Startling growth in online video viewing in the last couple of years seems to have passed by the BBC iPlayer, which appears to be at the top of an ess-curve, with slowing growth rates leavened only by the odd hit shows – Sherlock and Top Gear. So does the BBC, who yesterday signed a deal with Facebook to embed video natively on the social network have any new tricks up its sleeve online?
The overall trend seems clear – the iPLayer is at the top of an ess-curve – the rate of growth has slowed dramatically. And according to the BBC analysts, monthly views are ‘broadly stable on previous months’ a mantra they have taken to repeating [see end note]. If standard seasonal adjustment technique is employed (a three month rolling average) then the effect is more pronounced.
In the wider internet beyond the BBC there has been a colossal growth in the use of video – the numbers for this Adobe report in the USA or this for the EU are staggering. So by comparative standards the iPlayer is struggling.
There are many reasons this might be:
BBC strategy over recent years has been deeply conservative, regarding the internet largely as a form of playout for Radio and TV content, rather than a creative medium in its own right.
video and radio on the iPlayer is served up in huge lumps, whole shows at a time, just like on telly. It is nearly impossible to share, particularly to someone’s mobile. If for instance you are daring enough as a humble citizen to disagree with the great creative mind that created the 45 minute show and just want to share with your mates the brilliant bit at 37.45 where Anne gets her head chopped off you can’t link to it – you are forced to link to the whole damn thing – YouTube fixed this years ago.
There’s a very limited range of stuff on iPlayer, only on for a month after transmission – there are about 12 million items in the BBC archive, paid for by the licence fee tax and I can only find a couple of 1980s Top of the Pops.
The recent phase of internet video growth has in my view, largely been in non-TV-like media – shorter clips.
The iPlayer is usually front and centre when the BBC talks about the internet – so what else might it have up its sleeve if the iPlayer is fading away?
Tony Hall’s speech on the BBC in the internet era was very odd – it was billed as the next big internet thing for the BBC.
‘In 2014, we put in place the building blocks – the capability for signing in and analysing data.
This year, we will start to deliver new services. We’ll give you personalised recommendations on the iPlayer and homepage. We’ll recommend news and sports stories just for you. We’ll give you your own BBC app, which will remember all your favourite programmes, artists, music, interests, DJs and sports teams. All in one place.
We’ll notify you when new series arrive, matches start, interviews are aired, road traffic builds up, or news breaks…..
That’s the plan for 2015.
But it’s in the next Charter that we will get going. I don’t think anyone in the market has cracked recommendations. I want us to be the first to get it right, but to do something different – public service recommendations.’
Although we shall hear more about this no doubt in the forthcoming BBC Green Paper on Charter review it seems based on an odd premise – that people spend enough time on BBC web estate to yield interesting data (the BBC is at No8 in the UK and as Martha Lane Fox pointed out at No74 in the world [see below for correction]) and that the thing to make people consume more is prompts to watch other shows. The BBC web estate is rather coy about statistics – they don’t publish anything close to the iPlayer performance pack – and in order for us to judge this they should provide all their performance data as open data. So it’s very hard to judge how video performs there. But part of me says ‘blimey, aren’t they doing this already?’ – it does seem like something they should have done five years ago. Allowing or making people create an account (necessary to gather data) opens up an avenue for future licence fee replacement where you pay your toll there online instead. From the bits of data that the BBC sneaks out about its websites it seems that growth there may also be plateaued but I stand to be corrected by a long run data set similar to that for iPlayer.
We learn today that the BBC has got into bed with Facebook to embed content natively there (i.e. the BBC uploads it direct to Facebook rather than to the iPlayer or their own website) – Facebook Instants. This will be very interesting if it addresses the problems the BBC has in driving public service content based on societal preferences through the Facebook distribution algorithm based on commercial or friend/family/filial preferences. This is very radical, more so than it might appear essentially the BBC buying a stake in a new transmission platform and I hope the BBC will publish the details of the deal. Inspired by an Emily Bell piece on Facebook where she asks similar questions of the NYT, we should ask – How much revenue will this return to BBC vs its other distribution strategies ? Who bears the publishing risk for the pieces FaceBook publishes? How much data does the BBC get access to from FB? Martin Moore at Media Standards Trust spells out the radical nature of this relationship that he says ‘could be a serious mistake’.
Hall’s speech made a passing reference to social media and it’s centrality in daily consumption:
‘But it’s telling that social media – by definition a collective endeavour – is now the number one online activity in the UK. In the internet age, we shouldn’t forget that we are motivated as much by what we have in common as by what makes us unique.
‘The BBC will be a central meeting-place for that discussion and participation. Because the BBC exists not only to enhance individual lives but also to enhance our collective and national life. It helps unite the nation. [The only British website in the UK’s top five. Close to 7 million fans discussing BBC Sport on Facebook. Almost 14 million Twitter followers being kept up-to-date with the very latest news via BBC Breaking. Over half a million photos uploaded to Springwatch and Autumnwatch’s Flickr site.]’
But the BBC hasn’t revealed any coherent plans as to how that central meeting place might happen. [see correction] With iPlayer it’s prime online product fading the BBC is forced to play the internet game on other people’s turf. As the old internet meme says ‘All your bases are belong to us‘. Given where we are this is, perhaps pragmatic. But a good forward strategy for a £multi -billion organisation needs pragmatism and radicalism – home grown radical disruptive ideas like Tony Ageh’s ‘digital public space‘ haven’t yet been picked up and there’s no sign yet of other internal radical new approaches.
The BBC continues to throw resources at things that are ‘of TV’ and ‘of radio’ hoping that they will work online, with no strategic focus on creating things that are ‘of the internet’. Experience elsewhere (for instance the excellent usvthem operation at the otherwise staid Daily Mirror or the best bits of Government Digital Service or Belling Cat) suggest that creating things that are ‘of the internet’ that people want there is far more about doing and playing, than it is about strategising. But nonetheless, given that the BBC is replete with digital strategists, one has to ask what they have been up to all this time.
[Correction – Rory Cellan Jones pointed out that I had got my citation of Martha Lane Fox wrong and incorrectly placed the BBC as 74 in the UK, not No8 according to Alexa in my initial copy and I corrected this within an hour of publication.]
[End Note – a BBC iPLayer publicist has got in touch after they were contacted by the Financial Times to say that they had an error in the March 2015 stats I copied out above, originally 255 million requests.
”There were 278m requests to BBC iPlayer in March, with a daily average of 9m requests. (Note: measurement issues in March meant we were unable to capture a large volume of TV requests, and radio requests have changed as a result of updates to radio streaming services.”
I observe that this new, unexplained higher March 2015 number is still less that January (315m), February (301m) or March (320m) 2014. The updated chart is now above, the original chart is here]
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