The BBC is reported to be considering giving away a free streaming stick in order to retain a prominent position on television screens. The idea is that the device could be plugged into televisions to provide access to the online video services of public service broadcasters. It could also facilitate the introduction of funding by subscription.
The plan has apparently been proposed at strategy meetings and discussed with executives at some of the public service broadcasters.
It comes in response to the problem of ensuring the continuing prominence of public service broadcasters and their respective online video services.
Broadcasters like the BBC are seeing their viewing being eroded by online video services like Netflix and this will inevitably continue as competition increases.
The BBC says it is exploring a wide range of ideas to help viewers find public service programming quickly and easily. “A key priority is to work with government on extending the PSB prominence regulatory regime to non-linear environments as Ofcom recommended earlier this year,” it said in a statement.
The United Kingdom communications regulator Ofcom has recommended to government that the online video players of public service broadcasters should have guaranteed prominence on smart televisions, set-top boxes and streaming players.
Amazon produces a Fire TV Stick that already offers access to the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All Four, and My 5 services as well as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. It retails for £39.99 on Amazon, or £49.99 for a 4K Ultra HD version.
If we assume that the BBC or a consortium of broadcasters could somehow procure a competitive device at £30 per unit, it would cost around £780 million to provide one to every television licence payer in the United Kingdom, not including postage and packaging, or other associated costs.
Of course, that might not be necessary, since many viewers already have multiple ways to view the BBC iPlayer and other online video services on their televisions. The real issue is persuading people to use those services.
BritBox, the joint venture led by commercial broadcaster ITV, will face a similar challenge when it launches before the end of the year. Bundling a device with a subscription might make some sense but could be costly.
A plug-in device, essentially a set-top box on a stick, could make it easier for public service broadcasters to introduce subscription services.
The BBC will no doubt be mindful that the culture secretary Nicky Morgan let it drop that she is “open-minded” about the future funding of the corporation and will listen to arguments from all sides.
At the Royal Television Society Convention last month she urged public service broadcasters to be as “fleet-footed” as international rivals Netflix and Amazon to avoid being “cast off as victims of the revolution”. She said: “Those that do not pool their resources and talent will find it difficult to succeed in this new age.”
The real problem of prominence is that each public service broadcaster has been insistent on offering its own online player, with a separate application and login, rather co-operating to produce a compelling combined proposition.
Platforms like Freeview have so far failed to resolve this. Prominence is only part of the problem and it seems unlikely that hardware will provide a satisfactory solution.