iPlayer No More: The Future For BBC Content Online Looks Messy Down Under

The BBC’s iPlayer iOS app is a nifty (and legal) way for people outside the UK to access and download popular BBC content. However, it looks like plans for that service to expand to Android and potentially offer live content have been put to one side, with the BBC now planning to focus on a series of premium pay TV channels and streaming subscription content through its BBC.com portal. For Aussie viewers, that means your main legal option is likely to be (gulp) a Foxtel subscription.

The subscription-based iPlayer app launched in Australia in September 2011 as an iPad app, with an iPhone app following in December that year. For a monthly subscription of $9.49, you can access and view a wide range of BBC shows, and download them for use on your device when not connected. (Unlike the similarly-named service for UK residents, you can’t view catch-up content from recent broadcasts using the app.)

iPlayer-as-a-service-via-an-app has proved popular, particularly for Doctor Who fans. In 2011, officials from BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm of the BBC) described major expansion plans for the app, including a potential Android version.

However, it now appears that the future of the platform will be in pay TV and browser-based access, rather than more apps. Last week BBC Worldwide announced a “three year vision” which puts iPlayer very much to one side. Here’s the good word straight from the release announcement:

BBC.com, the international version of the BBC’s online site, will be transformed over the next three years, supporting the BBC’s recently stated goal of doubling global reach from 250m to 500m per week by 2022. This transformation will see a greater focus on video content, bringing together all BBC commercial online offerings in one destination. The new BBC.com will include a long-form video player and will represent a single digital route to market for BBC.com’s partners and advertisers. As part of this move, the existing trial of the global iPlayer app, currently testing in 16 countries, will not be extended to any new markets, and it is proposed that the service will be integrated into BBC.com over time.

So eventually iPlayer subscribers will find themselves shuttered across to a browser-based system. One obvious benefit of that (from BBC Worldwide’s point of view) is that there’s no need to build apps for specific devices.

However, the first visual manifestation of the change will be the launch of a new pay TV channel focused on drama, BBC First. That channel will be offered internationally, but Australia will be the first market to see it. It will be offered on Foxtel (including HD and Foxtel Go variants) from August 2014. Other channel variants planned include BBC Earth for factual content and an as-yet-unnamed male-oriented chanel.

Annoyingly for free-to-air TV viewers, the Foxtel deal means that the ABC will lose the first-run rights deal it has enjoyed with the BBC for close to half-a-century. That doesn’t mean the ABC can’t show BBC programs, but new releases are likely to show up on Foxtel first. The only upside? Doctor Who isn’t affected.

The emphasis on conventional broadcasting reinforces a point BBC Worldwide president Jana Bennet made when the apps launched. “Global iPlayer isn’t going to replace our existing channels or other broadcasters transmitting these shows. People watch video on demand in addition to normal TV viewing, not instead of, in our experience.

BBC Worldwide is a business, so it’s not altogether surprising that it has ditched the ABC for a Foxtel partnership instead. Time will tell if that also means we don’t see BBC.com offered as a subscription service in Australia. After all, would Foxtel really want competition for its own Foxtel Play and Foxtel Go services from a major content partner?

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