The Future Of iPlayer: Android, International Catch-Up & More

The BBC’s iPlayer app for iPad is now out in Australia and it works really well when it comes to viewing archive material. But will it ever appear on Android? And why can’t we pay for a full version of the UK catch-up service? We chatted with BBC Worldwide executives to discover the answers.

Even though it’s a paid-for service ($9.49 a month or $89.99 a year), it’s important to understand that BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm of the UK’s national broadcaster) is treating the initial iPad-based rollout as a 12-month pilot. That process began with its European rollout and continues with this week’s launch in Australia. Other countries will follow — it’s hard to imagine BBC Worldwide not tapping into the US market at some point — but no specific timetable has been made public.

That very much influences the first obvious question: will we see an iPlayer app on Android or other platforms? Jana Bennett, president worldwide networks and global BBC iPlayer, addressed that issue in a Skype hook-up for Australian media earlier this week.

We’ve started out with the iPad as a platform. We have not restricted ourselves in the future in terms of being able to roll out to other platforms. We’re using this partnership for the beginning of the pilot and our thinking of how we build out over time. It might be within the pilot period of a year, but it might be outside of it. This is, over time, not exclusive.

Bennett noted that developing an iPhone app would obviously be more straightforward than other platforms given the similarities to iPad development, but didn’t rule anything out. Its broad popularity aside, one feature which made the iPad an attractive platform was the availability of a well-developed subscriptions model and analytics system:

Because it’s a subscription service, we wanted to have a very tried and tested subscriptions management service, which of course the iPad and the App Store connection obviously gives us. That in turn also gives us a lot of very interesting data, which is very specific in teacking the way usage can be seen. We can find out about things like the long tail effect, and it’s interesting to see what the choices are. We see it as a way of finding out whether serendipity can work. The design is very inviting of lots of search and journeys, so that’s what we are finding out through the pilot.

Bennet was at pains to stress that iPlayer for the iPad is not, and will never be, a replica of the UK’s catch-up service, which is blocked for access outside the UK. “It has a similar name, look and feel but the resemblance ends there. It’s a very different editorial proposition and business model. It’s a commercial service aimed at audiences outside the UK, and the underlying technology is different.”

Nor is it a substitute for BBC Worldwide’s main business of selling BBC programming to other broadcasters. “Global iPlayer isn’t going to replace our existing channels or other broadcasters transmitting these shows,” Bennet said. “People watch video on demand in addition to normal TV viewing, not instead of, in our experience. We believe this will not cannibalise, but will complement”.

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Local BBC Worldwide managing director Tony Iffland reinforces the unfortunate truth that there won’t be a legal, paid-for version of classic UK iPlayer any time soon. “We understood that that catch-up offer wouldn’t work overseas, and being the commercial part of the BBC, that price point of free wouldn’t work either.”

Fortunately, it seems unlikely the current pilot will get canned. BBC Worldwide won’t disclose numbers, but Bennett said it is “exceeding all of its targets”. The Australian version offers more than 1,000 hours of programming, which differs from the version offered in Europe and is unlikely to be replicated in future territories. “Every territory has separate scheduling to cover audience demands and existing agreements,” Iffland said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all around the world product.”

Working out how frequently content needs to be added, and whether content should be removed, is another aim of the pilot. For the most part, content seen on iPlayer will have already been seen on a local free-to-air or pay TV channel (broadcasters usually work in terms of “windows”, periods where a given program can only be shown on their platform).

Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


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