Ofcom, the communications regulator for the United Kingdom, has opened a competition assessment to determine whether the public value of planned changes to BBC iPlayer justifies any potential adverse impact on fair and effective competition. It follows proposals by the BBC to extend its iPlayer service by making programmes available online for at least 12 months after broadcast. Ofcom is calling for responses from industry stakeholders, many of which have already expressed their concerns.
The BBC proposals include making all commissioned programmes available for at least 12 months, with full series of selected returning titles, and a selection of other programmes available for longer, including some archive programming.
The changes will materially change the proposition of the BBC iPlayer online video service, which was originally proposed and justified as a catch-up service. The BBC wants to transform BBC iPlayer into a destination, to compete with other services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The BBC has suggested that the proposed changes will create public value and will not have an adverse impact on fair and effective competition. It argues that it simply brings the BBC iPlayer into line with the rest of the industry and that to impose limits risks undermining its ability to compete.
To support its claims, the BBC conducted audience research, which suggested that two thirds of those surveyed felt the changes would make the BBC iPlayer more appealing.
“Audience expectations have changed dramatically, viewers are now used to being able to watch what they want when they want, and they expect much more from BBC iPlayer,” said Charlotte Moore, the director of content at the BBC. “We want to make the best UK programmes available to audiences for longer and provide a range of series and box sets for everyone to enjoy. This will bring the BBC iPlayer in line with what other services already offer and give audiences even greater value for their licence fee.”
Pact, the trade association that represents independent production companies, expressed its concerns about the proposals. It questioned some of the assumptions made by the BBC and argues that the BBC should compete for content rather than distribution.
CoBA, the commercial broadcasters association, suggested that it was not a balanced consultation, lacking details about market impact, and it called for Ofcom to conduct a competition assessment.
Sky was also critical, saying that even from the limited information provided by the BBC, it is evident that the proposals have the potential to have an impact on fair and effective competition.
Virgin Media was rather more measured, suggesting that the proposed changes could have negative effects and urging the BBC to examine carefully the full impact of the changes that are being proposed and, in particular, to consider these in the context of the mission and public purposes of the BBC.
Ofcom has said that its role is to assess whether the public value of the proposed change justifies any adverse impact on fair and effective competition. That assessment includes reviewing the procedures followed by the BBC and assessing the impact of the proposal on fair and effective competition. It will then decide whether or not the BBC can implement the proposed changes to the iPlayer, or do so subject to conditions, or reconsider aspects of the proposal.
The communications regulator is asking stakeholders for their views on how they might be affected by the BBC proposals. It will then consult on its provisional conclusions in June, allowing stakeholders a final opportunity to comment, before issuing a final decision by August.