The BBC is planning to release up to 40 hours of programming this year on iPlayer before it is broadcast on television. Netflix and others are meanwhile making programming available exclusively online, bypassing the television networks entirely. It represents a radical challenge to the traditional model of television distribution.
The BBC Trust has approved a 12-month trial, which would allow up to 40 hours of programming across a range of genres to be shown online before transmission on traditional television channels.
The BBC has previously experimented with online-only releases but this has so far been limited to pilots, specifically commissioned material and archive programming.
In 2012, a Doctor Who web series called Pond Life and a number of comedy pilots were made available exclusively online. The Doctor Who webisodes were streamed or downloaded five million times.
“We will build on this in 2013, and make a small number of additional programmes exclusively available to our audiences via BBC iPlayer,” said a BBC representative.
The trial will test the audience appetite for online premieres and provide further promotion for online viewing, which has so far been presented mainly as a ‘catch-up’ experience.
Commercial channels are also expected to test the water with online exclusives, and no doubt evaluate the propensity to pay for the privilege of watching something online before everyone else can see it on television.
Broadcasters should arguably be much more ambitious in creating programming exclusively for online distribution, rather than simply seeing it as an adjunct to their traditional channels.
Other online services are meanwhile beginning to premiere programming exclusively online.
Netflix has notably released its remake of House of Cards online, making all 13 episodes available at once to its subscribers, on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit over two decades after the original series was shown on the BBC over four Sunday evenings, followed by a second and third series.
This has led to much talk of “binge viewing” — the equivalent of watching a box set of discs or an entire season of episodes in a single sitting. This is in itself nothing new.
What is new is breaking entirely free from the traditional television channel or schedule and distributing exclusively online. As a result, it is no longer necessary to wait until after a series of episodes have been shown and the story is known.
The novelty of releasing all 13 episodes at once has provided Netflix with priceless publicity, but what is missing is the ongoing media coverage that helps build an audience over time.
Uniquely, Netflix will know exactly how many people watched House of Cards, when and where they watched, whether they went on to watch more than a few episodes and what they watched next. It will know better than any broadcaster whether its investment in original programming has paid off.
Netflix is promising more online commissions to come, as is Amazon, while Google is funding the creation of online channels.
It is a sign of the increasing maturity and scale of online video distribution. The stream of online television shows may eventually turn into a flood that will overwhelm traditional channels. This is only the start of the story and we will all have to wait a while to see how it ends.