The BBC is proposing to extend the availability of programmes on the BBC iPlayer online video service. It wants to be able to offer any title to which it has rights, including the availability of full series boxsets for any returning series. The corporation is consulting with industry stakeholders as part of a public interest test. Any final proposals will require approval from the communications regulator Ofcom.

The BBC iPlayer was originally conceived as a ‘catchup’ service, making programmes available online for a limited period after broadcast. It has steadily evolved into a broader offering, including ‘box sets’ of entire series, in competition with commercial services like Netflix.

The BBC last extended the scope of the BBC iPlayer in 2019, when it proposed to publish more of its returning series as ‘box sets’, and make most titles available for a year and programmes for children for up to five years. The result was that the number of hours of programming available on the BBC iPlayer increased from 5,300 in May 2019 to almost 15,000 in April 2022.

The corporation now argues that it should be free to offer any title on BBC iPlayer in line with its agreements with producers and underlying rights holders, subject to its existing terms of trade with Pact, the industry body that represents the interests of the independent production and distribution sector.

The BBC suggests that this will provide public value by attracting more viewers to the BBC iPlayer.

Adoption of the BBC iPlayer has steadily grown since it was first launched in 2007, following its earlier iMP or integrated media player, first seen in 2005, almost 18 years ago.

The BBC iPlayer delivered over 6 billion online stream requests in 2021. That sounds like an enormous number but should be viewed in the context of tens of billions of hours of television viewed across the country every year.

BBC iPlayer usage 2010-2020. Source: BBC

The BBC iPlayer still contributes only a small but increasing proportion of BBC viewing, which is generally declining, partly due to increased competition from other online video services.

The BBC iPlayer accounted for 16% of all BBC television viewing in 2021-2022, which equates to around 8.5 minutes a day across all individuals, or 9 minutes a day among those aged 16-34, or just over an hour a week.

To put that in perspective, BBC One was viewed for an average of over 40 minutes per day in 2020, across all individuals. That was down from 50 minutes a day 10 years previously.

Among those aged 25-34, viewing of BBC One was down to 14 minutes a day in 2020 from 31 minutes a day in 2010.

In 2021, the average individual watched 34 minutes of subscription video services a day, or 51 minutes a day for those aged 16-34, who also watched YouTube for almost an hour and a quarter a day, not to mention 55 minutes on TikTok.

The BBC might argue that it is responding to audience demand in putting more programmes on the BBC iPlayer. Yet it might seem that the actual demand is elsewhere.

More than two-thirds of households in the United Kingdom have access to an online video subscription service. Commercial channels are also significantly expanding their online video offerings.

The BBC is desperate to catch up, but despite prominent on-air promotion for 15 years, the BBC iPlayer still reaches less than half of all BBC viewers on average per week and only accounts for around a sixth of its viewing.

The key question is whether extending the offering of the BBC iPlayer will attract more viewers to view more, faster than they are turning to other online alternatives.

Details of the public interest test consultation, which runs for six weeks, are available from the BBC web site.