Users of the BBC iPlayer will have to register and sign in to access the service. The BBC says that it will enable people to benefit from personalised features, but admits that it will share user information with TV Licensing for enforcement purposes. It may also use the data to support advertising through third-party services, like Facebook.
Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, started 2017 with a call to “reinvent the iPlayer” and “make the leap from a catch-up service to a must-visit destination in its own right.”
He wants the BBC iPlayer to be the number one online TV service in the country, doubling its reach and quadrupling the time each person spends on it every week by 2020.
“Each month, we now have around three million active signed-in users. I want to make that 20 million,” he said. “And I want us to get there as quickly as possible.”
So users of the BBC iPlayer, and the BBC iPlayer Radio, will have to provide a date of birth, email address and postcode in order to use the service. Any valid postcode, like W1A 1AA, will apparently work.
It also says “We may use information which we hold about you to show you relevant advertising on third party sites (e.g. Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter). This could involve showing you an advertising message where we know you have a BBC account and have used BBC products and services.”
So is this the start of a slippery slope towards subscription and advertising?
Some might argue that the BBC is already a subscription service, supported by a mandatory television licence regime, which now extends to its online video services.
In which case, it is in the dubious position of having a subscription system that is legally enforceable and uses “enquiry officers” to visit premises suspected of not paying the current fee of £147 a year, with the threat of fines or even imprisonment for non-payment.
And why does the BBC need to use third-party services like Facebook and Google to show “relevant advertising”?
The BBC already uses commercial marketing channels to promote its programming, so this might be seen as a logical extension of this. Yet users that innocently sign up to receive a personalised service from the BBC without reading the fine print may not realise that they could be handing over personal information and possibly details of their viewing behaviour to global corporations for advertising purposes, although the BBC says “We promise to never sell your personal details to anyone.”
The BBC has taken its time in delivering personalised services. Its first attempt at myBBC was launched in 2000 but closed three years later. There have been various attempts to offer personalisation of services since, but generally to augment them, rather than requiring users to sign on. Meanwhile, social media services like Facebook have exploded in popularity and usage of YouTube is far higher than that of BBC iPlayer.
In many ways, it is extraordinary that the BBC has been making its programmes freely available online for years without asking users to sign up for an account.
In a statement on the BBC web site, Andrew Scott, the latest launch director of myBBC, wrote: “By personalising your BBC, we can help you find the best of public service broadcasting. By finding out more about you and what you like we can make better content, make it more relevant, and bring it to you more effectively.”
“We don’t want any of you to miss out, so we’re now taking the next steps to ensure everyone gets the best from your BBC,” he wrote, in a wonderful example of BBC “Newspeak”.
“The reason we’re making these changes isn’t about enforcing the licence fee — it’s about giving you a better BBC and helping you get the best out of it,” he maintains. “However, the information you provide us with can help TV Licensing ensure that people are abiding by the law and minimise licence fee evasion,” he continues. “So we will now use this alongside our existing enforcement techniques to help identify people who are watching licence fee-funded content without a licence.”
While broadcasters need to develop a more personal relationship with their users, this patronising approach appears disingenuous. The online comments are predictably critical and it seems that not everyone in the BBC is entirely happy with how this policy has been implemented.
The real problem that the BBC faces is that while its iPlayer is the most popular of the online video services from broadcasters it is still far from mainstream.
Usage of the BBC iPlayer peaks at around 0.75 million users an hour, compared to over 24 million for television in the United Kingdom. There are around 9 million requests a day for television programmes, which sounds impressive but is still small in television terms.
There is a further problem that 45% of requests to BBC iPlayer are from television devices, for which there is apparently no sign-on solution, at least for now.
The BBC iPlayer received 274 million requests for programmes in April, which was fewer than previous months in 2017, but 23% higher than the previous April, although the figures are not directly comparable as the measurement system changed at the end of June.
The four-part comedy series Peter Kay’s Car Share dominated the top 20 programmes, with all episodes receiving over 2 million requests. Line of Duty, Doctor Who and EastEnders filled the remaining positions. These top 20 episodes accounted for 21 million requests and exclude viewing on Sky or Virgin Media platforms.
Beyond those four programmes, none received received more than a million requests. Counting only the most requested episode per series, the twentieth most popular programme, Golf: The Masters Live Final received just over half a million requests.
So the average of 275 million requests a month is made up of a long tail of programmes that each receives a relatively small number of requests. This is typical of online services.
The BBC Store, which is integrated with the BBC iPlayer and requires users to sign in in order to purchase programmes, has reportedly failed to meet management expectations. Tony Hall announced it in October 2013 as part of “a bold era of BBC innovation” and it launched in November 2015 but has apparently made little impact commercially.
The BBC pulled back from a previous attempt to launch the BBC iPlayer as a global service. Begun as a pilot in July 2011, it was closed four years later. BBC Worldwide launched BritBox, an online streaming service, in a joint venture with ITV at the end of 2016, initially aimed at the United States market, where it will be competing with much bigger players in the form of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, among others.
While the BBC iPlayer is relatively popular in the United Kingdom, it still accounts for only a tiny percentage of around 1.5 billion hours of television watched a week around the country.
Perhaps personalisation could help promote less popular programmes that otherwise go unnoticed.
The risk is that forcing people to sign in will inhibit the adoption of BBC iPlayer more than it will encourage existing viewers to watch more.
However, the BBC will finally be able to get some insight into the usage of BBC iPlayer and other services by unique users, rather than reporting the number of anonymous requests.
Time will tell if that number reaches the ambitious target of 20 million unique users a week, which is almost a third of the country.