to be used by the majority of platform operators, manufacturers and other stakeholders. This was despite the fact that this specifically excluded the existing arrangements with Virgin Media and BT Vision and technically precluded the possibility of incorporation on the current Sky platform.
The consultation that followed received over 2,000 responses from members of the public and 13 from industry stakeholders, including informitv.
Many were opposed in principle to the idea of aggregation, challenged the presumption that the iPlayer was the only solution, and were critical of mandating standard versions, arguing that this could inhibit innovation.
The report noted the point made by informitv that the proposed policy was 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.”
It also noted the observation of informitv that half the television licence paying homes in the United Kingdom subscribe to a pay-television service and this proportion is likely to increase. “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.”
The BBC Trust still maintains that BBC programming is best delivered on demand through a standard BBC product, such as the BBC iPlayer. It believes that aggregation allows it to control the way that audiences find and consume on-demand content, the context in which it is presented and the overall user experience it delivers.
The Trust concedes that it will not seek to impose a specific technical solution, which many stakeholders argued was restrictive and unworkable. It is therefore providing a set of principles to which the BBC management must adhere.
Once again, however, the BBC Trust can be seen to be indulging in extensive public and industry consultation, this the second on this subject, to be followed by a third, only to dismiss valid concerns and criticisms and form its own conclusions, based largely on the evidence of its management.
The Trust even concedes that its preferred approach may not necessarily be the lowest cost option but considers that it better delivers public value.
“Stakeholders including YouView, IP Vision, Sky, Virgin and informitv argued that complete control of the user experience would jeopardise seamless viewing, erode technological innovation and limit consumer choice (thereby resulting in consumer harm),” notes the report.
However, the Trust dismisses alternative proposals from industry stakeholders. These include provision of BBC programming in a BBC branded area on third-party platforms, versions of a standard BBC product developed by third parties, or simply syndicating on programme by programme.
“In conclusion we consider that the alternatives, if applied across the board, would not sufficiently deliver against the public purposes to the extent that the preferred approach of syndication via the iPlayer product will.”
“It is worth noting, however, that whilst our clear preference is syndication via a standard BBC product, delivered over the internet, we recognise that circumstances may occasionally arise that justify special arrangements that depart from this model.”
In essence the proposed policy now sets out eight principles with which the BBC must comply. These cover access to the full range of BBC programming, ease of discovery, editorial control and recommendation, brand recognition, appropriate context, high-quality of experience, access free of charge and free of advertising and sponsorship, and parental controls and accessibility features, such as subtitles and audio description.
It also provides scope to allow the BBC to introduce improvements and innovations in the future, to facilitate prompt removal of programming where required for legal or compliance reasons, and the provision of accurate and timely user data.
The policy also requires the BBC to make metadata freely available to stakeholders as part of any syndication arrangement, in order to facilitate the discovery of on-demand programming.
Within these stipulations, the policy no longer prescribes a single approach to the delivery mechanism.
This represents a significant softening in policy, in the face of strong representation from other interested parties. While the Trust would clearly still prefer that the BBC iPlayer be the only way to access BBC programming on demand, that may not be a technically, politically or indeed legally tenable position.
“We’ve taken on board what the industry told us earlier this year,” said the vice-chair of the BBC Trust, Diana Coyle, who led the review. “I hope that we have reached a sensible way forward in this complicated area, and we will take account of any final views before publishing the new policy early in 2012.”
Further details of the Proposed policy of the syndication of BBC on-demand content are available on the Trust section of the BBC web site. Responses should be submitted to the BBC Trust by 21 December 2011. Publication of the final policy is expected early in 2012.