BBC Trust: on-demand should be syndicated via iPlayer
by Colin Mann

The BBC Trust has concluded provisionally that on-demand BBC programmes should only be made available to TV platform operators through the BBC iPlayer, and should not be made available on a programme-by-programme basis.

The BBC iPlayer should be made available in standard formats that the great majority of other TV operators can readily adopt, the Trust has concluded. ‘Bespoke’ versions of the iPlayer should be developed only in exceptional cases.

The BBC’s on-demand syndication policy determines how the BBC should make its on-demand, or ‘catch up’, content available for distribution on other platforms, for example Freeview, Freesat, Sky and Virgin.

Following the first part of its review, the Trust has provisionally concluded that the BBC is able to deliver the highest public value for its programming if it provides a trusted and familiar way for viewers to access it. For linear television, this is the BBC’s channels, for on-demand, this should be the iPlayer, which will become increasingly important as the home for BBC on-demand content as the market for catch-up television continues to grow, suggests the Trust.

The Trust has launched a four-week consultation on the new syndication policy as part of an ongoing Trust review. The provisional conclusions on which it is seeking comment are that: BBC on-demand content should only be syndicated to other operators through the BBC iPlayer. This means that, for example, a satellite TV operator could not choose to take only certain BBC programmes or episodes of programmes to offer through its own on-demand service; That the BBC should develop several standard versions of the iPlayer that can be used by other platform operators and providers, to enable them to offer BBC on-demand content on their platforms; and finally that requests for ‘bespoke’ versions of the iPlayer for use by single platforms or devices should generally be refused, except in exceptional circumstances where the BBC’s costs for development and maintenance would also be fully reimbursed.

BBC Trustee Diane Coyle, who has led the review of syndication policy, noted that as the number of platforms and the popularity of on demand TV grows, ensuring that licence fee payers have convenient access to all the BBC’s services on demand is vital to the BBC’s ability to fulfil its public purposes, and that since the iPlayer first launched in 2007, watching programmes this way has become a routine part of many people’s viewing habits. “But we know that audiences get the most out of BBC programmes when they access them in a context that is consistent, familiar, distinctive and free to air, like the iPlayer. Our provisional conclusions reflect the importance of delivering programmes in this trusted public space,” she said.

“The BBC must continue to deliver what licence fee payers want while also delivering value for money and protecting the BBC’s brand. We’re now seeking views on these proposed changes to the syndication policy to help the BBC meet that challenge in an on-demand world,” she concluded.

Eddie Abrams, IP Vision CEO, said that the BBC Trust’s preliminary views on the syndication of on-demand BBC content risk constructing barriers and preventing the development of a level playing field. “There is a danger that this will restrict consumer access to a wealth of BBC on-demand content on the widest possible range of platforms,” he warned.

“The focus on providing standard versions would seem to be a positive move, but our concern is that, given the huge variations in HTML browsers and even Flash players in the market (along with the many additional technologies being deployed), the effect would be to further impede the development of a competitive playing field. The iPlayer restriction could further compound these issues,” he said.

“To put the consumer first, the cheapest and easiest option would perhaps be to remove the iPlayer ‘wrapper’ and allow third party service providers to offer syndicated BBC content as part of their service, as we believe was intended when on demand services were approved through the Public Value Test,” he contended.